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.
The year is new and the tea I crave is old. What comes to mind is singular: a memory of a 1999 金帆牌 Jīn Fān Pái “Golden Sail” 熟普洱茶 shú pǔ’ěr chá from a life long ago. This tea was easily one of my first pǔ’ěr experiences when I was still wading around in the shallow waters of my then nascent 工夫茶 gōng fū chá practice back in the early 2000s when I was still a wide-eyes college student in Santa Cruz, California. I can remember when David Wright of Chaikhana offered me a sip of this tea. Back then, it was sold to me under the name “Sailing Vessel” and, indeed, it helped me to venture further into the depths of the larger tea world.
I can recall the experience drinking this tea quite vividly. It was dark, earthy, inky. The texture was slick, viscous, one that would leave a slight resinous feeling in the mouth. Notes of redwood, pine sap, clean wet river stone. I was hooked. Even then, when this tea was relatively young, I felt it had a lot to say. The favors were incredibly active in the mouth for a shú pǔ’ěr, let alone one that is relatively widely produced.
I remember purchasing this tea (for a price now so low that I am amazed I didn’t buy more) and running back to the house I shared with my fellow tea-heads So Han Fan and Sylvia Levine and drinking quite a bit of it (probably all of it, which makes this particular cake the second one I must have bought soon there after). It became the tea that I’d learn how to brew cake pǔ’ěr with, studying how the compression unique to 餅茶 bǐngchá affects the way it brews, how the heat of the water and saturation of the tea are key to unlocking the tea’s potential, and how the shape of a teapot (from the circumference of its opening to the height of its profile) can determine the trajectory of the steeping experience. Tea as teacher became a core understanding from this point onward.
I’d shelve this tea for years, pack it away and almost forget I had it. As I moved from Santa Cruz to San Francisco, and then from San Francisco to New York City, the tea would travel with me, wrapped-up in paper and a Japanese 風呂敷 furoshiki.
Since moving to the Hudson Valley, I kept the tea stored away in an antique 桐箪笥 kiri-dansu, the light, relatively porous wood of the Paulwonia acting as a great neutral environment for the tea to live and age. Now that Winter has arrived here along the rivers and mountains of the Hudson, the tea is dormant, its oils and active flavors less readily available.
The cold air that continues to creep through the windows and doors of my studio are both a challenge and an opportunity to make tea. The kettle that I keep by my side is drawn closer to me on the coldest of days. I remove the tea cake from its cloth and paper wrapping and set it down beside me. The compressed leaves look unchanged from when I last opened this cake up for inspection years ago. The scent of the dried tea is sweet, akin to loamy wood and dried black mission figs.
I arrange a setting for tea upon the swirling grains of my tea table (admittedly less a table and more a plank of wood that rests upon two tea boxes).
A pick for loosening a portion of tea from the cake.
A scoop fashioned from a piece of bamboo to set the leaves within.
A dark 紫砂仿古壺 zǐshā fǎnggǔ hú by ceramicist 尹紅范 Yǐn Hóngfàn (1963 – present) which I’ve employed for making cake and brick pǔ’ěr for almost fifteen years now. A shallow 宜興朱泥茶船 Yíxìng zhū ní chá chuán to set the pot within.
A wooden cup stand made of cherry wood.
A small 鬼萩焼 Oni Hagi-yaki teacup with unctuous white glaze by contemporary Japanese ceramicist 山根清玩 Yamane Seigan that has been accompanying me on many of my tea sessions since Winter came.
The pot and cup are warmed by the water that has been boiling in my iron kettle. The portion of broken-off tea cake is set within the open pot. The scent of the dried tea leaves coming in contact with the warm and wetted interior of the teapot reveals just a hint of the tea’s flavor. Again, notes of redwood, of dried black mission fig.
I pour hot water upon the compressed leaves within the pot and close the lid. I wait and do not rinse the tea fearing that this extra step will remove some of the flavor that this tea has acquired over the years.
