Take the time you need. No one will give it to you otherwise.
Take the time you need it takes to boil water. To set out wares for tea. To sit.
Take the time you need to breathe in and to exhale.
Take the time you need to step away from work. To put space between you and your job. Between you and your expectations. Between the expectations you have of others and the expectations others have of you.
Take the time you need to pour boiled water into pot. Boiled water from pot to empty cup. Warmed cup to waste water bowl.
Take the time to sort through leaves, to pick those you want to steep, to place them into the open pot.
Take the time you need to inhale aromas awakening, sense flavors arising, arouse thoughts from a curious mind.
Take the time you need to brew tea leaves. As much time as you need. As much time as the tea likes to steep. As much time you like to sit.
Pour out brewed liquid into cup and take time to ponder how long it will take you to drink it up.
Take the time you need to do all of this. Again and again and again if you need.
Take the time you need to take up space, both here in this world but also in your mind and in your heart.
Take the time you need to stretch out your body, your wanting soul, your unmet desires.
Stretch each thin until opaque becomes transparent and take the time you need to explore each facet of yourself. Of your inner world and outer world. Of your insides and of your surroundings.
Take the time you need. Take all that you can spare. And when you’re done, return back to your day, knowing you’ve given yourself the time you need.
Dear Beloved Blog Reader,
Upon publishing this article, I thought I’d offer my afterthoughts on writing my 200th blogpost on Scotttea, which I’ve included below.
Thank you for your support, your feedback, your continued readership.
“Take the time you need”
Words that kept rattling around in my head.
I have not been on social media for a short bit and I plan not to be on for a while longer. Life, expectations, social and professional demands. These things can push one inwards and, hopefully, allow for an investigation into what truly matters.
Years of being on social media, fighting screen addiction, and fretting daily about am I on too much or too little has come to this. A breath. A long, drawn-out breath. I’ve chosen to just sit with this feeling and to just engage with the act of not acting, not using online life to become a replacement for the real thing.
Hikes in the forests with friends. Sunlight and the warmth of a Summer’s day. The slow growth of gourds in the garden. The sounds of birds in the trees.
I can’t cling to these things but I also can’t capture them and share them the way technology seems to want to promise it can. Can we truly experience these phenomena through Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or Twitch? Can an hour on YouTube teach you both how to fix your furnace and fix your life?
Will comments and likes, link shares and photo album memories spark the real change we all need to see in our lifetimes? Or, is it a carousel that keeps us spinning, approximating forward motion but amounting to stasis, to stagnation over decades of use and being used?
For all this, I feel like I still have accomplished nothing. Friendships and memories are the jewels drawn from this hard time spent and these I cherish.
200 blogposts on tea. Digital paper and words. Flavors and phantasms. Pictures and poetry about things long passed.
I hope for more meaningful moments. More life not led online. More connection through cups of tea shared, not facilitated through fiber optic cables.
Summer comes but once a year. In our lifetimes, perhaps, if we’re lucky, we’ll experience enough to count 100. Then where will these Summer’s warm days be? In memories. In the sensations of heat against our skin as we sip from warmed cups of tea. From the feelings of friends and family whom we still can meet.
To do this, all this, we must all take the time we need.
Today thunder peals through the Hudson Valley and the heat of the day hangs overhead like a thick, heavy cloud. In early Summer, the garden blooms and bursts in bright colors of iris’ feathery flowers from every corner and nook. Spikes in heat are a reminder that the depths of Summer have yet to come, while the occasional rain shower refreshes the body and mind like a welcome gift to abate the swelter of an early Summer’s day.
Earlier this week I had received a gift of from my dear friend in Seoul, South Korea, and as the heat lingers, I choose to enjoy these by the open door of my garden studio. Packages of tea and a piece of ceramic ware come as a delightful respite and reminder of friendship’s power to assuage feelings of loneliness amidst a period of separation and isolation.
From paper of pink and white emerges a marbled and splashed surface of glazed ceramic. What is revealed is a fine piece of 분청사기 buncheong-jagi made by Korean potter 신용균 (申容均) Shin Yong-Gyun.
While I have come to amass a small collection of this ceramicist’s work, I’ve not yet seen anything like this. Its form is similar to that of a teapot, save for the absence of a lid. Rather, it is a ewer, or, more specifically, a 숙우 sookwoo, a vessel to cool water before it is poured to brew tea.
Unlike the austere white wares I’ve come to associate with the artist, the glaze of the tiny vessel is brushed onto the ceramic body in exuberant splashes and scrapes of white and blush pink, revealing the grey, iron-rich clay beneath their undulating veneer in a style known as 귀얄 guiyal.
