Still, it took the visit of a tea friend from America and a session of Purple Tea for all of this to click into place for me. As Kaiya steeped and spoke of Purple Tea’s lineage in a poetic but vague way, our guest suggested the benefits of a stronger intellectual understanding of tea varietals. I could see both their perspectives and found myself to be devoid of any opinion on the matter—a rarity for me, indeed! But I could feel that I had been exploring tea genetics in a lopsided manner. This imbalanced approach was the opposite of my usual tendency—too much mind, too little soul—so I was loath to tip the scales too much in the opposite direction and fall into my old habit of favoring intellectual understanding over experiential wisdom.
For this reason, I waited one week before pro- ceeding in the direction of deeper intellectual under- standing of tea varietals. I checked myself for any glossing over of the present-moment experience of drinking tea in order to think about tea, and for any preference for mind over soul. When I felt I could trust my intentions and my direction, I waded my way through a scientific paper on tea plant genetics.
The paper was a study analyzing alleles, poly- morphic information count and gene diversity in tea plants across China. It wasn’t exactly what you’d call a beach read, but it was more absorbing than you might guess. It mentioned varieties of wild plants of which I’d never even heard. It shed some light on how the genes of tea plants spread and changed, and how diversity was amplified or squelched in various areas. It reiterated a natural phenomenon seen in genetics, linguistics and other fields of study in which diversity is most abundant in areas closest to the origin of a given thing, then less diverse in outlying areas. (In the case of tea plants, the greatest diversity is around the Yunnan area, the birthplace of tea.)
On its own, this paper would have simply been a dry read. However, partnered with an understanding of how different means of tea production accompanied genetic mutations, it became fodder for a more enlightened understanding of the Tea Spirit.
After all, the majority of tea processing techniques were born out of adaptations to the changes in plants, which were adaptations plants made to the surrounding environment. White tea would not exist were it not for the downy buds and leaves that resulted from the “genetic distance” Fujian’s tea plants have from oth- er tea plants. Oolong might not exist were it not for genetic variations that produce a more leathery leaf that can handle hours of rolling and shaping. And while you could make a Green Tea and a Puerh from the same arbor tree, you’d be unlikely to find that the tree is as amenable to yielding a quasi-drinkable Green Tea as it is to yielding a soul-quenching Puerh. In responding to changes in the Leaf, tea producers and tea drinkers are responding to Nature. And perhaps, in their own ways, Tea and Nature are responding to us through these changes, too.
But over the last few hundred years, our connection with Nature has dwindled and, sadly, the realm of tea is no exception. Alongside the mass-made products which characterize our current era, many of the recent innovations in tea production have been chemical or mechanical methodologies that make more tea, but which further remove us from the spirit of Tea. It could be argued that these innovations are in response to the widespread use of clonal tea varietals. We took the spirit out of the Tea and then we responded to what the Leaf told us. One could think of it as a natural progression initiated by an unnatural change. And just like with steeping and drinking, with tea production we got out of it what we put into it; in this case, a homogenized and less vital form of Tea.
In appreciating wild varietals, “landraces” (plants that are domesticated through natural adaptations rather than human breeding measures) and seed propagated plants (which contain biodiversity not found in clonals), we can taste and feel the inherent variety and expressiveness of Nature in Tea. Through these types of teas, we can access the Tea Spirit more intimately. And in this way, we can begin, once again, to listen to what She has to tell us.
This tea is a forest-grown Puerh from northern Laos, right near the imaginary line that separates Laos from Yunnan, China. As I mentioned, this area’s tea plants are incredibly rich in genetic diversity. And a forest of tea plants grown from seed? Such extraordinary array of genetic material that must contain! Such an expression of Nature and Tea in harmonious multiformity. Such an opportunity to more fully sense and appreciate the Tea Spirit in all Her glory.
In gongfu tea traditions, they say that true mastery is the ability to distinguish each and every individual tea leaf. Not only are each tea session and each type of tea unique, each batch is different, each pot is different, each sip is different, and, ultimately, each in- dividual leaf is different. It’s just a matter of bringing our senses to the level of the Leaf in order to perceive it. What better tea to help one realize this truth than a tea made from plants which celebrate this plurality in their DNA—in their very essence! What better way to experience each moment of a tea session in its full color, in its infinite complexity and beauty, than with a tea such as this? I can’t think of one, but then again, there’s no need to. Paradoxically, it took a deeper intellectual understanding of tea as a plant to realize that all I need to do to truly understand tea is to be present and drink Tea as Spirit. And so I drink, knowing that each sip contains all the answers I could ever need.