In waiting I watch the steam rise from the water inside the tiny white-glazed cup, the steam rise from the spout of my boiling kettle, the slight wisps of steam that hover over the dark clay pot.
Waiting has brought this tea here today for me to taste. Waiting has made this moment happen. Waiting will let this now-aged tea express what time and change has allowed it to achieve.
Minutes pass and I pour the first of many draughts from the teapot. The color of the tea is dark, inky, opaque. I am reminded of the first time I sat to drink this tea with David two decades ago.
The aroma wafting from the cup, the sparkling wave that dances across the surface of the dark red liqueur, the bareness of its presentation. I lift the cup to my lips, inhale its profuse aromatics, and sip from the tiny teacup. Time evaporates. I’m for a brief moment brought back to that old time. I feel as if I’m about to cry.
The tea is nothing special and yet it really is. The flavors are big and sweet. There is complexity and layers and unfolding of depth but I am brought back to when I was just first beginning to perceive these things.
I can remember the layout of David’s old shop. The nooks and cavernous shelves that seemed to contain a trove of then-unknowns. Teapots and teas. Books and postcards. Lamps and cups. Tea picks and tea boats. Old lacquered items nexts to objects and figures carved of boxwood and rose wood and agate and jade. The jumble of things and the curl of David’s short beard and the wry smile he’d make when he’d tell you a dry joke that would invariably go over my head.
“Clouds,” he once told me. “Goals are like clouds. You watch them pass in the sky. You might focus on one or two, but you can’t grasp at a cloud.”
They disappear. The dissipate. The dissolve into the something bigger that’s out there. He never said the last part. I’d have to come to realize this on my own years later.
Sitting with this tea I look into the past from the vantage point of now. I’ve aged, no longer the young man I was. This tea has aged too, and yet it contains with it the bright, fresh, buoyant memories of my youth. It’s a good tea.
It steeps for days. On day two, on steeping who-knows-now, the color begins to wane and the once dark opacity it had held breaks and the liqueur becomes slightly transparent. Sunlight finally enters the bottom of the cup and the crimson leathery tones of a typical pǔ’ěr finally emerge.
The staying power of this tea amazes me. So, too, does the staying power of these memories. Sweet and bittersweet. Sad in a sense. Longing. Unable to go back. Happy that I’ve come this far. The cake that we called “Sailing Vessel” has in some way lived up to its name. “Golden Sail” sounds a bit luxurious. This is a simple yet sturdy tea and it and I have ventured for quite a while, for quite a distance. Far from when we first left off.
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 shēngpǔ’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!
Morning comes and soft light filters through the doors and windows of my studio. Books on the shelf smell of old paper. Last night’s incense still seems to linger in the air. Cold breeze. Dew on grass. The din of crickets and morning’s traffic.
Inside the studio, stillness. Sitting with me is a small collection of objects. Teapots drying on the black-lacquered surface of my desk. Five teapots once brewed five teas. One more pot and it would feel like the six persimmons in 牧谿 法常 Mùxī Fǎcháng’s (1210?–1269?) 六柿圖 liùshì tú.
Their clay bodies now cold in the space of my studio. No longer holding the heat they once contained. Their lids, all of different shapes and sizes, cocked at angles to allow for air to flow within the caverns of their empty hollows.
On some, the stain and patina of years of brewing tea. For some, several decades now mark their skins. Some dark, some light, each telling of their age and their use and their utility.
Shapes and forms abound, each pot more different than the next. One, the shape of a concubine’s breast.
Another’s lid the form of a cow’s nose.
While most are without decoration or adornment, one carries the vignette of a bat and bamboo.
Look closely and you’ll see it has a poem on its obverse side. In this raised clay, our mind tells stories and gives itself the chance to wander.
The lone glazed pot sits in contrast to the others, blazoned in purples and pinks and what other colors came forth during its firing. When I brew from this vessel I’m reminded of the artist who gave it to me, a gift from a life that now seems far removed.
