News and Announcements
No, this isn’t about current politics.
For the last two years of posting articles to this blog I’ve been guided by the question, What is it about tea that inspires art?
In asking the question, there is an assumption that it is the spiritual aspects of the leaf that inspire. I’ve mentioned books of that theme; Spirit of Tea by Frank Hadley Murphy, Tea Here Now by Donna Fellman, Meaning of Tea by Scott Chamberlin Hoyt and Philip Cousineau, Cha Dao by Solala Towler and Three Cups of Tea by Greg Morteson and David Oliver Relin. But in almost every tea book, there is the element of spirit steeped into an ancient and profound history. They’re filled with beautiful stories and powerful images. I delight in the pretty side of tea. The elegance. The beauty. Since I write for and most often speak to children about tea, they fit well into my presentations.
But, last week I spoke to a horticultural society about tea, the plant. Questions about the health benefits came up. One man asked, “How many cups a day should we drink?” Issues with caffeine. Concerns about importing. “How do we know what’s true?”
That’s when I saw the elephant.
The pretty stories sell tea and books about tea. Knowledge of health benefits sell tea. Tea can sound so good that we can create an illusion that, the more the better. If one cuppa is good for us, does it follow that 8 per day is better? More consumers are asking questions about the real health benefits and quality control.
There’s no question about the importance of tea in the world. But, is there a problem with steering the public concept of tea to something innocent and benign? In doing so, do we erode the power of the ancient spirit of tea?
I’m reminded of the comic strip, Rose Is A Rose by Pat Brady and Don Wimmer. Rose is a gentle mother who has an inner motorcycle-riding, black leather wearing wild woman. They coexist. Her son, Pasquale, is guarded by a sweet angel who morphs into a titan if the situation requires. Pasquale needs both aspects of his angel. Rose needs her alter-ego, Vicky The Bike Rider to jump in with force.
I’ve come to think of the spirit of tea like this. The elegance and beauty and healing thrive on the power of those little leaves. In the last post to this blog, I cited the stories of two old Chinese men for whom a cup of tea was precious. Will making tea more innocent make it less precious? If we drink 8 cups a day, will each cup seem less important? In making it more convenient, do we make it seem less rare?Where’s The Elephant?
Now, we’re a month away from Expo. There will probably be more than 5000 tea people gathering in Las Vegas to drink and talk about tea. But it’s also about selling more tea. More people drinking more tea is a good thing. Adding tea to more products is a good thing. Right? It’s in chewing gum and chocolate bars. I love it! There will be samples of hundreds of teas and amazing new concepts. When attendees enter the exhibition hall the will be almost lifted off the floor by the fragrance. Classes with experts in all aspects of tea will be filled with people who need to know the best and latest to build their businesses. And schmoozing. Networking. Discussing weather conditions in China and new production in Africa.
Within the convention center will be a blend of all things tea. Technical, whimsical, historic, authentic, playful, and scientific. If it were not all part of the blend, would tea be the inspiration that it is today; the muse of painters and poets, icon of novelists and filmmakers?
My imaginary elephant looks a bit like Disney’s Dumbo with his unusually big ears making him rare and lofty.
I like to read tea books. Don’t you? I’ll admit that they can be redundant. That’s OK. I’m still relatively new to TeaLand and in each new book is a sparkling nugget. I’m like a child who want’s to have Winnie the Pooh read again every night. There are the tea facts, tea stories, legends and history. The bigger picture seems to come into focus with repetition.
What I’m posting today are two stories from fiction of old men and their tea. Both characters are Chinese men. One story is from a newly released collection of essay’s, Cha Dao, by Solala Towler. The essays themselves are written from a Taoist perspective; a spiritual perspective. But Towler goes further and includes history, brewing, health benefits and types of tea. Then, the end of the collection offers the story, Tea Time.
The old man in this story rises early to greet the sun. He goes to his garden to collect dew for his first cup of tea.
When he judged it ready, he took from a shelf a small bamboo canister of tea. it was Lung Jing, Dragon Well, the first of the season. It has cost him quite a lot of money but he had such simple tastes in everything else that it was well worth it.
The short story takes us through the details his preparations - not quite boiling the water and drinking from an unglazed cup.
He sat there, slowly savoring his tea and watching the world wake up around him. he felt his own body and mind waking up along with it, as the tea did its gentle work. he treasured these first moments of the day, when it was just himself and the world around him, sharing his first cup of tea of the day.
Cha Dao, Published by Singing Dragon
Towler’s simple story beautifully illustrates what the entire collection of essays have tried to explain. Through the purposeful and meditative preparation of his tea, the old Chinese man helps us understand the simplicity of the spirit of tea.
This story triggered a dusty memory of another old Chinese man and his tea.
