Tag Archives: Oolong

Up the Hill I Go

Up the hill I go,

What mysteries will I find?

Through forest path and bend in road,

The world I’ll leave behind.

A shimmering brook and water’s ebb,

Flow as I take each stride.

The creek’s force stills and causes pause,

To watch sunlight caught inside.

It glows golden like tea I brew,

By thinning waterfall’s catch.

The water roars less and less each year,

Reduced by late Summer’s dry patch.

What will we do when the water’s gone?

Where will the forest go?

In my mind will it reside?

Where will the trees,

the moss,

the lichen grow?

And what of the mysteries that I once found there,

With forest floors dry and bare?

No owls, no raven, no millipede, no salamander’s lair.

Just the hill set against a vast blue sky,

Amidst the hot, dry air.

It makes me sad to sit and think,

Brewing tea just to drink,

What of these memories will I share?

Of the fondness and despair.

Both occur in the wretches of my mind,

Some thoughts familiar,

Some unkind.

When footsteps on paths crossed are covered over,

By dry leaves, by old soil, by new clover.

Then what there will be found?

Nothing, nothing, nothing will abound.

Yet from nothing always arises something new.

Not in my lifetime but perhaps for you.

The next after me who will come,

A hill, a forest, a waterfall, and then some.

A whole world to explore and all their own,

Where the owls, the raven, the millipede, the salamander call their home.

Not in my lifetime but maybe in yours,

Up the hill you’ll go,

Through the forest floors.

And what mysteries you’ll find,

In the forests, those hills, your mind?

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Meditation, Oolong, Poetry, Tea

Take the Time You Need

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.

Thank you,

Scott

“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.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Meditation, Oolong, Poetry, Tea, Tea Tasting

International Tea Day: Today, and Everyday

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.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, History, Meditation, Oolong, Tea, Tea Tasting

Warm Winds and a Shallow Bowl

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.

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Filed under Ceramics, Incense, Meditation, Oolong, Taiwan, Tea, Tea Tasting

Last Days of Grain Rain

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.

Summer is almost here. Can you feel it?

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Filed under Ceramics, Meditation, Oolong, Tea, Tea Tasting

Tea While Traveling

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.

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Filed under Ceramics, Meditation, Oolong, Philippines, Tea, Tea Tasting, Travel

Ten Years

Dear Beloved Blog Readers,

When we offer a bowl, or cup, or pot of tea, do we think of the effect it will have on our lives and the lives of others?

Do we think beyond the singular moment that this simple gesture represents?

The leaves are selected with care…

…and placed within the teapot gently.

The kettle is warmed to a boil…

…and water is poured with attentiveness.

The pot is closed and, through one’s own awareness of what is happening within the tiny vessel, tea is brewed to a quality nearing perfection.

In truth, much of this effort to make this happen was already complete well before the tea made its way into the pot. Effort by the countless farmers, artisans, and trades people who cultivated, picked, produced, packaged and delivered tea to you and I, the tea brewer or lucky tea drinker, was done with a level of mastery and attentiveness that we may never fully appreciate.

What one is left with is the mere navigation of knowledge of leaves and wares, of material qualities and the qualities of one’s own self.

In steeping tea and offering tea, there is no true goal, only the hope that through offering tea you can somehow offer something of yourself to others.

This, coupled with showing one’s appreciation and respect to the art and craft and effort that went into producing the fine tea that you have chosen to brew.

Ten years ago, I published the first blogpost on Scotttea. Then, as now, I set out with no goal in mind, just a hope to explore the world of tea and the thoughts that would invariably arise as I sat down to make tea. Since then, a lot has happened.

Almost two hundred blogposts have been written, with enough content to fill several books. Incalculable amounts of tea were made, some shared with others, most savored alone.

However, as I’ve discovered since starting this blog, the vast expanse that defines the digital divide seems less expansive. In many ways, the space that separates you and I is the width of my tea table, the space between one 畳 tatami mat, the space between where we sit in my makeshift tea hut.

The true distance I find that changes is time. Time between ten years ago and now seems vast as it does miniscule. Ten years ago I was living and working and making tea in San Francisco. Less than an hour away from where I grew up. Less than a walk away from the hospital where I was born. Living in a small apartment in a 100-year-old Victorian townhouse furnished with three tatami mats, a few antique 箪笥 tansu cabinets, and a collection of tea and teaware.

For almost a decade I lived in this space and continued a tea practice that I had begun since my childhood, one I further honed and developed during my formative years in college. Little thought was given to writing down these experiences. When I did, they never amounted to much. I’d start a blog about tea and soon after abandon it. There was little staying power. In many ways, Scotttea was no different.

What kept me writing is hard to define. Perhaps the desire to log memories. Perhaps a hope to guide others in the often confusing crossroads of the internet and tea. Maybe it was just to see if writing about tea could encourage myself to just keep at it. An experiment at best. No expectations for an outcome.

