Today, on this bright December day, the cold that had locked me indoors seems to have warmed, if only momentarily, enough to bring me outside. As the light of the day passes swiftly during these Winter months, I use time outside to close-up my garden for the season, covering the raised beds with tarpaulin, and heaping leaves over my compost mounds to help keep the heat of their decomposition in as the days grow colder.
The sweet scent of the desiccating leaves is wonderful. The rich aroma of dark piled earth beneath them complex, a swirl of vegetation and minerals, roots and mud, rocks and clay. The heat of the turned compost heap lifts in steam like tiny clouds drifting off a mountain’s top in the morning.
I tap off my boots and leave them by the door to my studio. Before I set down to return to my daily work, to my email replies, spreadsheets and presentations, I pour cold spring water into my stainless steel kettle which I’ve had for almost twenty years now.
The click of the polished metal switch. The red glow of electric light that signals “ON”. The hum of energy coupled by the growing noise of water coming to a boil. The rattle of the flapping metal lid.
As water boils, I assemble a tea setting for one. A hand-carved wooden tray from Korea. A 茶船 chá chuán made of 朱泥 zhūní clay. A large 芝麻鍛泥宜興茶壺 zhīma duàn ní Yíxìng cháhú (sesame-colored fortified clay Yíxìng teapot) shaped like a compressed meditation pillow.
The handle atop its lid carved to look like an arch reminiscent of a bridge, reminding me that this pot was gifted to me by a former tea teacher of mine, his knowledge of tea crossing over to me.
I bring out a cup I’ve been favoring ever since Winter arrived. An 鬼萩 Ono-Hagi (“Demon” Hagi) cup by contemporary Japanese ceramicist 山根清玩 Yamane Seigan.
Its foot, rough and unctuous in the hand, splayed in a 切十文字高台 kirijumonji-kōdai (“cross-cut foot”) manner. This I set atop a burl-wood cup rest.
From the kettle, I pour forth a draught of hot water into the clay teapot. The sparkle of water in the late-day sun reflects the ceiling of my studio and my face as I peer down into the wide opening of the warming vessel.
I pour this water into the white glazed tea cup and return the pot to the empty tea boat.
With the bamboo scoop, I arrange a handful of old wild leaves I’d sourced years ago when on a trip up to 南糯山 Nánnuòshān, in Xīshuāngbǎnnà (ᩈᩥ᩠ᨷᩈ᩠ᩋᨦᨻᩢ᩠ᨶᨶᩣ/西双版纳州).
What were once bright, silvery green leaves of 毛茶 máochá have, over the course of nine years, transformed into darker, more russet curls akin to the fallen leaves I had just been piling against the edge of my garden. Time and the heat of the kettle will only tell how these leaves have fared over the many years they’ve been packed away.
I lift the scoop and tilt it down, letting the twisted leaves fall into the empty and wetted pot. The quiet aroma of this now-aged tea is faint, warm, still grass-like, yet a shadow of its former self.
Water from the kettle poured downward upon these leaves and they tumble and twirl in tiny vortices until they settle on top of themselves, already beginning to show signs of their expansion.
The lid closed, the leaves continue their process of steeping and expelling their flavor, darkening the color of the brewed liqueur in their quiet ecstasy.
As the tea steeps, I pour out the warm water from the waiting cup. As I pause once more, I grip the pot, readying my hand to lift it and pour the first of many cup’s worth of liquid from it.
I place my index finger atop the tiny carved clay bridge that spans the softly beveled lid.
I pinch the uppermost portion of the teapot’s handle between middle finger and thumb. As I lift the pot from the red clay chá chuán, the tiny vessel feels balanced in the hand. Pouring out the brewed tea liqueur feels as natural as holding the pot level.
As tea enters the empty tea cup, the true color of this aged tea is revealed. A bright golden hue. Almost the color the tea would have produced when it was still young. However, as I pause and place the pot back into the tea boat, I begin to sense the fragrance of the tea. Gone are the wild grassy notes of a young 生普洱 shēng pǔ’ěr. Instead, I detect the bittersweet aroma of old, wetted leaves, of clean river stones, of rich, loamy soil.
I lift the cup to my lips and breathe in this aroma one last time before I sip from uneven edge of the thick-glazed teacup. The flavor upon my palate is soft and sweet. Much like the tea’s aroma, its liqueur is complex, earthy, active. Leaves picked in Spring of almost a decade ago still hold their energy. Their large, rumpled surfaces still taste of their natural sugars, their vegetal bodies, their woody branches that they sprung from, the mountain soil from which they were grown.
I am reminded of the bumpy bus ride from 景洪 Jǐnghóng up to the roadside stop to meet tea master Li Shu Lin and his wife Cai. I am reminded of that trek up to their family’s tea farm where we picked leaves and ate rice and chicken and mountain vegetables in the smoke of their ancestral home to the sound of their family singing songs in their local dialect.
Sweet and bittersweet is the tea and these memories. Their home burned down this past year. This tea is a fading hold-out, disappearing more and more I sit down and take moments like this to reminisce and drink a small handful of my woefully small collection I’ve kept stowed away. Still smoky like a young shēng pǔ’ěr but more clear and settled like an older one. Caught somewhere in between. Will it last to be older than this memory I hold onto now? Will it darken to the point that it feels and tastes and smells like the old rich earth that I dug my fingers into as I clamored and climbed up those hills to see the ancient tea trees Master Li kept hidden on his family’s mountainside?
Light from the day stretches across my studio floor and I find my mind buzzing and drunk from the tea I’ve been sipping now for an hour. The kettle rattles some more and I pour another drought from its curved and molded mouth into the clay teapot.
The tea’s color is darker now, like a deep brandy. The leaves, now stretched and unfurled, do not flag in their flavor, but, instead, keep giving, like the memories and knowledge I gained from that first trip I took to visit tea farms in China.
As this year comes closer to its close, once new tea seems all the more older. I, for some reason, do too. 2021, a year that seems to have come and gone, passes like a dangerous beast we have all been hiding from. We, huddled close to the hearth, try to wait it out until it has gone. Clutching close to this moment, to the sweet flavors that this tea reminds me of, the calm this pause brought me now. Will it fade? Or will it grow and become more beautiful and profound, much like these once new, now old, tea leaves have done?
Dear Beloved Blog Readers,
If you would like to help fund the recovery of tea master Li Shu Lin’s tea production in Nánnuòshān, in Xīshuāngbǎnnà in the wake of a devastating fire that destroyed his family’s home, tea producing facility, and over twenty years-worth of stored and aged tea, please visit the currently ongoing fundraiser set up by So Han Fan of West China Tea. Your support helps to rebuild the home and tea production of Li Shu Lin and his wife and fellow tea master Cai. Anything and everything helps!