Turning it in my hand,
inspecting its foot,
I imagine my friend’s presence, her keen love for buncheong pottery, and her ability to affect my aesthetic with hers. I am reminded of when we first met and how she explained the qualities of Korean tea. The emphasis of naturalness and ease, both in the appearance of objects, but also in the manner one makes tea. Over the many years since then, I’ve come to realize that these qualities arise only with practice and sitting with life as it reveals itself through time.
The sound of the kettle boiling breaks my focused gaze and ceramic daydreaming. I set the tiny sookwoo down upon the broad expanse of wood beside my open studio door and begin to assemble wares to brew tea.
A joint of bamboo cut and cleaved to form a scoop for tea. A thin branch from a fruit tree to help push the tea leaves from scoop to pot.
A cup and wooden cup stand.
A flat black rock found in my garden to act as a lid rest.
Objects are wetted and warmed and the heat of the morning grows.
First the small sookwoo,
Tiny curled leaves of tea are pulled from a neatly sealed pouch and placed onto the upturned curve of the bamboo scoop.
Dark, blue-green buds of the year’s first harvested 우전차 woojeoncha (lit. “pre-rain tea”) picked in April before 곡우 Gogu (“Grain Rain”, April 20-21) shine like lacquer and curl like old, soft leather. Their scent when dry is sweet like guava or ripening loquat.
I lift and tilt the scoop downward towards the open mouth of the empty teapot, using the thin branch as a guide to move the tiny leaves along.
Resting within the dark hollow of the warmed vessel, the aroma of the tea rises and reveals notes both sweet and savory.
Water resting in the sookwoo is warm enough now to pour onto the delicate leaves.
As they submerge and saturate, they tumble and twirl in spirals and swirls until they float upon the bubbly surface, then sink.
The lid is placed atop the pot and, for a minute or two, I wait for the tea to steep. I wait and a thunder cloud covers the sun.
From sookwoo to pot and now from pot to sookwoo, I pour the tea. New fragrances emerge from the flared opening of the serving vessel. Sweet still, yet with hints of young grass and flowers.
Poured into the cup, the color of the tea is revealed against the matte grey and white background of the buncheong glaze. Vibrant golden green. A hue I’ve come to recognize from fresh Korean teas.
I lift and enjoy the aroma. Sweet. Delicate. Complex but not overpowering. I sip from the cup. Beautiful. Satisfying. Layered. Flavors from the air, from the rain, from the soil and stone that I’ve only found within the rocky and wooded slopes of 지리산 Jirisan decades ago when I visited the farms where these teas are grown and hand-processed. A sweet reminder of my life’s wanderings and the friends I’ve made along the way.
So small is the pot that only three cups are produced and easily savored. I return the kettle to a gentle boil and pour more water into the sookwoo to wait until it has cooled enough to brew the delicate tea buds. Once ready, I pour from sookwoo to pot again.
Leaves tumble and settle and begin to look as if they were alive again with varying colors of emerald and mossy green.
I place the lid back slowly upon the open teapot, admiring the leaves as they continue to unfurl.
Again, I pause and wait for the tea to steep. A cardinal booms his high-pitched call from atop a pine tree in the garden, its scarlet coat contrasting against the deep green of the conifer needles. Wind pushes through the pines. The sky grows darker and the heat rises more.
I lift and pour the tea from the pot into the empty sookwoo.
A second round of tea fills the small cup. The color is brighter, deeper. The aroma is thicker, more pronounced. The flavor is more pointed, greater clarity and bold. The finish lingers longer. Hints of limestone, mallow, clean river rock, the sweet taste of a forest right before a rain.
I stop and admire the leaves at this stage. The crackles and patterns and brushstrokes on the cup. The absence of glaze where potter’s finger gripped the clay. Spots where iron burst and pushed through the white and blue and grey of the fired slip.
Wind begins to grow outside my studio’s door. Whispering through flowering catnip.
Tossing umbels of tightly-grouped Spiraea blossoms against their bright green bases.
Inside, action and inaction meld. Practice is made of pauses, of stops and starts.
Water warms and is poured again from sookwoo to pot.
Leaves rise with the tide of liquid. Foam of oils and air collect and gather around exposed edges and against the round of the teapot’s mouth.
Light enters into this tiny vignetted world, eliminating leaves, sparkling against convex bubbles and the rough edges of exposed clay.
Lid placed back atop this shining world and the tea is left to steep once again.
Rain begins to patter outside upon the concrete flat, upon the leaves of bushes, between rocks in the garden as I wait for the tea to brew.
