Grey slate skies. Birds huddled in brambles and twisted thickets.
Ocher and orange leaves tumbled dead between stones in the path.
Cold wind whips against the thorn vines.
Old green moss caught against the worn walls of my garden shed.
The world creeps closer to its Winter torpor, slowing down until it barely moves. The mountains along the skyline are already dark from the shadows cast by Winter’s sun, which settles shallow against the horizon in this more northern part of the Northern Hemisphere.
Settled in my studio in the early afternoon, I look out upon this vista, a pallid visage of 大雪 Dàxuě (Major Snow), a period that extends from approximately December 7th to December 11th in the traditional lunisolar calendar. Each day, expecting snow. Each day, the birds scavenge hungrily at any scant seed or borrowed insect, searching to eek out a meager existence, to make their way through the coming cold that the depths of Winter will bring. I see this in their speed as they move, against the lumbering backdrop of Winter.
I, in my studio, remain in a seated meditation, made up of only necessary motions, enough to make tea. The kettle I fill with cold water and set within the recess of an old wood and copper brazier.
The long plank of weathered wood I push beside the window to my garden, positioned to appreciate the drab scenery outside.
An old and seasoned 茶船 chá chuán. A cloth. A coin.
Take off my ring and place it beside a bamboo scoop.
Set down a pear-shaped teapot to brew tea within.
A 染付 sometsuke blue-and-white plate to catch excess liquid upon.
Three 宜興 Yíxìng and white porcelain 品茗杯 pǐn míng bēi to enjoy the color, aroma, and flavor of tea from. Three cups. Enough to capture the qualities of tea. Three cups, each enough to contain the universe in its entirety.
The hiss and bubbling of the cast iron kettle comes just as a long stick of incense burns away. The steam rises from the kettle’s spout as a single, twisting column up to the ceiling, dissipating in the cold air of my studio cellar. I lift the lid off from the pear-shaped pot and set it down atop the old coin from two centuries ago.
Into the empty hollow I pour boiled water, heating the air, the clay, the body of the teapot.
On goes the lid. Out goes the water into the three small cups. The clear, clean light of early afternoon catches in the convex and concave of water and cup. The surface tension of the liquid pressing upwards, distorting the small world it captured within it.
As the cups warm and wait, I pull leaves from an old tea tin and place them within the upturned cut bamboo scoop.
Large, dark, twisting leaves of a now-aged 武夷山巖茶 Wǔyíshān yánchá that I left to settle as once they were too strong in taste for casual enjoyment. Now, since eight years passed, I’ll taste them to see how far they’ve come, how much they’ve mellowed, how little they’ve changed.
Even knowing what tea they are escapes me now. The old tin is marked 「大紅袍 」 “Dàhóng páo”, but I wonder if this was just a marketing ploy. Still, the tea smells sweet, the dried leaves still exude a scent of warming spice and of aged citrus peel and smoked salted plum.
The cool light of Winter’s sun makes these leaves look blue and inky. 烏龍 wūlóng seems most fitting in this part of the day and time of year.
烏 wū, the dark blue-black of a crow’s coat.
龍 lóng, the long, twisting body of a dragon as it climbs out of a thermal vent, billows from a mountain’s pass, or undulates beneath the ocean’s wake or river’s tidal bore.
I lift the scoop and in one motion place tea into open pot. Black leaves disappear into black shadows.
Hot water is poured and fills the once empty vessel. Foam and oils rise and collect against the opening’s edge and settle before I rest the lid back down upon them.
Shrouded in the darkness of the covered pot, the leaves perform their dance, uncurling and untwisting from the many years they’ve been locked motionless by time, by the heat of the charcoal heap, by the choices made by the tea master to produce this type of tea, just a hike’s trip down from the mountain side they were picked and grown.
Only seconds pass, enough to empty the little cups of their clear warm water, and then they’re filled with tea.
One, after the next, receiving a portion from the pot.
Around and ‘round, until each cup is brimming and even in color and taste.
The pot is returned atop the center of the chá chuán. The lid is lifted off and placed, again, upon the old silver coin. The aroma of tea, with notes of incense wood and warming spice rises, whether from cups or pot or both.
The hiss of the kettle beside me. The quiet chatter of birds outside. The low din of an airplane’s roar overhead against the cold, slate grey Winter’s sky. Colors caught in the distance. Sparse leaves still clinging to their single tree branches. Their brethren piled below. Softer blues and purples and browns along the mountain’s edge. The flat green of grass now since met the first of Winter’s snow.
