Article by Lindsey Goodwin, Arthurian Mythologist
When you are on a spiritual path, you probably find that your route is often a circular or spiral one. You begin at one point and, after months or years of moving and growing and learning and changing, you return to the same place: This could be a physical place, an understanding or a state, but no matter what form this takes, you will likely notice two things about it:
1. It is exactly the same.
2. It is brand new.
In Zen & Tea One Flavor, Wu De described this journey as a ring around the inner edge of a warped tea bowl. In the framework of this metaphor, you could think of a spiritual path as an upward spiral. Each time you complete a loop upward from the lowest point toward the rim, your viewpoint will be unmistakably changed. It may be conspicuously higher, or nudged in or out a bit, lending you an entirely new perspective on what you once saw as truth.
Recently, I experienced this kind of shift in perspective with regard to organic and conventional tea farming, as well as old tea trees and younger tea bushes. My journey involved six years in time, over 100,000 miles in physical distance and many, many lessons learned. To tell it, let’s start where most journeys start: in the beginning.
I used to be a tea geek. I read as much as I could, tasted as much tea as I could, and thought that an understanding of tea was a mixture of knowing many facts about tea and perceiving through taste and smell as much as I could. I was living in the United States and working as a professional in the tea industry. And I wanted nothing more than to visit a tea origin. I wasn’t too particular about which one, and I had connections in India, so the choice seemed clear. Off to India I went.
My trip was to Darjeeling, where tea tends to be of better quality and tends to be more sustainably produced than in the rest of India. My primary destination was a biodynamic tea estate. My stay lasted a few short weeks, during which time I was able to clearly, even viscerally, understand some of the major differences between conventionally grown tea and organic and biodynamic tea. In my journal from that time, I described the land encompassing the biodynamic tea fields as “magical” (a word I rarely used in this phase of my life) and effused about the living earth there, detailing the abundance of trees, herbs, butterflies, earthworms, birds, spiders and other living beings working together with the tea plants to create something far bigger than the sum of their parts. I was wholly convinced of the environmental superiority of organic tea.
A few years later, I visited Japan. I spent most of my time in the land of the rising sun on small, organic tea fields in the mountains of Shizuoka. Streams ran through the fields. Birds flitted about. Orange trees scattered their fragrance with the help of the breeze and bamboo forests moaned in the wind. Spiders spun webs which glistened with the dew each morning as the sun rose over the mountaintops. One of the farmers and I harvested wild herbs and plants for a tea celebration, and the guests of the festivities all plucked tea together from a diminutive, sloping patch of tea bushes. It was a stark contrast to the low-elevation farms in Shizuoka: monocropped, with cloned tea plants as far as the eye could see, and a sickly haze of chemicals looming in the stagnant air.
During that visit, I also interviewed several farmers about the importance of organic production. Organic tea became, in my mind, not just something that is better for the earth, but better for the tea producers in terms of their health, their mental/emotional well-being, and their economic outlook. On a different level than before, I was convinced that organic tea is better than conventional.
Later that same year, I visited Taiwan for the first time. Taiwan is a country that’s easy to fall in love with. The people (including the conventional farmers) are so friendly and welcoming. The landscapes (including those of conventional farms) are absolutely stunning. The teas (including some conventional teas) are opulent, lush and seductive. Aloft amidst the heady perfume of such wonders, I began to slowly forget the distinction between organic tea and other teas. Whereas the ‘conventional logic’ (“It’s practically organic. We only used pesticides when we really need them!”) hadn’t worked on me in India and Japan, it began to seep into me in Taiwan. “The farmers are good people and the earth seems healthy enough,” I reasoned. “Certainly, it can’t be that bad to drink conventional tea, too…” I conveniently ignored all signs to the contrary during that first voyage to Taiwan, as well as the following year leading up to my return to Taiwan.
Fortunately, my second trip to Taiwan was a longer one. By that time, I was living as a sort of international tea nomad, traveling to various tea origins and tea cultures and eking out a living by writing articles about what I learned. (Yes, I was still a tea geek.) Just beyond the beauty of Taiwan’s landscapes and people, I began to see the darker side of this ‘practically organic’ production more clearly. It was the ideal preparation for my first visit to the Tea Sage Hut.
By the time I reached Wu De and his teachings of “organic tea only”, I was finally ready to receive the message that had called out to me for so many years, through so many experiences. There are myriads of organic teas in the world. I am not losing anything by turning down the conventional teas and embracing the organic ones. What could I possibly gain by buying conventional teas? In buying conventional teas, wasn’t I merely seeking a tea experience to add to my list of tea experiences? I’ve traveled that road already, and I now understand that it is simply an unending ego game of wanting more (and then more, and yet more still, ad infinitum until the grave). Yet, at the same time, I slowly began to understand that it was not about the rejection of conventional farming as inherently “bad”, either. I began to realize that it simply is, and the main thing that I can do is change my relationship to tea rather than try to change the nature of tea production itself (something I had tried a few times to do through tea journalism).
For the following nine months, I went on a sort of tea fast as I traveled through Taiwan, India and Europe. Although I bought prepared tea, accepted gifts of tea and bought organic tea as gifts, I didn’t purchase any tea leaves whatsoever for myself. I let teas come to me and opened myself to whatever was there before me. I was amazed by the teas that reached me in this way. There were beautiful organic teas that were gifted to me by dear friends, the handmade red tea that Wu De gave me along with my blue-rimmed tea bowl, and teas made with love and served to me at meditation courses, as well as countless teas that I would not have actively chosen to drink, but was grateful for nonetheless.
This is the first in the Spirals series by Global Tea Hut. It will continue next week.
Photography by Adam Yasmin