Moisture caught underneath teapot lid slowly evaporates in the growing humidity of the approaching storm. The heat of the day throbs less intensely now as rain drops’ cadence quickens, pushing cool air into my studio space, wafting fragrances of flowers, wet earth, moss on rocks, brewing tea.
The iron bell hanging in the garden gongs a low sonorous tone and I pour the steeped tea out from pot to sookwoo once more.
From sookwoo to cup.
The heat of early Summer fades and refreshing air wafts as water pools and rain crashes and thunder softly booms. I am reminded that today is 단오 Dano (lit. “the first fifth”, 端午 Duānwǔ in Mandarin), a day filled with 양/陽 yang/yáng energy, a day of ancestor worship, a day when members of the 조선/朝鮮 Joseon royal court would present the king with a book of Dano poetry (단오첩, 端午帖 Danocheop). In turn, the king would present his courtiers with special Dano fans made by artisans, which were in turn tributes from the provinces.
A fan given by a king to his courtiers as the yang energy rises. A sookwoo to cool water as a gift from a dear friend. Rain showers to allay the warmth of early Summer. Fresh tea to occupy my mind. As the rain breaks the heat of the day, a reminder of friendship breaks the feelings of loneliness.
Wishing everyone a beautiful International Tea Day! Drink a cup, bowl, or pot of tea and think of all that went into the growing, harvesting, processing, packing, shipping, selling, and sending of that tea so you can enjoy it! There are lots of people and beings that work towards making that little cup you and I savor. As they say, it’s all in the tea! So, drink up, give thanks to all the labor and love that went towards making this moment happen, and share!
Today, I brew up a personal favorite of mine: a 鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá poetically named 《兄弟》“Xiōngdì”, “Brothers” which I and two of my own “tea brothers”, So Han Fan of West China Tea in Austin, Texas, and Steve Odell of Enthea Teahouse in Portland, Oregon, sourced while traveling in China in 2013.
The tea is grown, tended by, picked and processed by the 林 Lín family on the high slopes of 烏崬山 Wūdōngshān in 潮州 Cháozhōu, in northeastern 廣東 Guǎngdōng province.
The tea’s poetic name alludes to how it is made up of two distinct cultivars that are grown in a single grove, which when processed, maintain a unique harmony and balance in their flavor.
I brew the tea in a contemporary 汝窯 Rǔ yáo celadon teapot gifted to me by So Han, long before he had opened his tea house.
I brew the tea in a contemporary 汝窯 Rǔ yáo celadon teapot gifted to me by So Han, long before he had opened his tea house. The cup is one of a pair, a gift from 郑国谷 Zhèng Guógǔ of the Chinese artist collective the Yangjiang Group, whom I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with on several art projects, namely the 2016 site-specific participatory installation Unwritten Rules Cannot Be Broken at the Guggenheim Museum.
Using the cup today, I’m reminded of my time working and making tea with Guógǔ, who, while widely known for his art, is also a skilled practitioner in tea, often infusing tea and local tea culture into his art practice.
Flavors and memories always seem to mix and bring up emotions from the past.
Gratitude. Joy. Bittersweet remembrances. Longing to be with friends whose paths I’ve crossed a myriad of times or just once and never again. Teachers and students. Tea masters and aficionados. Farmers, artists, poets, musicians, and monks. Deepest of thanks and warmest of thoughts to all who’ve been part of my life in tea, each somehow pointing the way. So much to celebrate. Today, and everyday.
Spring has faded and the first warm days of Summer of the old lunisolar calendar have arrived in the Hudson Valley. Birdsongs peal against the bright blue sky. Rhubarb flowers climb and explode in the garden and I don’t have it in me to cut them down.
Heat rises. So, too, does a wisp of smoke from my incense burner, filling my studio with the soft scent of 伽羅 kyara. The plastered walls and wooden floors remain cold to the touch. How long before these will warm as well and no cool solace will exist until Autumn arrives?
I pour fresh water into my kettle and sit myself down upon the floor before a sliding glass door that looks out onto my garden. Sounds and fresh breezes blow in, mixing with the incense in the air.
As the heat from the kettle grows, I produce a small ceramic container: a celadon jar originally intended for sweets turned tea caddy with a lid made of dried leaves, cork, and thread.
Inside are the tightly rolled leaves of a 大禹嶺高山茶 Dàyǔlǐng gāoshān chá that a friend gifted to me last Winter. Will their flavors be as tightly kept as their leaves are bundled? Or will they open as Summer has here in the river valley I’ve called home for these past few years?