I sit and admire the cold quiet of Winter from the warmer climes of my studio hall. Peering down to enjoy the sight of three tea cups, their surfaces bulging with the abundance of tea they hold. Dark red is the color they contain. Rich and wonderful. The presence of oxidation, the mark of an even and heavier roast, of catechins and polyphenols, of time and the pause I took while the tea was steeping.
I take my time with the first of three cups. Sipping slowly, reading the flavors, colors, and aromas as if they were a good book, a short story that develops quickly but leaves you ponderous as to how it will end. The first and second sip are sharp and full. Spices and aromatic incense woods are there, but so too are the more subtle and sweet notes of aged orange peel, reminiscent of the kind once gifted to me by the mother of a tea merchant I once worked for. She’d place a slice within her pot of 普洱 pǔ’ěr she had imported from China by way of Hong Kong and it would soften the bit the tea had acquired from the heat and the dank moisture of the humid harbor city it had aged in.
then, finally, three.
Each cup a part of the tasting process that is represented in the character 品 pǐn. Sipped and savored until empty again. Empty and ready to be filled with a second and third and fourth steeping of tea. Each an empty canvass upon which the tawny colors of this “Big Red Robe” will be splashed upon. An empty vessel where I can fill my mind with all manner of fleeting visions and fading sensations.
The day grows on and the sunlight grows dimmer. Even at 4pm, the light of the day is as dark as evening was in Autumn. The sun pushes its amber-hued light through the trees, through the twisted branches of an old plum that grows beside my studio door.
Much like the light of day, the tea continues and deepens in its color. Long past its seventh steeping, its liqueur remains dark. The flavors have long since transformed, from spicy and complex to warm and woody, with tones of the charcoal that once dominated its profile years ago when it was first purchased in a tea market in China. Even as the flavor wanes, it still exhibits the qualities of a fine yánchá.
After one final sip before I prepare another steeping, of which number I’ve now since lost count, I breathe out and enjoy the crisp, clean, mineral flavor that continues to linger. The characteristic 巖韻 yányùn (lit. “rock/cliff rhyme”) of the tea is still here. So, too, are the other classic five distinctive qualities found in all great yánchá of Wǔyíshān.
活 huó, which exudes the liveliness and active flavors that still play upon my palate. 甘 gān, the sweetness of smoked and dried plums that lingers in the back of my throat and space beside the base of my tongue. 清 qīng, found in the clarity of the tea’s liqueur and taste. 香 xiāng, still present in the residual aromatic fragrance that still continues well past the tenth brew. And, finally, 巖骨 yángǔ, the “rock bones” of the tea, as it still has substance and the heartiness akin to eating meat.
For a moment more, I sit, and let the flavors fade. One last draught of hot water is poured out from my kettle. One last chance to taste that which will come forth from these leaves.
I pause for a while and watch the steam rise and dissipate from the open mouth of the teapot. The dull, dim light of late afternoon shining across the flat surface of water.
Lid placed atop the pear-shaped pot, my focus shifts to admire the objects one more time, now caught in the cool light of a Winter’s day.
The gold of my ring still warm.
The grains of the bamboo still soft.
The wide expanse of the old wooden plank I use for a tea table wave-like and wondering. A field upon which the mind can get lost within its many swirls and gentle curves.
Even in the dwindling dusk, the old silver coin sparkles, light reflecting against its worn edges and the condensation left behind by the teapot lid that once rest upon its face.
I lift the teapot once more and pour its contents out, again, between the three small cup. The tea is still there, still giving, not waning like the light of the day; its color dark, instead, like the coming night.
In the quiet of this time I sit in silence. I observe stillness that exists between night and day, as one world fades into another. I look down to enjoy the sight of the empty teapot, its lid resting at an angle atop the open mouth of the cooling clay vessel. This, too, is caught in a moment between action and inaction. In a tenuous stillness of doing and not doing.
Not yet emptied of its tea leaves, not yet cleaned. Not yet boxed up, not yet put away. Not yet forgotten, not yet remembered. Not yet longed for, and not yet brought back for enjoyment. It, like a memory, is caught in a liminal space.
As the light of the sun disappears over the hills beyond my home, I peer from my window up towards the now deep blue sky. A half moon. On its way to fullness. Bright against the bleakness of a season that has yet to fully form. Half way towards realization. All it will take is time.