As the days cool and shorten into November, the hillsides of the capital blaze with a riot of color, their dying leaves layering the air with scent, a refreshing change from the traffic fumes of the city below.
Clothed in golden-yellow is the gingko, with its veined, fan-shaped leaves. A breeze ushers along the rustling husks of large, spongy sycamore leaves, the faded green traces of chlorophyll trapped in their tips.
Crouching in the understory is the delightful smooth maple. A shaft of sunlight sets its blushing crimson leaves on fire. Its vivid display is produced by anthocyanin, a final deterrent against insect parasites.
This autumn spectacle is widely celebrated in Korea. But it wasn't always this way.
Originally the entire peninsula was covered in forest, and naturally divided into three vegetative zones: the sub-boreal, cool-temperate and warm-temperate _ each with its own distinctive character and range of species. This primeval order began to be disrupted from about B.C. 100, when large areas were cleared for agriculture.
In the ensuing centuries, most of the ancient Korean forest was gradually felled for charcoal, building materials, household products and firewood. This degradation was an ongoing cause of soil erosion and flooding.
Annals show that royal estates first began to systematically plant and manage forests, typically of pines, in the thirteenth century. These areas remained protected throughout the Joseon Kingdom. Pockets of virgin forest also survived in remote upland areas, protected by their inaccessibility. Away from these areas however, much of the country had been cleared.
Visitors to Korea in the 1890s, such as Isabella Bird, noted ``The denudation of the hills in the neighborhood of Seoul, the coasts, the treaty ports, and the main roads," being ``absolutely denuded, even of scrub."
From 1910 onwards, the Japanese colonial administration implemented wide-scale replanting projects. The area of stocked forest in southern Korea increased 12 percent between 1927 and 1943. However, they also harvested and overexploited most of the mature and ecologically important forest.
The Korean War marked a period of social chaos which encouraged illegal logging and slash-and-burn agriculture. Many trees were stolen for sale to sawmills or for firewood. Most forests were cut for fuel demands: many people at this time used ondol, a wood-burning system for heating and cooking. This degradation continued until the 1970s, when coal and electricity finally met all energy requirements.
In the 1960s, the Park Chung-hee administration initiated ambitious nationwide reforestation projects. To achieve rapid forest cover, fast-growing species were planted. This quick fix unfortunately introduced invasive, non-native species such as the pitch pine, Japanese larch and false acacia to a wide area.
In the 1980s a million hectares of commercial forests were established, comprised of some twenty species then considered to be economically viable.
Today, 65 percent of the country is covered by forest ― a remarkable achievement. However, almost half of this reforestation has imposed an ecologically sterile monoculture of even-aged conifers, which do not belong in this eco-zone. As a result they are vulnerable to insects and blight, and whole swathes continue to die off.
Conversely, natural old-growth forests ― such as those preserved at Mt. Odae and Mt. Tonggo ― are diverse and resilient, supporting a greater array of birds and insects.
One of the main aims of reforestation was to develop a domestic timber and wood fuel supply for what was then largely a rural, agrarian economy. But given that South Korea is now a sophisticated industrial economy, with a mostly urban population, ecological restoration for biodiversity must now surely be one of the foremost priorities for the national forest.
The author is a conservationist associated with various environmental organizations in Korea. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org