I loosely arrange objects across the wooden plank I use for a tea table. Cloth. 茶船 chá chuán. A vintage 綠泥西施壺 lǜní Xīshī hú. A shallow 青白茶碗 qīngbái cháwǎn from the 宋 Sòng period (960-1279). Objects are kept informal, alluding to the feeling of the day.
I measure out a portion of tea and place it into the hollow of my warmed teapot.
I wait for a moment and watch the sunlight filter through the pines and maples that tower over the garden outside the open door.
Birds cackle and dogs in the distance bark but do not wake mine who sleeps beside my work desk. A relaxed state seems to settle all about me as I wait for the tea to brew.
Pot in hand, I draw it to the wide opening of the shallow teabowl.
With a simple downward tilt of my wrist and the pot and the tea pours effortlessly into the empty vessel. The color of tea is initially bright and clear against the pale blue-green of the qīngbái cháwǎn.
As the liqueur continues to pour, the color deepens and darkens, until jade turns to gold.
The light of the day is caught against the flat surface of the warm liquid. Blue sky against the crystalline tea liqueur.
As I set the teapot back down into the chá chuán and lift the lid off and angle it upon the open top, the distinctive scent of Dàyǔlǐng becomes present. Big, clean, a mixture of fresh vegetation and fragrant magnolia. Even before I let the liquid cross by lips, I feel as if I’ve already slacked my thirst.
As I take the first sip, I am met with minerality. Next, sweetness. Cascades of flavors followed by a pronounced lingering mouthfeel. Dàyǔlǐng is a unique tea.
Often harvested in Winter, the leaves produce a markedly sweet, if not cane sugar-like, flavor, which recede and evolve into notes of fresh greens and flowers that bloom on trees. The feeling left over is soft, buttery, almost chewy. The qualities of this tea meld into the environment of the cool climes of my garden-level studio.
I relax more and, as I do, so too does my brewing style. I let the tea steep longer.
The color, accordingly, darkens.
The liqueur seems to glow as the sunlight does against the trees and the mountains in the distance.
As the day fades, so too does the tea. Countless steepings have pushed this tea to evolve into a calm, crisp elixir. Still holding on to its Wintery sweetness, although, gone is the intense complexity that the first infusions produced.
Early Summer, too, feels this way. Gone are the radical shifts that marked the previous seasons. Gone is the ice and the garden locked with snow. Gone is the hardened soil, the bare trees, the dark clouds.
What has come is sweet, mellow, easy. The birds relax, as do the leaves in the breeze. The sound of a frog is heard nearby as creeks throb and gurgle beside willows and rocks in gullies and between homes and hillocks of the Hudson Valley.
The sun has woken this world around me and now it stands tall and shimmers in shades of green. The tea leaves, too, evoke this change, this quality, this coming to life from Winter’s hold.
Cool shadows cast darker and darker shade across the stretch of wood and floorboards of my studio. The ease of early Summer spreads and collects in the cooling vessels of my assembled tea set.
Warm winds and a shallow bowl. Winter’s tea and Summer’s flavor.
The last few days of 穀雨 Gǔyǔ (“Grain Rain”). Here, it feels unfathomable that we are on the precipice of Summer. How would you know as it is raining today in New York? Yet, hints of the incoming warm season are all around.
Blossoms on trees burst. Leaves shine an emerald green. The earth is warm and wet. The insects abound, soon to chime and chatter as they do in the Summer months.
Today, as the world feels cool and refreshing, I sit by my window and enjoy the sound of rain pattering on the plants outside.
Ferns and hostas.
Lilacs and budding flowers.
Water droplets become small jewels as the collect and form bright prisms on velvet foliage.
Old teaware accompanies new vegetation and the awakening of the latent season.
An antique 石灣 Shíwān pot and blue-and-white cup.
Roasted tea beams bright gold liqueur.
Low light filtered through the trees.
The feeling is calm and casual as I spread my wares and body across the surface of my wooden floor.
Birds call outside.
Reflections fade and evolve across the crackled surface of the iridescent glaze of the old teapot.
The flavor of tea lingers even as the scent of it flags.
Cool breeze and the emptiness that’s caused by the sound of raindrops.
For several days now I’ve been traveling with my wife to see her family in the Philippines. We’re both jet lagged, her more than I. Regardless, I don’t know what day it is. My body is still using New York time as its tether, a bellwether guiding me but in a way that no longer makes sense.