Looking back at many of my old posts, all I see are the glaring mistakes of a neophyte, groping and stumbling along the Way. A misplaced 茶杓 chashaku. Too much or too little tea. Poor camera angles. Missed opportunities.

In trying to overcome all of this, my posts seem to have grown in size and length. The desire to want to say everything and show everything combined with a sort of endless thread of thought approach has seemed to evolve over the years, much to the chagrin of readers who may have hoped for a quick musing on tea, a poetic vignette, or singular statement.

The practice that has emerged has been one that longs more and more for the connection with others in the real world, in real time. The hut on the edge of my property remains empty, save for maybe the pair of mice I once evicted or a queen hornet trying to survive the Winter cold. Instead of opening the door, I write and hope that once this pandemic ends and once the sickness of our too busy world is over that you and other tea people like you may join me in a bowl or cup or pot of tea.

Until then, I share with you the same tea that I made ten years ago. A fantastic aged 水仙武夷山巖茶 Shuǐxiān Wǔyíshān yánchá from the mid-1980s that was gifted to me by a dear friend more than a decade ago, the same I featured in my first blogpost. With ten additional years of age on this tea, the leaves have an aroma akin to a fine incense. The brewed liqueur is medicinal, both in its flavor and its affect of the body.

Tea like this is rare and special not because it exists but because of the forces that work against it. It’s delicious. It’s too good to pass up. A fool would store it away. And, yet, I’ve done this so I can enjoy it today.

Perhaps this blog is similar. The tea it documents is, more often than not, amazing. It demands to be savored and enjoyed in the moment. To snap photographs, to think about what I will write about it, memorializing each tea experience with word, prose and pictures to produce a blogpost is, in some sense, madness. I’ve often thought of what happens as I make tea and then invite these thoughts and actions into my otherwise unobstructed, often austere practice.

It is a fool who saves these moments. Old used up tea leaves. The dregs of 抹茶 matcha. The dust and patina that accumulates on old teaware. Memories captured and catalogued. And, yet, here we are. Ten years since I put word to virtual page and pressed share. I’m deeply thankful to all who’ve joined me. I hope some day we can join for tea together in real life, beyond this digital space. Just know that the door to my tea room is always open and my message box is just a click away.

Ten years. Almost two hundred posts. Several books somehow locked within these pages. Who will know where we’ll be in ten more years. More tea leaves? A darker patina on my old teaware? Oil and residue accumulating in the cracks and fissures of old teabowls and old tea pots? We’ll see. Until then, let’s have another cup and see what it inspires.

Thank you,

Scott

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Meditation, Oolong, Tea, Tea Tasting, Uncategorized

Warm Winter

With the first day of the new year, I find myself wanting to climb a mountain. Ever since moving away from the city, I’ve used these moments of wandering the trails and streams to reset the mind, recalibrate the heart, and refresh the spirit. With the chaotic year that was 2021 now behind me, momentarily losing one’s self within the ramble of woods and ravines feels like closing the door on the world behind me and opening another on what’s to come.

The path, as always, is winding. However, today, it seems noticeably different, shockingly similar to when I last hiked along this trail. This Winter has been warm. Autumn leaves still lay scattered on the forest floor.

Moss.

Lichen.

Ferns and the green leaves of mountain plants still abound.

The water that normally by now would be frozen still cascades and pools as it runs down the carved cut it created over centuries.

Memories of trying to climb this mountain last year return. Memories of ice and snow, of Winter’s lock in frigid torpor. These running headlong against what I see today, which is a forest that is very much awake, very much alive in a warmer time.

As I climb higher, I relish the rare instance I find myself in. While I fear that this weather is somehow linked to the greater warming pattern that our future holds, I cannot help but to find myself enjoying the sight of spiny moss poking up through the rocks…

… of bright yellow mushrooms in bloom…

…of buff and woody shelf fungus climbing up a tree. Simple pleasures found in times of warning. These are for certain demarcators of things to come.

More twists in the trail, more steps up the steep hill, and I find myself back beside my usual waterfall stop. The same rocks and fallen trees welcome me as if it were months ago, still full of energy and color and water surging forth from the recent Winter rains. I sit down upon the wet rocks and spread out a cloth kept in my rucksack. Upon this, I sit a teapot and cup. The sound of water rushing off the rocks. The sound of water pouring from my thermos into the open pot over rolled leaves of 鐵觀音烏龍茶 Tiě guānyīn wūlóngchá. The last of this tea for the first of this year.

Pot closed, I wait and wonder what the year will bring, what the tea will taste like, and what the warm weather will set forth for years to come. The sound of the waterfalls rushing beside me. The occasional chatter of birds and backpackers in the distance. Silence before I pour out the pot into a single red and white cup, pouring out as much as the tiny open vessel can contain.

Golden hues from the tea leaves left against the enameled interior of the 宜興 Yíxìng cup.

Gold and the reflection of the trees above it.

The bare cold trees that stretch skyward against the dull grey expanse. Their branches skeletal against the sky.

Below, copper-colored leaves collect in wetted piles and flat, matted carpets across the forest floor.