The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
It is the protagonist’s wedding day. The young, impoverished farmer, Wang Lung has purchased a slave to become his wife and this is the day he will bring her home. In preparation, he prepares by using a precious amount of water to bathe. The only water he does not use in his tub is what he reserves to make a cup of tea for his father.
He opened a glazed jar that stood upon a ledge of the stove and took from it a dozen or so of the curled dried leaves and sprinkled them upon the surface of the water. The old man’s eyes opened greedily and immediately he began to complain.
“Why are you wasteful? Tea is like eating silver.”
“It is the day,” replied Wang Lung with a short laugh. “Eat and be comforted.”
The old man grasped the bowl in his shriveled, knotty fingers, muttering, uttering little grunts. He watched the laves uncurl and spread upon the surface of the water, unable to bear drinking the precious stuff.”
“It will be cold,” said Wang Lung.
“True - true” said the old man in alarm, and he began to take great gulps of the hot tea. He passed into an animal satisfaction, like a child fixed upon its feeding.
The Good Earth, Published by Washington Square Press
I recently reread the book after many years, enjoying and appreciating, with a new perspective, the meaning of tea. The spirit of tea. The first time I read The Good Earth, I barely noticed the tea. It slipped by as an oddity. So much to-do about a few leaves. Such a minor part of the story.
We couldn’t say that this is a story about tea. But, in searching for stories of beauty and meaning where tea is a main character, it is exciting to realize that the story is contained in a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. And, that the same novel contributed to the author being awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1938.
I’m writing this while enjoying a cup of Zhen Qu, a gift from a good tea friend. There are more of us in the US now who know the teas, the traditions and the potential for a more involved life in tea.
How many people in the US at that time noticed the tea? To a very poor man, drinking tea is like eating silver. How was that understood?
Books like Solala Towler’s Cha Dao and Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth, help us realize the potential for a greater spiritual relationship with our tea. It helps create a framework for appreciating what Pearl Buck tried to show decades ago as well as what we have an even greater opportunity to enjoy now. The enduring gift of tea.
I like to write about tea books and support tea authors and teachers. This one is a particular favorite.
Tea Here Now, by Donna Fellman & Lhasha Tizer is one of the first tea books I read cover to cover. My desk copy is now rather worn. If you pick it up, it will fall open to page 9 - to a tea story that is almost always one I want to share. This is a story shared from another book, Creating True Peace by Thich Nhat Hanh. Not a tea book, it is remarkable to find such an incredible bit of tea lore in other genres.
This particular story is one of the most beautiful images I’ve heard in the art of making tea.
As it goes:
The monk, Thich Nhat Hahn in exile from his native country, tells a story of how the Vietnamese people row small boats on a lotus pond just before sunset, filling the open flowers with tea. The flowers close during the night, scenting the tea. The tea drinkers return the next morning with water, small stoves and teacups to collect the tea as the flowers open and prepare it on their boats, still relaxing peacefully on the water.
The authors of Tea Here Now add commentary on the story:
“The poignancy of the beautiful picture of the lotus pond and its tea drinkers lies in the wanting it stirs in our hearts. We all desire to have the time for living. Drinking tea can teach us to take the time to live, to breathe, to share with others, and to stop and sit still long enough to feel our hearts and our aliveness.”But That’s a Hard Sell
But this whole spirit-of-tea thing can be a bit off-putting to some. Even with stress and anxiety as contributing factors to many serious illnesses, we (the collective we) still have trouble embracing something as simple as relaxing with a cup of tea intrinsically therapeutic. We want more validation from medical science. But even with that validation, we’re still shaking off an image that tea is fru-fru and mild-mannered.
How is it that a story as enticing as people rowing boats out onto a pond to brew tea that has spend the night wrapped in a living lotus flower hasn’t made the front page on a single major newspaper? Oprah interviewed Thich Nhat Hanh, but I don’t see her actively promoting the health and peacefulness of a tea lifestyle.
Back down to our real daily life - we don’t have lotus ponds. And as romantic and cleansing as these images may be for us intellectually, the problem is that they are so far from our experience of daily life, they are inaccessible.
We need more visual images of a western tea lifestyle. We need more tea experiences. And we need more tea story tellers.“Relax and Rejuvenate with a Tea Lifestyle. Rituals, Remedies and Meditations”
The above quote is from the cover of Tea Here Now. What has become the most important part of that phrase to me is “Tea Lifestyle”. That phrase is a kind of turning point between people who drink tea as a beverage and those who make the decision to delve deeper into the culture of the leaf. Almost all tea drinkers resonate with the “relax and rejuvenate” part. But the “rituals, remedies and meditations” are a path that cuts deeper into the tea field. What I most admire about Tea Here Now is the gentle way it bridges that gap with chapters as basic as how to gradually switch from coffee to tea. Just a few pages separate that section from “Steps For Bringing The Sacred Into Every Day Life”.