I haven’t found time to sit for tea, save for right now. An aged 肉桂 Ròuguì seems to taste of the flavors from last night’s dinner of braised meats, steamed fish, tamarind soup, shrimp paste, buko pie. The wine here is sweeter. The beer, lighter. The weather joyously warm but not hot. It snowed today in New York. Today, there are white, billowing clouds set against a bright blue sky here in the highlands of Tagaytay.
While my wife sleeps and works-off her jet lag, I’ve found a moment to spread out a small tea cloth and prepare a series of steepings of dark oolong that I’ve tucked-away in my carry-on bag.
A set of vintage white porcelain made up of one small 蓋碗 gàiwǎn and four 品茗杯 pǐn míng bēi from the 1980s. Tea from the mid-2000s. Water boiled and stowed in a travel thermos. No flourish. More of a fix.
As I sit, the act of making tea is still meditative, set to the sound of the air conditioner mounted loosely in the wall beside me, to the sound of vehicles of all types zooming outside of the walls of the garden, to the irregular cry of a cockerel somewhere nearby.
The soft gurgle of water and the light clink of ceramic lid against ceramic cup.
Tea steeps and settles in as I do into the concrete and stucco home of my wife’s mother, built on land their family’s owned for centuries.
Outside our room, orchids grow in the inner courtyard and geckos find their homes between the cracks and crevices of tiles, worn brick, and the joints between walls and ceilings.
Inside, the relative quiet allows for momentary respite and another cup of tea brewed.
My wife wakes and wanders into the shower as I pour my third or fourth cup from a third or fourth steeping.
The color is still dark but waning as I pour out the sixth or seventh steeping.
I turn over a second cup to offer to her as she walks from the bathroom, the sent of shower soap now blending with the aroma of tea.
I drink the first of the two cups. The second waits idly for my wife to dry off in the humid air. I breathe over my tongue with mouth closed and taste the lingering 回甘 huígān of the Ròuguì tea. The 岩骨 yángǔ, the “rock bones”, the meat-like quality of this tea is still here.
I pour more tea into my empty cup and the difference in color between the last steeping and this marks the passing of time. Darker is the subsequent. A bit deeper in flavor.
The warm water kept in the gàiwǎn pushing more color and tone from the leaves that continue to brew. The flavor is softer, more complex but gentle. No hint of bitterness, just the spiciness of this particular kind of tea, with just the slightest hint of age. 活 huó, it is still lively in the mouth and the mind.
The last steepings of tea continue to come but, as travel often does, I am pulled away to the work of travel, of coordinating the next thing-to-do, the next stop in the list of stops. Wind blows harder outside in the garden of my wife’s mother’s house. The winds of the Tagaytay are locally famous, peeling and pushing up off from the placid surface of Lake Taal.
I pour the remaining tea and liquid into a cut crystal tumbler glass with the hopes of saving what’s left. I empty the small cup my wife never got to. I pour-out what’s left in my thermos. It all amounts to one more cup to save for later.
As I did before but in reverse, I pack away my tea set I’d made to travel with.
Gàiwǎn wrapped in a pattern printed cloth. The four white porcelain pǐn míng bēi set around it. Box closed and wrapped-up tightly. Stowed away until next time, whenever that will be.
The roar of vehicles of all types zooming by. The hum of the air conditioner set loosely in the wall. The irregular cry of a cockerel somewhere nearby. Sweet wine. Light beer. The spice of tea and tamarind still lingering. I close the door and my wife and I continue our travels.
Good morning friends. Perhaps you woke up today like me. It’s a dark day, not just for the cold and stormy weather we’re experiencing on this Thursday in late February, but also because of the announcement that the Ukraine is now under attack (more so than previously).
New York and New York City is home to many Ukrainians, to many Russians, Belarusians, Moldavians, and peoples near and around the affected areas. War and armed conflict anywhere is tragic and the fallout, seen and yet to be seen, will be terrible.
As tea people, I hope we commit to practicing peace and non-violence. I hope we can not just be against war and violence but be anti-war and anti-violent, both in our actions and our thoughts. Consider why war has been waged and consider how we, both far and close to this conflict, can understand the human costs. Perhaps we should meditate why we live in a world that is more inclined to wage war than to wage peace.
I leave you with some images of an early morning tea session I had while listening to the news and to the accounts of journalists who are now currently in the Ukraine. I wonder if tea and meditation can change any of what has happened or what may happen.
I’ve met many in my lifetime who come from cultures that love tea. Perhaps offering tea and a chance to meditate together can be of support to finding peace between the areas currently affected by war. Perhaps combatants and civilians can ignore the commands of their leaders, put down their weapons, come out of their bunkers, and share a cup. I’m sure they’d prefer this over killing and death. In this hope, I offer up this meditation.
