We are about an hour out of crazy-hectic central Taipei, Taiwan’s super-modern capital of 8+million. It couldn’t seem further. This is truly lush, thick Nature. We drive up a steep and winding road through ever-smaller villages and into ever-thickening forest and sweet air. I’d like to imagine that the aroma comes from the tea trees I’ve come to see, but I can’t be certain.
We get out of the car on a particularly tricky turn of this road which has been carved through the forest and rock, and wait for Gao Ding Shi to arrive. I’d been told that he is a true proponent of a natural, wild tea farming technique dubbed ‘shengtai’, or ‘arbor’, and that to meet him would be . . . an experience.
Waiting, we look around us: there are enormous butterflies, baseball hat-sized marvelous beauties; there are small snakes disappearing as if from nowhere into the shrubbery. When standing in the sun, the heat is uncomfortable. Today is about 38C. Again. In the shade by the side of the road, however, the air is suddenly cooler, and the sweetened moisture from the trees provides embracing umbrage. My guides explain that Mr. Gao might take a little while. “He likes to do things slowly, to take the time needed to do them.” We wait patiently, drinking in the Nature around us. The constant, rhythmic sound of crickets sets the brain waves to alpha. One of us goes off looking for multi-colored caterpillars.
I wasn’t expecting someone as young and lively as the handsome, affable man who eventually drove up to greet us. Mr. Gao has considerable presence and seems to be deeply comfortable in his skin. He looks us over, nods, smiles and suggests that my thin sandals might be good for a day at the beach but not for where we’re going. He opens his car and pulls out a mud-lathered pair of thick rubber boots, knee-high, and hands them to me. “I wouldn’t want a snake to snap at you.”
This is a Wild Tea Garden
His neighbors think his patches of land are ugly—unruly, unkempt, bug-ridden . . . and not even producing much tea at that; a waste of land. We walk to the most accessible of his tea gardens; the others would be an hour’s uphill hike. We need to push through the thicket of leaves and bushes, be wary of our footing, be careful not to walk into spider webs the size of my torso, and keep an eye out for snakes. The tea is in the form of trees here, much taller than the meter to meter-and-a-half high bushes most of the world’s tea plants are artificially kept. There are palm-sized, bright green frogs at first indistinguishable from the tea leaves on which they placidly sit. God is indeed the DJ here; the soundtrack is wall-to-wall crickets interspersed with birdsong.
This is not really a garden, nor certainly is it a plantation. It is simply a hilly area on which tea plants are growing wild, into trees, and from which Gao Ding Shi plucks and processes his fine teas. There are Camellia sinensis here, certainly—everywhere—but not only. Other types of foliage grow exuberantly. “Whatever belongs here is welcome,” says Mr. Gao with a smile, “whatever wants to grow here, please grow!”
That philosophy doesn’t end with foliage; there are worms and bugs which want to live here too, and munch on the tea plants, and to that Mr. Gao says, “Please, let them come. If bees wish to make their hive in one of the trees, beautiful! If the worms and bugs are happy eating from the trees, let them eat. I also wish to drink from the tree, why shouldn’t they?”
He bends close into the shrubbery, turns up a few leaves and branches before finding what he wants to show me. Turning over a leaf with one hand, he beckons me closer with the other. “Look at this.” At first I make out nothing: large tea leaf with thick veins running along its underside. I squint but still don’t see anything out of the ordinary… until his calm smile and focused gaze lead my eyes to one thin, unusual, vein-looking bulge, very slight, the thickness of a pin; the home of a little bright green pinworm.
Indeed the tea plant is favored by many bugs, some of them seemingly out of Star Trek. There’s another worm which lives inside the branches, one that looks like a crawling piece of fluff, a kind of caterpillar which lives inside the vein of tea leaves, and another worm which imitates the look of a small branch. There are even tiny, scampering green bugs called jassids which are allowed to bite into the leaves as the chemicals produced by the plant’s natural defense mechanism lends a uniquely sweet aftertaste for us tea drinkers—that is the unique case of Dong Fang Mei Ren (Oriental Beauty), a famous Taiwanese Oolong tea. “In any case,” says Mr. Gao with a shrug and grin, “that bug eats only the bud and first two leaves. That means he has good taste! And he helps me make delicious teas!”
Indeed, bugs and the tea plant have lived in symbiosis for millennia and tea has been humankind’s best friend all along. Before mass-production came along, bugs were either not feared as much, or controlled using natural methods. In Mr. Gao’s case, they are not such a problem that he can’t process his tea; there are plenty of leaves left for him. But that leads us to another philosophical aspect of the small-scale organic tea farmer, a mindset more environmentally friendly than any organic farming technique: enough.
This post was written for Global Tea Hut by Steve Kokker. It was first published in November of 2012 and is re-posted here with permission. Part Two of this post, “Enough” will publish next Wednesday, December 3, 2014. Images courtesy of Global Tea Hut.
Loading image from T Ching archives.