Somewhere in there are our stories.Most of the people I know are still at the beverage stage.
Donna Fellman and Lhasha Tizer, the authors of this compact little pocketbook have create a valuable curriculum for everyone of a mind to teach tea. With the flip of a few pages, we are reminded that learning curve for the tea lifestyle is very broad. There is actually so much to know about tea that it can be intimidating. But this book takes a gentle and non-judgmental tone that I’ve come to trust for new the new-comers. It does so by weaving the many virtues of tea together rather than focusing full attention on one aspect.
From how-to-brew to health under the umbrella of awakening your spirit.
The spirit of tea.
The book closes with, “A Toast To Tea and Life” - and another of my favorite lines:
“The adaptable, all-occasion spirit of tea sparks a renewal of playfulness and possibility.” And a photo of the authors, Donna Fellman and Lhasha Tizer
With playfulness and possibility!
On December 19th last year, I posted an article that needs correcting. I thank Mary Douglas, curator of the Kamm Foundation teapot collection, for adding a comment that set me straight. She has been the curator of The Sparta Teapot Museum which is now closed to the public but the foundation continues to provide pieces from their collection to shows around the world.
My error was thinking that they also managed the blog, “Teapots, Teapots, Teapots”
Andy is a ceramic artist, trained in ceramic sculpture at Exeter College of Art in the early 1970’s studying with Brian Southwell, Edward Allington and Lawson Rudge. He went on to be the first ceramist hired by Paul Cardew at Sunshine Ceramics.
This was around the same time that I started working in clay. And we all made teapots at one time or another. Ceramic art education seemed to require mastery of the form. Andy stayed with it as his life’s work.
I became more interested in drinking the contents and let go of my time in my own ceramics studio. I recently gave away my largest kiln and put most of my tools in storage. And yet, part of my heart and soul in tea is still very linked to those experiences. We ceramists chose the teapot form as a medium to say something. The form itself begins a conversation by asking the question - particularly in the case of sculptural pieces - WHY TEAPOTS? WHY TEA? And even those who have a basic appreciation for the brew still find themselves drawn to teapots. Why?
This same question drives my blog: What is it about tea that inspires art?
As I was clicking through Andy’s blog of sculptural and functional teapots, I was reminded of the vastness of teapot history and artistic interpretation. But who knew? Thanks to his blog archives, years of writing about this art form, we begin to appreciate the diversity this form (ultimately, the leaf) has inspired. Attending a teapot art exhibit like the ones the Kamm Teapot Foundation supplies with piece from the thousands in their collection is highly recommend for tea lovers. The current post on Andy Titcomb’s blog, Teapots, Teapots, Teapots offers an opportunity. The Newport Potters Guild is currently hosting a show, Tea By The Sea. This lasts through April 5th. The teapot on the right is one of the pieces in this juried show by Tony Wright. Black and Red Pod Teapot. Stoneware.6″ x 10″ x 4″. 2009
The show contains not only teapots but also tea bowls and other tea accessories. I looked through the collection and the phrase I’ve heard about some of the new tearooms came to mind. Our new tearooms “. . . aren’t your grandmother’s tearoom!” These teapots venture far from the traditional. The work is humorous, sometimes masterful, sometimes bold. They stretch our minds with possibility. Out of the box. Beyond the mold.Isn’t it similar?
On the tea side of the equation, there is another enormous body of knowledge which is almost invisible. Once again, Who Knew? Here in the US, access to fine tea and information about them began to be more available in the 1990’s. Even now, it seems as if very few people - even the ones who consider themselves tea drinkers - know much about the whole leaf teas. But, isn’t it a delight when you have a first tea discussion with someone?
Last week it was my roofing inspector. The inevitable question was politely asked, “What do you do?
“I’m a writer.”
“Cool! What do you write about?”
This is followed to the inevitable pause.
“Like the tea you drink? Like Lipton?”
It’s my favorite opening. I know now not to overwhelm the new converts with too much information - especially when you’re sitting on a roof in need of serious repair. The conversation didn’t venture very far into the difference between whole leaf and bagged or the health benefits of black tea vs. green tea. It was about how any cup of tea he substitutes for any canned soda is a good choice for his family. Suddenly, the tea parties his young daughters prepare for him on the weekends has a new meaning. The mere suggestion that there are so many choices of teas grown around the world gave him something completely new to do with his little girls. Even the assortment on the grocery store shelves offers adventure to the newly initiated. This wasn’t true ten years ago.
We’ve come a long way . . . . a bit of tea humor.
In the ancient history of tea and tea art, thousands of years of it, we’re finally catching on.