I am reminded of the dark hole I climbed out from to escape that life. How my practice in tea and the support of friends helped point the way.
Skin like that of a pear. Skin like that of leather. Like an old river stone washed and polished yet still holding onto its innate texture.
Clay and stone and vitrified sand sandwiched and pressed deep into the bodies of each pot. Green and red and brown, orange and violet. Colors and shapes, grains and grit. Cold air on cold clay and dried spent tea leaves.
A bamboo scoop, each joint a day of growth, the moving of the sun, the return of the moon.
Each node the presence of a root that once held it firm into the ground. Now pulled from its source and sitting here with me, with these five drying teapots. Time.
This is what it always had been. A meditation on drying teapots. This, too, is part of the practice. When they have all dried up, when their pores have emptied, when they finally go back to containing nothing, then they can be of use again.
Autumn has passed and Winter’s presence grows more and more each day. Morning’s light emerges later and darkness arrives over the horizon sooner than the weeks and months before. Winds whip and howl through bare trees.
The mountains, evermore, replace their vibrant pigment in exchange with varying hues of umber and shades of purple. The colors that do remain cling to branches and scatter on the forest floor. The last of Autumn’s leaves.
The rich soil.
The slick cascade of water rushing from the rivers and over rocks. I spend the last of these days, where the final forces of Fall remain palpable, crawling up the edge of a waterfall to the top of a mountain.
In the foothills that mark the trailhead, one final stand of bright, golden maples eek out their last celebration for the year.
A cathedral’s nave cast from nature.
Further into the forest, the trees grow bare. Looking upward reveals a spindly network of branches, none coming too close to touch, forming empty channels between them. Bright blue rivers of sky. Birds call and sing. The swirl of the wind. The sound of the brook echoing and beckoning me deeper into the forest, further up the mountain.
As I ascend I pause to appreciate small chance-made vignettes that adorn the forest world. A gnarled old root caught in decomposition.
Two fallen tree trunks, blackened by fire.
In Winter’s cold decay, life still pulses through the forest. Springing up from the thick carpet of fallen leaves, young saplings find a foothold.
Ferns of all forms unfurl.
Moss find shelter in cracks and crevices.
On twisted roots.
Halfway up the mountain, I stop to savor the rush of the cascade.
Perched on a stone boulder outcropping, I spread out a tea set kept in my side bag. A brocaded box and tea-stained linen cloth.
A small 內紫外紅 nèi zǐ wài hóng 宜興茶壺 Yíxìng cháhú from the early 1980s set atop an oak leaf.
Opened, it becomes a vessel to contain the moment, a chance to pause, an opportunity to meditate in nature. No extraneous noise, just the sound of the waterfall and the wind pressing through the trees. No unnecessary thoughts, just those enough to attend to the act of making tea.
Thoughts enough to guide my hand as I place old tea leaves intro the center of the open teapot. Twisted, dark, aged leaves of an old 普洱茶 pǔ’ěr chá that mirror those fallen on the path that led me to the waterfall’s edge. Red and russet and warm. Dry and leathery like a worn boot.
I pour out a measure of hot water into the open teapot and, for a moment, watch as the tea leaves roll and slowly expand. The deep blue of the sky overhead reflecting in the tiny pool of the open teapot.
I replace the lid and wait for the tea to brew.
In this moment of waiting, I observe the world around me.
The waterfall, the rocks, the forest. The cascade and the rush of water.
The pool in which it all collects and churns.
The mountain stream that ambles and coils downward.
The water, disappearing over a bend and humped back of the hillock. Water, merging with earth, with the wood of the forest, with the light caught against the leaves and the skyward stretching columns of trees.
I pour out the first of many steepings from the tiny teapot into a single cup.
The color of the brew is a deep scarlet. The aroma is rich like healthy soil. The favor is sweet and satisfying, akin to a fine wine, with a soft lingering finish that tapers off slowly until it merges and fades with the myriad of scents that define the forest.