Meditations on war
Perhaps it’s too soon to meditate on war
Perhaps too few people have been killed
Too few lives broken
Too few cities burned
But despite the costs, waging war is easier
When every government known to us is made to wage war
We’ve made it so it’s easier to wage war than to wage peace
Easier to call a missile strike than to solve hunger
Easier to round-up and execute civilians than to secure their rights
Easier to bomb cities and invade countries than to make them ecologically sustainable
Easier to pit neighbors against neighbors than to end systemic racism
War is easier than peace because it’s now a practiced habit
So let’s meditate on war, the ease we want to complicate, a habit we want to break
Today, the cold of Winter remains, pressed up against the warming weather of early Spring. Entering 立春 Lìchūn means that the snow will eventually begin to thaw, although the ice that still remains in the mountains won’t melt until later in the month. The result is scattered snow flurries combined with rain. The birds in my garden, as much as I, are left darting for cover, for warmth, for a hollow to call home for the while as the weather decides what to do.
I, in my studio, have set up a small tea session. Kettle boiling. The sound of the falling snowflakes melding with the soft hum of boiling water. The faint scent of incense I burned earlier this morning is still present.
As the heat of the water rises and crests, I pour a small draught from the kettle into a small 四方壺 sìfāng hú (square-shaped teapot) by 施小馬 Shī Xiǎomǎ (1954-present) that I’ve set within the center of a 宜興朱泥茶船 Yíxìng zhū ní chá chuán.
Next, the water from the pot is poured out into a small 분청사기 buncheong-jagi cup made by famed contemporary Korean potter 신용균 (申容均) Shin Yong-Gyun.
A small portion of an aged 餅茶 bǐngchá made from the compressed leaves of a 渥堆 wòduī processed 南糯山 Nánnuòshān 熟普洱茶 shú pǔ’ěr chá is placed into the angular interior of the small dark clay teapot.
These angles are the mark of years of craft and study that reflect the skill of Shī Xiǎomǎ. These same angles will test my own skill as a tea brewer, as I will need to account for how they will affect the expansion of the tea leaves as they saturate, open, and offer their flavor.
Pouring hot water onto the leaves and closing the pot, I am left with very little information to work with.
Not pouring water over the teapot will mean I cannot rely upon the evaporation of the hot liquid from the surface of the vessel to tell me when the tea has fully steeped.
Neither can I observe the small meniscus bubble traveling down the teapot’s spout (which I often do with 烏龍茶 wūlóngchá, as the expansion and unfurling of these leaves leads to the absorption of some of the water, resulting in a slight reduction in the water’s overall volume in the pot).
Instead, I have to rely on intuition and on my experience using this teapot.
With any luck, noting the darkness of the tea cake, the compression of the leaves, and even how the portion of tea broke from the compressed bǐng, I’ll be able to have some control on the final outcome.
I wait and then pour-out the warm water from the waiting buncheong-jagi cup. Once emptied, it is filled with tea.
The steeped liquid set against the cream-colored canvas of the cup reveals the true color of the shú pǔ’ěr. It is rich in tone, a dark sanguineous umber, almost a deep red. The aroma is equally complex. Notes of tilled earth, old desiccating wood, of warm, wetted leaves.
Sipping the tea and setting the cup back down, I taste sweeter flavors akin to apple’s skin, dark berries, dried raisin, and black fig.
Remaining still with these flavors, I lift the lid from the four-sided teapot and pour into it more water from the boiling kettle.
Rather than fully empty the teapot, I allow for the first steeping to meld with the next. Doing this allows the tea’s flavor to gradually change, concentrating between each cup poured, building and ebbing like a great, slow-moving wave that eventually grows and crests and presses up against the shore of a lake, peeling back and retreating to the calm center.
Upon finishing the first cup, letting the flavors linger and play-out on my palette, I pour a second. This time, the color of the liqueur is dark, almost black.
Only at the very edge of the pool can I make out the true color of the tea. I am reminded of the unique hue of old red lacquer that is covered by a thin, almost translucent layer of black lacquer. The effect is a muted tone. Neither red nor black. A color in between. What is achieved by this process gives depth and a sense of wonderment to the object. Creating something that is both dark and glowing.
The tea is very much like this. Its flavor is the same. What I am most struck by is the intense change that two steepings have produced. The first was light and its flavors still emerging. The second, conversely, is fully developed, balanced, with brighter fruit tones followed closely by those more similar to an aged port wine, tobacco, and thick molasses. The sweet and savory registering on the same level.
