Sunday, April 26, 2015

Magnolia Excursion: Chollipo Arboretum

Ferris Miller, a Pennsylvanian who came to South Korea with the US Navy in 1945, fell in love with the country and its people. The job was rather short-lived and he returned to Korea in 1947 again as a linguist (Japanese) to translate and summarize documents dealing with property ownership claims resulting from the Japanese Occupation. The job ended in 1948 and back to the States he went, but again he returned in 1949 with a US Government agency job with ECA, the forerunner of today's AID. However, with the invasion of the North, Miller along with all embassy staff was evacuated to Japan on June 27th, 1950 though coming back to Pusan during the days of the "Pusan perimeter". A few months later he was struck with hepatitis and had to be evacuated to Japan and due to slow recovery sent back to the US, whereupon he learned that the ECA was closing down in Korea and wanted to send him to Taiwan.

This was not suitable to him, so he resigned and in 1951 returned once again to Korea to work for the army as a civilian. When a friend fell ill, Miller was assigned to replace him at the Bank of Korea where, in 1953, he was asked to work directly for the bank, and Miller became the first and only foreigner to work directly for the Bank of Korea [since 2000 this may not apply]. And for the next 30 years, until 1982, Miller worked as translator and writer for the Bank until his retirement. After retirement, filled with energy and alertness he refused the office with a chair at the Bank of Korea that he was entitled to go to every day and began work as a consultant for securities and brokerages ... but his passion was his magnolias.

Ferris Miller became one of the world's greatest magnolia collectors, a passion he indulged with unbridled joy and huge personal expense. It all started with a 1962 swimming trip to the western shoreline in one of his many getaway from Seoul attempts. Continually offered land by a cash-poor, land-rich villager, he bought a barren plot on Mallipo Beach near the fishing village of Chollipo in the Taean Peninsula. The land sat idle until 1970, when, disgusted by Seoul's worsening air pollution, he moved his traditional Korean house from Seoul to this fishing village retreat and began planting trees on the barren hills to create a wind-break. 

In 1971, Miller set up his arboretum and he became the head of his foundation funded entirely by himself. By 1971 he had a staff of 13, including his foster son, Song Chinsu, who he tried to adopt but due to the Korean legal system of adopting a male failed. His foster son became the manager and his "grandson", Song Chong-gun, was the apple of his eye. By four years of age, his little grandson could recite many of the estate species -- magnolias, forsythias, azaleas, cherry blossoms, camellias, etc -- using both their Korean and Latin names.

In 1979, Carl Ferris Miller who had been using the Korean name Min Pyong-gal for convenience, became a naturalized Korean citizen and his Korean name legalized. Miller made the name himself based on pronunciation similarities. Min is a Korean name as similar to Miller as he could get; it was also the name of a close friend. Gal sounds a lot like Carl, but the choice of Pyong is unclear. Citizenship is more than just having a Korean name; it is also about having a history, so when he went to apply for citizenship, a clerk asked him what his clan was. He replied, "I am a Pennsylvania man," but the clerk insisted there was no such thing, and since all Mins come from Yohung, Min Pyong-gal was likewise registered as a Yohung Min. 

Until his death on April 8, 2002 at the age of 81, Miller aka Min had the self-appointed mission of gathering magnolias, particularly rare mountain varieties, in his arboretum. His aim was to save the plant heritage of his adopted country for future generations. The amateur collector, Carl Ferris Miller, became one of the world's greatest magnolia collectors and his estate, which grew as other villagers sold a small plot here and a small plot there, became a magnolia legend containing more than 13,200 different varieties of plant species, including 380 kinds of magnolias, making it one of the most extensive magnolia collections in the world. Before he died, he donated the 140-acre arboretum in which he had invested over 100 billion won. 

Posthumously, Miller received the highly esteemed Gold Tower merit by then-president Kim Dae-jung. It is the highest order a Korean civilian may receive and given in recognition of exemplary contribution to the development of industry and national economy. His wish was for the arboretum to live on after his death, and before he died he even said, "After I pass away, plant one more tree rather than setting aside a piece of land for my tomb." 

On the 10th anniversary after his death, the Chollipo Arboretum honored him with a memorial service and his cremated remains were buried under a raspberry fun tree [sic?], a magnolia and a loegneri hybrid that yields pink flowers. After dedicating his life to the continuation of the Korean horticulture, he symbolically gives his remains to their continued perpetuation. 

In celebration of Miller's great legacy to Korea, personal friend and former journalist Lim Junsu wrote and illustrated the book "I Am Sorry, Trees", the first biography about Miller and one that expresses Miller's love for trees. It is a remembrance of Miller's life and work contribution.

Miller selflessly gave his billions for the perpetuation of Korean horticulture. Similarly, Miller would be please to know that in 2012 Song Chang-geun, Korean philanthropist, who owned and managed 1,636 acres of forest land that has been part of the family estate for decades has donated it to the Korean Forest Service so it will remain in a natural state. His action is a statement for the prevention of land destruction through reckless development. Like Miller, Song Chang-geun planted trees, and since 2006 had planted more than 2 million trees. The donated land was valued at US$85 million. 

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