I continue to sit and steep tea. Time passes, marked by the slow shifting of light through the trees.
The change in color of the tea’s liqueur
The expanding of the tea leaves.
One last cup and I close the pot and wrap up the small tea set to continue on my journey up the mountain. Further up the mountain, the forest thins. Yet, here, too, Winter’s blooms can be found. ￼
Witch Hazel flowers burst atop the knobby and twisted branches of their weathered trees.
New moss emerges from underneath desiccated leaves.
Even a fallen sycamore leaf appears new, alive, fiery against the cold earth.
Climbing higher still, I reach a mountain lake, the source of the waterfall.
Here I rest and sit for tea, spread out atop a warm, sunbaked stone.
The same tea is brewed from before.
It’s flavor seems gentler now, it’s color paler.
I let each steeping go on longer, letting the leaves soak and expel their flavor slowly.
Atop the stone, I sit with the teapot in silent mediation. The chill of Winter abated by the heat of the sun, yet its presence surrounds me. The umber and purple mountain tops rising up against the lake’s edge.
The bare branches stretching up to the sky. The cold wind that creeps between the folds in my coat. The last of Autumn’s leaves, clinging on to a season long since passed.
A week has passed and gone now are the even-measured days of Autumn’s equinox. In its place are nights that creep in sooner, more gently, rolling over the waning daylight like a soft purple quilt, warm and pleasant. On a day met by a light Autumn rain, I keep myself indoors, holed-up beside my iron brazier and bubbling kettle, their tune harmonizing with the gusts of wind and the sound of raindrops on my windowsill.
As the light of dusk fades, I produce a simple collection of wares: a half-broken tea boat, a sandy-colored teapot, a jade archer’s ring for a lid rest, and two plain Korean vessels, one for pouring, another for drinking. In this warm light of sundown, the tiny space of my tearoom glows with shifting hues of amber, copper, and the smoldering red tip of an incense stick.
As I wait for the incense to burn down, I watch the light of day fade and quiet across the soft pages from a book of verses I read until I can no longer make out the words.
As steam rises from the kettle’s spout and its iron lid begins to chatter, I pull forth a cake of tea, resting it atop the wooden plank that is my tea table. A myriad of colors, a mess of twisted leaves all pressed into on another.
With a dull knife I break some free and set them into the empty void of the open teapot.
As I tilt my kettle, water gushes out, boiling-over and onto the compressed tea. The leafy fragment tumbles and bobs, settles and breathes to the sound of the rain.
Closing the lid of the teapot, I wait and the light of the day shifts deeper into darkness. I sit and focus my gaze onto the tiny pot, waiting for its color to change, waiting for the liquid to pull down into its hand-carved spout.
As I wait, I see the cracks upon the surface of the ceramic teaboat. Cracks that were born through the kiln’s fire and through daily use, through five hundred years of age. Broken and pitted like Autumn’s leaves.
Broken and uneven like a cake of tea. Loved and cared for despite its imperfections. Exalted and used for its function.
I end my pause and pour out the tea from pot to serving vessel. A rich tawny bronze liqueur and a complex aroma of tangled vegetation.
Tea and teapot sits and cools as daylight finally fade.
A single teacup to be enjoyed alone as I light a candle and greet the night.
As I finished this piece, I continued to brew tea long into the night. Upon waking, I thought if there might happen to have been a poet from long ago who may have enjoyed a similar moment (with tea or not). To my joy, there was a poem by Tang period (618-907) poet 白居易 Bái Jūyì (772–846). I leave you the original version and translation (provided by Chinese Poems, linked here).
It’s cold this night in autumn’s third month, Peacefully within, a lone old man. He lies down late, the lamp already gone out,
And beautifully sleeps amid the sound of rain.
The ash inside the vessel still warm from the fire,
Its fragrance increases the warmth of quilt and covers.