As I sip this tea my concentration remains on deciphering the myriad of sensations it gives rise to. All around me continues the sound of snow and rain, the kettle bubbling away, the faint scent of incense still hanging in the air of my studio. I breathe in and this cold, fragrant air blends with the warm flavors of the tea that hold strong within the back of my mouth and top of throat, inside my nostrils and behind my teeth. I close my eyes and, even here, the taste of tea seems to reside, as I grow more awake from the first and second cup.
I pour another stream of hot water from the kettle into the tiny pot and close the lid again.
Between steeps, I smell the interior of the cream-colored buncheong-jagi cup. Inside, soft floral notes are captured and expressed against the crackled surface. Tea-soaked spots where once one cup sat atop another while they were fired in the kiln now collect and offer-up aromas unlike those when the cup was full. Even empty, a trace remains, markedly different from moments before.
Another cup and another are poured. Countless more after that.
The small squared pot is a stalwart support against the cold of early Spring. Its thick walls of carved and cut 紫砂 zǐshā maintain the heat of the water from the kettle, allowing for the compressed leaves of the bǐngchá to slowly and evenly open over several hours.
The tea changes from opaque to increasingly translucent. Eventually, I can begin to see to the bottom of the cup. This transformation of the liqueur, like the leaves, is gradual, exhibiting the qualities of both the tea and the fine Korean ceramic over time. The two, tea and cup, feel balanced. The relaxed and organic form of buncheong ware feels like a natural vessel for the dark shú pǔ’ěr to reside.
I am reminded of how when I first travelled to Korea, during a cold Winter, I learned that pǔ’ěr was a popular tea of artists and aficionados alike. Much like the buncheong ceramic, pǔ’ěr was brewed in a way that felt natural, relaxed, heartfelt and austere. I remember being huddled, much like I am now, beside a brazier and a wooden table, listening to the sound of wind and snow pressing up against the windowpanes, feeling warm and centered around the enjoyment of tea with new friends.
It was here that I first began to learn about buncheong-jagi, and was introduced to the wares made by Shin Yong-Gyun. Since then, I’ve kept several of his cups into regular rotation. Over this time, they’ve become more worn, more crackles have emerged, their color has become softer. Where once they were snow-white, they now feel like soft linen that has been broken-in by regular use, washed and tended to, loved.
As I look to the small teapot again, peering into its open top before filling it once more, I am reminded of its past too. I was in my early 20s, just out of college. I’d begun working for a small, family-owned business in San Francisco’s Chinatown selling tea and traditional medicinal herbs. Quite poor at the time, any tea or teapot I acquired seemed like an achievement of my own ability to work and save and rationalize my burgeoning tea practice over other luxuries such as food or rent.
The small four-sided pot has remained on the shelves of the tea shop for several years before I’d purchased it, a hold-over from the previous decade. Loving its pure form and clean lines, I had aspired to bring it into my, then, small collection and learn how to brew tea with it. Unable to read seal script at the time, it wasn’t until recently that I was able to decipher the artist’s seal imprinted onto its clay body. When I did, I learned the pot was made Shī Xiǎomǎ, a contemporary master of Yíxìng wares, active since the 1970s.
Set in the center of the circular chá chuán, the four-sided pot and tea boat remind me of the ancient forms of 琮 cóng and 璧 bì, ritualistic objects that came to represent earth (believed to be square) and the universe (believed to be round). As I finish brewing the final cup, knowing that there are still many more to come, I let the objects become a meditation.
In tea we are given the rare opportunity to bring the art of two masters together. Pot and cup alone are forms that feel complementary. One is self-contained, closed. The other, open to the elements. One conceals a mystery. The other offers a mirror upon which flavor, color, heat, and textures are reflected. Each operates in its own manner yet enhances the output of the other. In this way, two masters can enjoy tea together, albeit separated by time and space. Neither artist may know of this moment, save for if they were to stumble across this recounting.
Sitting and savoring the flavors of this instance, I let the sound of the kettle boiling rise again. I note the din of light rain against retreating snow drifts play, the boom of the large metal bell in my garden gong on breeze that seems softer now that early Spring is here. The light of the day grows longer. The cold of the morning seems to fade more each afternoon. Grass, too, begins to push up out from the ice, as do the thin green blades of the narcissus, long before they bloom.
As I begin writing, I await the coming of the new season. One more day, a few more hours, and we pass from 大寒 Dàhán (lit. “Big Cold”) to 立春 Lìchūn (the beginning of Spring). In the mountains and rivers of New York, cold rain comes, just warm enough to melt snow. The process, the thin winnowing-away of Winter into Spring, is slow. It doesn’t happen all at once (not yet, at least). Nature reminding us, always, to pause, appreciate each moment, savor the length of time things take to emerge, grow, mature, ebb, flow, and then wane and fade into nothing.
