The black-capped kingfisher sat on the rusty barbed wires in front of me, gazing at the grass that conquered the mines in the field but now lost its green to the nearing dusk. The hills and fields beyond slowly turned reddish gold and in the distance, Mount Seorak’s limestone cliffs lost their white crowns as the frost that capped them, melting, made way for the harbinger of spring. Beyond the barbed fences, soldiers, rifles slung over their shoulders, lit their cigarettes while smoke disappeared in the hovering haze above them. I saw the riflemen, their helmets adorned with the North Korean flag now enameled with mist, shivering lightly from the cold though they were wrapped in thick parkas.
When the black-capped kingfisher, drops of fresh black paint over opaque disks for its eyes, (similar to those of the red-crowned cranes I was searching for), sensed a slight movement, it flew off to the opposite side of the fence and plopped itself down, fixing its plumage. Its elongated beak, saturated in the late copper rays of the sun, nibbled on the vaporizing dew droplets before they could be promoted to the nimbostratus. While feeding on the humidity, it kept a sharp eye out for any insects leaving the haven of woven goat grass. I could tell it was rather impatient, as the layered royal blue feathers on its wings started to form an oscillating gradient of texture from jagged to orderly. It was almost hypnotic; I vacantly, but intently, gazed at its wings’ manifold dancers as I took one step closer to the wires.
But I was interrupted. Without a single word, a soldier with a face of stale bread stood ten centimeters in front of me. His oversized sunglasses were intended to look intimidating, but instead reminded me of the Venezuelan poodle moth. Paired with the teacup-shaped helmet, the proud South Korean hun byung looked like an overdressed, but under-budget Ken doll. This image invited a short giggle to peep through my lips and I shyly backed away. I instantly realized this was a mistake. Although the soldier’s face was masklike, unchanged, I could feel the rising fumes of his sweat and my descending exhale clash and slice the diffusing cotton of air between us.
“You are not allowed further from this fence. This area is littered with landmines and the ‘commies’ are aiming sniper rifles at your head—understood?”
I said, “Yes” with a tone marked with deference, but I couldn’t believe he used the word ‘commies’.
I slowly backed away, leaving the grassy slopes.
The Korean Demilitarized Zone was a lake of land – although geographically sandwiched by the Keumgang Mountain and Cheorwon plains, it was connected to neither. Although it seemed a thread binding the land together, it in fact stood alone as its own complacent entity of abundant peat bogs and virgin soils, instinctively feared by all Koreans but relished by rich fauna and flourishing flora of different shades. In the midst of the peninsula’s inner conflict of shoulder angels and devils, the land was slowly emerging as a five-star hotel for diverse wildlife. I was determined to trace all segments of the slithering path of the DMZ, at least the areas on which researchers are allowed, with my own feet if it meant finding the last few surviving red-crowned cranes.
A memory of my grandmother’s old cabinet, carved from smeary jade, came back to me whenever I thought of the cranes. It shows two red-crowned cranes soaring to meet above a perfectly rounded sun, much like the core of the South Korean flag, The sun is of the same red as the crane’s red crown – a deep, lustering mahogany. The red-crowned crane, or durumi, has always been a symbol of longevity and loyalty in Korea. I have grown up fanning my grandfather with hand fans, threaded from the fibrous bark of hydrated mulberries and decorated with drawings of the crane’s portrait. The ripened mountains and hibiscus flowers were painted merely to fill up the leftover space. But the crane, a symbol endemic only to Eastern Asia, could no longer be found in South Korea. I had to get closer to where the cranes had been last spotted even if much of the 38th Parallel, a 250-mile long and three-mile-wide zone, was a no man’s land.
Those who could not read the signboards along the DMZ were the only ones brave enough to inhabit these minefields and isolated wetlands. Despite whether or not they had planned to do so, animals previously thought to be extinct thrive here in larger populations in this seemingly ominous sanctuary. Two Amur gorals were climbing across the stony Southern Limit Line, each with a black line cutting through its steel wool fur, resembling the DMZ itself – except for the fact that the gorals’ lines were ones of symmetry. Their ears broadened sideways like wooden spatulas and fluttered exactly once when one of them made a misstep, causing a pebble to bounce off the steep elevated mountains. A few minutes away, an Asiatic black bear snacked on a rather unappetizing concoction of flies and crown grass, shoving its face with the mixture and dropping morsels on its baby-apron-like moon chest. Every single behavior of these animals, which may have been threatened by deforestation or poaching if they had not found refuge, drowned me in calmness, as if I were in a womb. But when the black bear’s white chest started fading into the black of its body, I realized that I was running out of time.
Without the sunlight, the fog began to simmer into darkness, forcing my sight to conform to the shadows. I tried to sway away anything that was in front of me, but ended up lathering more fog onto my face instead. Focusing all my senses on my right foot, I carefully probed the ground for the marshy land that red-crowned cranes favor. While I was busy warming my ears with my palms, the bulbs attached to the wires flickered. Then they suddenly switched on all at once, as if to scan me; blinded by the blaze, I scampered through the grass, deviating from my transect.
Gradually, my eyelids began to soothe my pupils and evenly spread out the amount of radiation they absorbed to the rest of my face. After walking for many more meters, my feet finally stepped into a waterbed of mud. I felt a sensitive resonance of luck and felt the barbed wire pulling me closer with a compelling force. When I opened my eyes, my sight was partially bleached by a smudge of absence where the light had hit me hardest. But through my peripheral vision I could see that I was standing in the presence of a tall bird. Holding in my eagerness, I closed my eyes and stared into the single infinity of darkness within my palms until the blotches faded away. I opened my eyes once again. There it was: the crane with outstretched petals of white and grey, outlined by black strokes resembling those of traditional Korean calligraphy. Its sleek neck flowed into the shape of an “S” like the tail of a koi fish as it called to the sky, its red crown embracing the smooth curve of its head and directing my eyes to the tip of its beak. Following the natural bends occurring all throughout the DMZ, I could truly see that the perpetuation of beauty in nature is inevitable regardless of any kind of conflict. The cranes lay safe here and so did other species that claimed this land as a refuge. It is only fitting to call this area a no man’s land as it exists solely to protect living species from the clutches of greed for power and domination and the human penchant for violence and destruction. Here in this border symbolic of eternal conflict, the birds and other species after billions of years of evolution, learned to live at peace with each other. It is time that we humans learn it too.
Jin Young Cho is a junior currently living in Manila, Philippines. She enjoys writing about her traveling experiences, and hopes to further explore different cultures all over the world.