Article by Lindsey Goodwin, Arthurian Mythologist.
Shortly after I made Taiwan my new home last fall, I visited Mr. Xie, an organic farmer. He explained how his success with organic farming had encouraged others in his area of Nantou County to convert to organic production as well. The importance of financial energy flowing into new organic tea farms became very evident to me, and I was touched by this revelation.
Two weeks later, I made a purchase of tea for myself for the first time in nine months. But it was entirely different from any purchase of tea I’ve made before. The most noticeable difference was that the tea spoke to me in a way I had never felt before. On the day I bought it, I had no intention of buying tea, nor had I any desire to buy any (After all, I live in a tea center. What more could I possibly want!). But something in that tea called out to me on a very deep level. I understood that it was not a purchase for me, but something larger. The tea was an organic tea from Ali Shan, Taiwan—a region where conventional tea production is causing some serious environmental repercussions, and where organic tea production is virtually nonexistent. The tea was from a farm under organic conversion, which means it wasn’t entirely clean. And while these points may have counted against the tea in my mind in years past, this time it counted as a huge advantage. By then, I had accepted that conventional production exists, and had shifted my perspective to include choosing organic tea not because conventional tea is bad, but because organic tea is wonderful and because I want to support it wholeheartedly. It was the largest volume of tea I had ever bought for personal use.
But don’t worry—I didn’t gulp it all down greedily or force all our guests to drink it as a ‘default tea’ until it was all spent. Not coincidentally, the tea is a traditional roasted oolong, which means it can age well. When this oolong spoke to me, it made its intentions clear: it wanted to be aged and, when it is ready to drink in 20 years, it will stand as an example of what kind of change is possible in the world. Since then, I’ve seen this tea speak to other guests, who have bought some for themselves as a way to support organic production in Taiwan. It has been such a joy to watch this tea reach out and connect to others in a similar way to how it connected to me, and such a pleasure to sense that in 20 years, this tea will not be an outlier, but a forerunner, a messenger, a revolutionary. This in part is thanks to the economic support that I and many others have provided to this fledgling organic field in the midst of a sea of conventional ones.
And then, more recently, I took a trip around Nantou County, Taiwan, with someone who had grown up on an organic farm. Together, we explored a wide array of tea farms in the area (which is commonly referred to as “Tea County”). We investigated everything from old-growth tea trees and organic farms to chemical-soaked swaths of cloned plants, seeing up close what was really happening to the land when it was treated with chemicals.
We began our trip with organic, old tea trees, feeling the life force in them and walking amongst them for an afternoon. Later, we saw organic farms, then farms which use chemicals on occasion. As our trip progressed, we headed to areas that have been less environmentally friendly. At one point, I even got sprayed in the face with pesticides as we passed one farm on a scooter, but after the initial shock wore off my concern was mainly for the worker who applies the chemicals for hours at a time, for the plants that were being sprayed and for the environmental fallout from such activities. At several points along the journey, we witnessed the aftermath of harsh chemical treatments, where several decades after chemicals were overused, the land is still being actively rehabbed to get it back to where it was before these transgressions against the land occurred.
Throughout the trip, my companion pointed out many of the things that were happening to the tea plants and the tea gardens on a deeper level, such as the infestation of a single, pesticide resistant type of insect and a detrimental mold (bad news for the plants and the farmers) or the presence of lots of spiders and varied undergrowth (good news for the plants and the farmers). And we both observed a clear difference in the feeling of the different types of tea gardens. For me, this feeling was a mix of the visible and the energetic. After looking closely across this spectrum of gardens and plant ‘lifestyles’ (if you will), I found that it became surprisingly easy to determine whether a plant was happy with its existence or not. And it wasn’t a simple matter of how glossy its leaves were or how many new buds it lifted up to the sky. After all, these factors can be heavily influenced by the use of chemical fertilizers and the like, much like a person can appear healthy by taking toxic steroids for muscle tone or laying in a tanning bed for that ‘healthy glow’. Instead, it was a sort of intuitive understanding, a communication with the plants akin to the signal the organic Ali Shan oolong sent me the previous autumn.
During this trip, I learned many lessons, but one stood out above the rest. It became crystal clear that organic tea is not merely ‘better’ than conventional tea. It is the tea that I love and the tea that I want to support, not just for myself, but for the earth and for my sisters and brothers on it. When it comes to buying tea to prepare for myself, give as a gift or serve to others, organic tea is the only tea that I am not just willing, but thrilled to support.
In many ways, this echoes my previous views on organic tea, but during this trip around the upward spiral of my tea path, my vantage shifted in one crucial aspect: It is not a judgment upon those who steep conventional teas, buy conventional teas or even produce conventional teas. It is a simple acceptance of what is, and a choice based on that acceptance.
As I said, 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 mix of knowing many facts about tea and perceiving through taste and smell as much 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.
Now, I am a tea lover. I serve as much as I can, communicate as much with tea as I can and know that an understanding of tea is a mix of knowing many truths about tea and perceiving it through the senses, as well as a deep connection that goes beyond time and space. I am living in Taiwan, learning about the Leaf, and loving life at the origin. A loop closed, a spiral upwards, a journey continued…
Photography by Adam Yasmin
Article courtesy of Global Tea Hut
“Spirals” will continue next week. If you missed Part 1, you can read it here.