Looking out onto my garden, the snow becomes soft until it gives way to thick frosty puddles, where grass that survived the cold Winter pushes upwards through. Leaves that fell last Autumn emerge preserved from their chrysalis of ice. Colors still vibrant, but only for today.
Looking out onto this world, a mirror of what transformative forces nature brings, I sit and set a kettle to boil beside me. While the air grows warmer, the space of my studio remains cold, its walls cut into the side of the hill atop which my house is built. Warmth comes from the brazier, the kettle, the sunbeams that stretch across the wooden floor and wooden board I use to make tea upon.
As water warms, I ready objects to steep. A cloth. A scoop made of carved bamboo. A pick fashioned from a twig of a fruit tree.
A small purple-glazed pot gifted to me years ago by an artist acquaintance.
A cup gifted to me by a tea friend from South Korea, its maker a famed ceramicist from the same country.
An archer’s ring for a lid rest.
Soft light stretches across the tea table. Warmer in tone than days before.
This same warm light flickers against warm water which I use to heat the pot and cup. This same warm light settles and creates soft shadows on the twisted leaves of old white tea.
野大白 Yě Dàbái, a wild large leaf white tea from Fújiàn province, was once a fresh tea. Bright, green, silvery in its complexion. Now, more than seven years old, the leaves have darkened. What was once emerald and lacquer-like in appearance now looks leathery and worn. Spring-picked leaves for the last day of Winter.
Lifting the lid from the pot and placing it down atop the jade archer’s thumb rest, I place the leaves inside the tiny vessel.
Warm water is poured atop the tea and the leaves tumble and twirl within the teapot before they come to rest.
The lid is lifted and placed over the opening of the pot and the tea begins to steep.
Waiting for the tea to steep. Waiting for Winter to fade into Spring. Waiting for this world to change. Each season seems to bring something new to us all. Anticipation building each time the weather warms. An unarticulated promise that things will get better and we, somehow, collectively, will be able to step out from our own self-enforced solitary confinement.
As each season arrives, this promise, however, invariably falls flat. Steep expectations eventually evolve into deep resentment. Underlying aggravation arises from the denial of simple freedoms. Reluctant realization sets in as we recognize that the big problems of life don’t just melt away.
The tea, once poured, gives me some hope for what waiting may bring. Patience for a pot to brew brings deep colors and warm amber hues. While outside my window Winter wanes, the flavors inside this now aged tea still remain strong. Subtle notes of caramel, of cardamom, of honey, and sweet dew. They linger and last, as successive cups are poured, each deepening in color and flavor, until no more liquid is left in the pot.
Lifting the lid off the teapot again, more water is added and a second steeping begins.
The sound of rain is gentle and silvery pools of water begin to collect between the shrinking mounds of snow that have covered the concrete platform that leads out to the garden. Concentric circles of ripples from raindrops bend and break.
I pour out the next round of tea into the same small cup from South Korea. The color darker than before. The flavors more open and complex.
One cup turns to two, then three, and then more water is poured onto the leaves again for another steeping, and another steeping after that.
Light from the day continues to shift and, too, wanes like Winter, and I set the lid back atop the teapot once more, this time, empty of liquid. I opt to stop brewing tea for now and to wait until morning comes the next day to return for one final steeping. The cold of my studio space enough to preserve the leaves in the pot and let me enjoy the tea for one more day.
The next morning, I wake to the sound of ice rain against my window. Bright, crystalline, like unearthly chimes in their resonance against the quiet that only exists before the sunrises. Lìchūn is here and yet the cold seems stronger. Where once there were pools and puddles that harkened to an early Spring, today there is sleet and carpets of piling ice that blanket the concrete platform and pathway stones of my garden.
Trees, too, are coated in a frozen sheath. Plum are covered. So, too, are the pine.
The preserved Autumn leaf that inspired my tea time the day before is covered again in a layer of ice, returning to its hibernation for a few more hours or a few more days.
I sit down again beside my kettle like I had done before a day ago. Today is Spring and still there is snow. Ice rain seems to be a fitting harbinger for the new season. A light chiming knell for the end of Winter. A bright shining sparkling tree covered in ice.
The day-old tea, when brewed for one last time, the color that comes is light.
The flavor has faded. The last notes from a Spring seven years passed are finally gone.
A new Spring is here, and yet it’s colder now. For how long will it remain?