Between these two worlds, the river cascading…

…the rock which I sit upon…

…the tiny tea set which is keeping me warm.

With each successive pouring of the pot the tea grows darker, the flavors more complex, shifting from sweet butterscotch to deep notes of incense wood.

Bitterness is there and so too is a lingering complexity that coats my tongue and throat.

In the ancient texts, they note the occurrence of 甘露 gānlù, an auspicious omen, the sweet dew that comes from nature, moisture that clings to leaves, that is said to be a medicine that is far above others to replenish the body and bring immortality.

In tea, it can describe the saliva that is produced on the back sides of the cheeks, that carries the flavor of the tea into the body, that continues to permeate long after the tea is gone (producing the sensation of 回甘 huígān).

My only hope is that this flavor lingers longer as I pack up my bag and head up the mountain, and that this may be a harbinger for a harmonious year to come.

The warm Winter weather makes the trek up the mountain gentler. No footsteps in the snow to mark the way. Instead, an uneven ripple of leaves that runs up the side of the hill points to where others have gone before me, guiding me to the top.

Fallen trees and the forest thins as I get closer to the mountain’s peak.

Toppled limbs and trunks with scarlet veins brought to life and luster in the moisture of the morning.

At summit, I see nothing. Just a blanket of fog across the town and wide river below. The sound of a train in the distance is muffled by the soft lumbering clouds. Thick mist and no vista to speak of.

I’m reminded of the tradition in many East Asian cultures, where upon the first of the new year, people climb mountains to watch the sunrise for the first time, to see its rays of golden glow peek and creep over the horizon. Wishes are made and offered up to the new day on the new year in the hopes that they will come true.

On this first of the year, in the obscurity of the fog and cold clouds, I wish to remain up this mountain a little longer, waiting for Winter’s chill to bite me. On this warm Winter day, I worry for our little planet, for the forces that we don’t yet know. I hope for a better year than the one that has now since passed, and for a better future not yet here.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Meditation, Oolong, Tea, Tea Tasting, Travel

Winter’s Sun

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.

, the dark blue-black of a crow’s coat.

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.

One cup,

then two,

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.

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.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Meditation, Oolong, Tea, Tea Tasting, Travel

Forest

A hike up a mountain in the morning. Parting fog exposes the forest floor.

A path covered in gold and amber leaves.

Rocks and trees, mushrooms and things of all manner of sorts.

A large stone beside a waterfall becomes a platform to sit upon…

…a table enough for a pot of tea and cup to reside.

Rest the mind for a while and brew some roasted tea.

Hot water from an old thermos pours and brings out flavors locked inside.

Floral notes, incense notes, aroma of vanilla and cacao blend and meld with the scent of desiccating leaves, earth and wet rocks.

Colors deepen as time progresses.

A single pot and a single cup…

…results in three stages of one steep.

Opening leaves unfurl and uncurl like flags in a soft breeze.

Slowly, over time, like the season.

Softly at first.

Then more pronounced.

The mind sees bitterness, spiciness, color and form.

Loudness, quietness, voidness and full.

Trapped and lost, wandering through the woods of sensation.

Groping in the darkness of these twisted timber maples and oaks and pines.

Down the small rivulet streams the marks of death from the year and from the season, floating downward towards the tidal bore, downward towards the ocean’s end, merging with the everything expansiveness…

…to become rain and dew and life, blood and tears and viscera in the body, cellular walls and components of rare earth metals that are placed inside cellular phones.

Up in the mountains beside the stream none of this and all of this are packed inside my traveler’s pouch, packed tightly inside this tiny teapot.

Steeped with memories. Steeped with time.

Steeped with the fondness of an Autumn’s morning, the sound of birds reverberating through the forest and the absence of combustion engine clamor against the gentle din of the water rolling off of rocks down the ravine I’ve been climbing up.

Too much time has been put between the last time and now since I trekked up this steep hill and away from the world that occupies my mind.

“Why did I not make this time before?” becomes the cane which I whip myself with.

But, beside this water’s edge I let go of the rod and pick up the more refined tools of self-exploration.

A hand-hewn pot filled with hand-hewn leaves. The textures of a world the earth provides. Kiln-fired clay. Basket-roasted oolong. A color caught in liquid mirrored in the color caught in Autumn’s leaves.

Deepening the breath once more before I pack these items up. Back into my book bag satchel.

Back down the mountain to where people roam.

Back down into my body as I place one foot before the next over stones covered in gold leaves and spreading moss.

Back down to where I can recollect these thoughts as memories, somehow changed by time and reflection and whatever happened in between this now and that now.

Even the taste of tea and the forest smell will have changed by then.

Turned into an object of sorts, far beyond their original bodies.

These, too, will eventually evaporate.

Like time. Like the seasons.

Back into the earth, to rot away and feed future worms, feed future trees, to regrow a forest somewhere off in the distance we cannot yet imagine.

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Filed under Ceramics, Meditation, Oolong, Tea, Tea Tasting, Travel