When dawn comes, clear and cold, he does not rise,
The red frosted leaves cover the steps.
There is a sort of meditation that naturally arises from making tea. I’ve tried to ignore it and cannot. It is unavoidable. It is the meditation on change. You put leaves in a vessel. You bring water to a boil. You steep the tea until it offers up its flavor, until it cannot offer any more. The aroma and notes that play on the air and in the mouth come and slowly fade into nothing. Into memories. Over time, these too may pass.
This ebb and flow of actions, of movement and resting, of coming forth and waning into ether are mirrored in the material affects of tea too. It is in the way the clay of an old teabowl was once locked within the earth, formed in the hand of the potter, fired in a furnace, brought into this world and has since, by chance, lasted for generations. It is how the forces of heat and flame bring rise to vibrant reds and earthy greens, turning glaze to glass and clay to stone.
I sit with this as I sit for tea, pairing a newly-acquired antique 宝瓶 hōhin (handless teapot) from the kiln of 信楽 Shigaraki with an ancient Chinese teabowl.
Together with these I place a wooden teascoop, made from a branch of an old gnarled tree.
Once turned over, the rough, sinuous exterior gives way to a smooth and shaped interior, revealing the flame-like colors of heartwood. In turn, this vibrancy was kept in suspension through the artist’s application of a thin layer of translucent lacquer.
Onto this void I place the twisted leaves of an ancient tea tree, 景迈古樹生茶 Jǐngmài gǔshù shēng chá, a fresh, raw puer tea from Jǐngmài in southern Yúnnán, purportedly from tea trees several hundred years old.
For a moment I admire the contrast of leaves upon wood until this, too, shifts as I follow by placing the tea within the warmed stoneware vessel.
Pouring boiling water atop the leaves begins the process of brewing, causing them to slowly unfurl, returning them to a state which closely resembles when they were once alive atop an ancient arbor.
With the lid set over the hōhin, the tea continues to brew until the desired flavors have been expressed.
Emptied, the leaves appear caught in mid-phase, somewhere between tightly-curled and fully-opened.
Peering into the wide expanse of the shallow teabowl, the color of the tea is a soft, amber hue. A gentle aroma lifts from the surface of the liqueur. A complex flavor invites my senses to explore the depths of the lush forests from which this tea was grown.
How much it has changed since when it was but a seed. How much it has developed over the many years it grew. From this came leaves which were labored over by countless people, which now I have just begun the process of understanding.
Caught in constant change. From clay to kiln. From wood to leaves. Moment after moment, a meditation.
Gone is May. It will not come again until a year has passed. Now is mid-June and the true heat of Summer has arrived. Wet. Heavy. Sweltering. Outside my windows, the deep green leaves of the forest hangs laden with moisture. The out-stretched hand of a maple leaf, dipping low, dripping with the residue of a sun shower. The tall towers of the city, far in the corner of my vista, stand covered in a thick haze, invisible to me now.
Sitting by my window, I stare out coiled like a spring. Unable to write save for only the thin structure of a thought, and I find myself in the grip of writer’s block. “Have a cup of tea” once mused a Zen teacher, a 公案 gōng àn (“koan” in Japanese) statement that has caused me great doubt. What might exist in a cup of tea? Perhaps I will try it out.
Boiling water and pulling out teaware, I cannot yet find the words to break these mental chains. A tin containing tea now twenty five years aged.
A metal and jade scoop in the shape of a banana leaf more than a hundred years old.
An empty pot and a jumbled mind.
An empty cup to be filled.
The color of the tea once brewed is dark. Red like the bark of an old tree. Becoming blacker and blacker with each successive steeping until it resembles calligrapher’s ink.
Closer and closer it draws my mind inward. Closer and closer to the flavor of nature. Viscous like honey. Bitter like medicinal herbs. Smooth like tobacco. Soft like old, worn leather. Deep like a rambling forest. Onward and onward it goes.