I love the leaf. The history. The legends. The art and literature. I dream of visiting all the places where it is grown and the many ways it is brewed. The brewed tea that fills my cup becomes more magical as I venture into new taste experiences. The teaware. The tools. The people. Even the Business of Tea. I’m smitten.
The Tea Industry is its own world-wide-web; a network necessary to bring the product from field to cup. Let us assume for the moment that this network is actually the Spirit of Tea.
For countries of origin, places where tea is grown, the time and distance between the freshly picked leaf and the brew in the cup are short. The process visible. The hands involved all rather well known. And the importance of tea in daily life is undisputed. Those of us who do not live within picking distance of a plantation must depend on the industry’s network bring tea to us. Whether we buy teabags at the grocery store or loose leaves from specialty teashops, we must trust the experience and integrity of the purveyor. Or we must educate ourselves enough to discern a tea’s quality and value. Actually, it’s a bit of both.
This article was inspired by a discussion on one of the LinkedIn tea groups - Tea Enthusiasts and Entrepreneurs. Quality Matters. It was started by Kim Jage as a possible theme for the upcoming World Tea Expo.
One interesting point was that high price does not = quality. Giving the consumer what she/he wants at a fair price is the key. We have tasted the trash tea cutely packaged and priced as something it cannot live up to. Not the tea’s fault. On the other hand, there are specialty teas that most consumers cannot appreciate - yet. This is the challenge tea presents. How do we respect and value such a broad spectrum of tea experiences?
A comment from this on-going discussion came from Ruben Marley, comparing tea to wine:
Whether these wines were high or low-end was almost never a real factor in the final results of our efforts… the bottom line was always based upon the level and quality of education we gave our customers. I think tea is no different, because it offers a full range of product to suit anyone’s taste or budget.
Perhaps it is because tea is associated with many spiritual traditions and deeply rooted cultural experiences that we want to hold it to a high standard of integrity in business. Some of us may feel drawn to the world of tea with a belief that we are inherently networked through a loftier business model. We’re looking to escape the world of unconscious marketing - promise and package anything to make the sale.Quality Education & Quality Information
One of my good friends in Tea Land, Amy Lawrence of An Afternoon to Remember, was asked by a Sacramento TV station to come on their morning show and tell the audience that all tea was the same. She refused to make this statement but he still allowed her on the show and still tried to bully her into saying that all teas are equal. She defended the position.
If we allow the public to believe that all teas are equal, we are injuring the spirit and beauty of tea and the potential for the industry.
Our strength is in the diversity of product quality and a culture experience that connects the entire world. Just as we are drawn to an assumption of quality in tea and a desire to trust the packaging claims and marketing spiels, so are the new consumers exploring beyond the grocery store shelves into the larger world of tea.
The Spirit of Tea seems to attract an educated and inquisitive imbiber. We have lured them away from other beverages with the promise of health benefits and the allure of traveling the world through their teacup.We don’t have to be snobs.
My last post featured some of the tea books for children. It’s a niche I’ve chosen for myself. Or maybe it chose me. Either way - one of the remarkable things about introducing children to the whole world of tea is their delight with the legends and fascination with the differences. They’re a long way from feeling like they have to choose between one way or another. They want it all. Even young children are excited to try something new. One cautious sip might be enough. Or, if I show them the tiny rosebuds in the oolong, it could become there new favorite of the day. Tomorrow it could be a tea with chunks of apple and cranberries. The next day a child might want to watch a tied tea flower open and taste the interesting blend of green tea and osmanthus flower. One of my 5-yr-old friends just loves saying the word lychee. His older brother will drink anything if he can stir the teacup with a whole cinnamon stick. Their sister likes to unfold the reconstituted leaf. She considers that she has “won” if she finds two leaves still attached to a bit of stem.
In the Spirit of Tea, I know I can give them a quality tea at a price their parents can afford. It’s do-able. And I believe that the wealth of tea experiences can keep them interested and satisfied for the rest of their lives.It’s not easy but it is fun.
So, now I’m precariously perched on my soap box - or my tea crate. I have to add that tea isn’t easy. There’s a lot to know and here in the US, we’re still relatively young. We’re like children in many ways depending on others to help us understand “quality”. But this year TEAUSA and the Specialty Tea Institute have graduated 35 students through Level 3 - teachers who have invested in something comparable to a college curriculum in tea. We’re preparing for the 8th World Tea Expo where tea pros gather to taste, learn and celebrate this spirit we share. It bridges the gap between the retailers and the plantations be luring people from all around the world to display and sample the newest teas. There are more tea books, tea artists and tea educators every year. We’re all starting to experience a more educated consumer and appreciate the physical and virtual resources available to stay current.
A writer friend recently asked me if I don’t get bored writing about tea?
I love tea. Don’t you?