Words and photographs by Greg Timlin
Heosu Abi (허수아비) is the Korean word for scarecrow. The component parts of the term literally translate to “empty man.” But to me, they are not empty at all.
Scarecrows have been a fixture of farm-country since time immemorial – probably since the dawn of agriculture. Over the years, in addition to fulfilling their bird-repelling duties, they have wended their way into the fabric of the human psyche, symbols of innocence or evil, in whatever form of media they are being portrayed. But in this day and age, do you really see them standing guard above crops anymore? Do you?
Where I come from, the old-school straw-scarecrows are all but gone, replaced by higher tech solutions using shiny synthetic ribbons, “noise-guns” and the like. Big farming has taken all the art out of the act.
In Korea though, it’s another story.
I have been living in Jeollabukdo, South Korea’s most rural province, for over eleven years. It’s a world apart from the frenetic paced, crowded streets of Seoul, with its sleek buildings and 24-hour everything. Currently I teach at schools in Iksan in tiny farming communities on the very outskirts of town.
Here’s how rural it is. The largest of these schools has 45 kids. And the smallest of them has a student body of eight. Eight! There are more cars parked on its soccer field (it has no parking lot) than there are students (who are not numerous enough for a soccer game). Outside its yard are a handful of old houses surrounded by the crops this small community survives off of. Pretty much all of my schools are set in similar surroundings. And exploring these small hamlets while I make my way to or from work has become part of my daily routine.
I’ve noticed that farming here seems to be on a much smaller scale than North America. Often enough, crops are still sown and harvested by hand. Family and neighbors work the fields together and lay the goods they have grown on the sides of the roads to dry out in the sun.
One day, on a dusty road that was barely wide enough for my car, I stumbled on this sight: the torso of a ghostly white boy in a polo shirt hovering on a pole above a muddy field. It was an old, decomposing mannequin re-purposed to ward of birds – cool and creepy as hell. So I took some pictures of it.
Over time, I found more of these cleverly crafted scarecrows among the fields of these small farms, and started to see them as the folk-art that they are. I would meet some of their creators when they come over to see why a Canadian guy is knee deep in their rice paddy, and hear them speak with pride of their creations.
Materials varied from scarecrow to scarecrow. Some had on dress-shirts, winter jackets or dresses, some used ramyeon packaging, buckets, road cones, hats of all types, beer cans, flags, shoes, teddy bears and much, much more.
One thing became clear to me: some spoke of more than the farmer’s simple need to repel birds. Some were telling a story perhaps, or were an outlet of creativity or emotion for its creator. They were beautiful.
One of my favorite scarecrow pictures was taken mid December, on a day where the sun unexpectedly poked through the clouds. I was driving around, as I do, and thought that I might get a nice shot of a well-known local mountain, Mireuksan (background), in the awesome light that was then developing. Boots ankle deep in water and mud, I found a vantage point I liked, looked through my view-finder and zoomed in. There, exactly where and when I would most like a scarecrow to be, one was. A Doozy! It was not one, but two scarecrows combined! And not just any old pair of scarecrows, but clearly an “adult” and a “child.”
I asked myself why? Why would someone do this? Was this scarecrow couple scarier to birds than a solo one? I’m pretty sure that’s not the case. I tried to imagine scenarios that could explain its existence: Grandparent and child made it as a bonding experience? Or perhaps a parent in mourning? A proud parent to be? There was some need to express SOMETHING here, some meaning, I will never know. A mystery.
Where I used to speed through the curvaceous, uncrowded country roads on my motorcycle, I now troll them slowly, camera on the ready, scanning the fields and horizon for my new favorite subject.