Changing. Waxing and waning like the silver moon. Brightening and fleeting within several hours until the fog of thought lifts and ideas become visible again.
The heat of the day still lingers, but the deadlock of Summer eases. A faint, cool breeze moves through the air and causes dark green leaves to flutter again. Shakes the raindrops off their emerald backs. What a lovely sound this residual rain makes, falling to the ground below.
All year round I drink tea. Everyday. Often multiple times a day, and usually different varieties. As a tea collector and lover of aged teas, this means that much of what I drink is “old tea” (tea that is not fresh and is often older than a year, sometimes older than a decade. Often categorized as 老茶 lǎo chá (lit. “old tea”), such tea has a myriad of enjoyable flavors and characteristics that can only be found in aged teas, ranging from earthy to loamy, incense-like, with notes of dried fruit and spices. Their energy is soft, deep, and relaxing.
Even when I drink a “fresh” tea, I must recognize that they may be as fresh as they can be, having been picked and processed a month or two prior to me brewing them. As such, they are not really “new” (新茶 xīnchá, “new tea”), just very fresh. Even the most excellent 抹茶 matcha is aged for several months, picked in Spring and then stored away until Autumn when it is ground into a fine powder. So, when I do have the opportunity to enjoy a truly fresh tea, one that had been just picked and finished, the experience can be quite eye opening.
One such moment occurred this week when Roy, a dear friend, tea person and founder of New York Tea Society returned from a sourcing trip to China and Taiwan. Welcoming me into his home and tea space, he produced a cornucopia of teas, ranging from freshly-picked 普洱毛茶 Pǔ’ěr máochá (Puer “rough tea”) and minimally-produced 紅茶 hóngchá (“red tea”) from Yunnan, and fragrant oolong and baozhong teas from Taiwan.
First came the clean and clear flavors of a delicate 月光白 Yuèguāng Bái (“Moonlight White”) from 景谷 Jǐnggǔ, Yunnan. Its leaves, smooth and silvery in appearance, with a shimmering downy velvet enrobing a dark green interior. Once brewed, the flavor was bright and full, with a viscosity and freshness of crisp cucumber, honeysuckle, and sweet grass.
Following was a gorgeous 金芽滇紅 Jīn yá diān hóng (Yunnan “Golden bud” red tea), the leaves of which resembled the first tea, though with subsequent oxidation, had darkened and achieve a bright golden hue.
Placed into the large porcelain 蓋碗 gàiwǎn, their color shone like threads of gold.
Steeped for just a moment, the tea quickly revealed its qualities.
Once decanted, the result was a deep, rich amber liqueur. Much like the Yuèguāng Bái, the Jīn yá diān hóng exhibited the viscosity and freshness that is only found in very new tea.
However, through the light processing that involved sun-drying, oxidation, and a final “baking” of the leaves, the flavors were malty, akin to baked sweet potatoes and light caramel.
The day finished with two excellent máochá, one from Jǐnggǔ, the other from the famed growing region of 老班章 Lǎo Bān Zhāng. The first was a fresh-picked, lightly-processed 藤条毛茶 téng tiáo máochá.
Coming from a large leaf varietal found in Yunnan, the flavors it exhibited were dramatically different from the previous teas. Its flavor was crisp and grassy, with a satisfying juiciness.
In contrast, the final tea, a máochá from Lǎo Bān Zhāng, was more wild, its leaves exhibiting a wider range of colors and shapes, forms and sizes.
Once brewed, the flavors shifted from sweet to savory, gentle to astringent, straightforward to complex. Although not initially as pleasing to the palate, this pointed to a tea that would ultimately age better.
And, so, as we enjoyed tea together, we assessed how tea, which was only weeks old, may change over time. What was now sweet may with time fade. What now is bitter may mellow and reveal new levels of complexity. What energy exists in a new tea may dissipate over the years, settling, as all great tea does, to calm the mind and spirit when joined with friends or enjoyed in solitude.