In the first half of the twentieth century, the Japanese were in control of Taiwan and looking to develop the island agriculturally, exporting goods to help fund the rise of their empire; and tea was to play a large role in this. They brought large-leaf tea trees from Yunnan and Eastern India and planted them in Sun Moon Lake, hoping to establish Red Tea plantations there. However, war soon began and the Japanese were later expelled. The tea gardens were left untended for around eighty years, producing semi-wild offspring. These magical trees took on all the power of this magical place, absorbing the minerals, sun and moon, weather and energy. Eventually, people began to tend these wild and semi-wild gardens again, producing an amazing Living Tea.
First, all living tea is seed-propagated. As we mentioned in previous issues, tea is a sexual plant and a lot goes into creating the seeds—a tremendous amount of natural energy, mostly involving insects and cross-pollination. Every seed is unique, and every seed-propagated tea tree will also be an individual soul. In fact, that is why so little tea is seed-propagated today. Commercially, farmers think that consumers are ruled by their palates and want flavor uniformity. Is that true? Do you really want to throw out so many potatoes and carrots because they don’t fit unnatural cosmetic standards? Or do you realize that Nature is wiggly and that the magic of tea is that it is different every time? It is also more work to tend a variety of trees with different needs. The vitality, however, is very different between cuttings/clones and seed-propagated trees.
Seed-propagated trees live longer by orders of magnitude—think centuries or even millennia versus decades—and, moreover, birds won’t eat the seeds of cloned trees after the second or third generation. Second, all living tea is given room to grow. Living things grow as large as their environment permits. Koi fish will remain small if kept in a small bowl, but grow big if they are in a big pond. The same is true with Bonsai trees. People are that way too: we only grow as much as we give ourselves room to. Every plant has a ratio between its roots and crown, and when you prune the crown the roots also shrink. Plantation tea is pruned for easy picking. Some living tea compromises on this issue for practical reasons, viz. a single farmer can’t possibly climb and harvest five hundred trees on time—he would be too slow and miss the picking window. The tea trees organize themselves in fact, in a living garden, rather than being forced into rows like on a plantation. They know which soil is more nutrient dense, and can have more trees clustered closer together, and which is less so, and therefore they must grow more spaced apart.
Third, all living tea is ecological. It includes a vast array of biodiversity. We always think that in controlling a few factors in a monoculture system we can generate sustenance for ourselves, but the overall impact is always more complex, intricate and subtle than we could ever imagine. And as we are finding out, our destructive intrusion into natural ecologies is having many larger and unintended effects, over time and space.
There is no saying what the true relationship is between the weeds, bugs, snakes and even snake poop and tea trees. How are the local squirrels related to the tea trees? It may not be apparent, but if they cohabitate in the same environment, they are related. Maybe the discarded nutshells help fertilize the trees, or maybe it is more complex by one or many degrees: maybe the nutshells are food to a certain insect that attracts a certain kind of bird which sings in a way that tea trees enjoy, helping them to flourish? True tea is ecological: you cannot distinguish the tea garden from the surrounding forest!
Fourth, and the most obvious is that living tea is chemical free. The evil triad that pollutes our earth, animals, birds and people is not sustainable and not a healthy compromise. It doesn’t matter that a study proves that such pesticides can be consumed by people without quantifiably detrimental effects. First off, they destroy the environment, often running down the mountains and harming other ecologies as well. Second, what are healthy amounts? And how long was the study? Maybe the participants showed no deterioration of health after a two-year study (which would be a long one), but what happens when you consume pesticide-laden tea for ten years? Such chemicals are unhealthy for people and harmful to the earth. They defeat the purpose of tea, which is to bring Nature to society. Master Zhou Yu always asks, “How can you sit in a beautiful tea room and connect to Nature, when the thing you are using to connect was produced in a way that destroys Nature?”
Finally, tea is a conversation between people and Nature. In the Chinese character for tea, the radical for ‘man’ is right in the middle. Tea was traditionally always respected. Each tree was a unique being, with life and spirit and treated that way. Most farms don’t treat animals or plants in that way anymore. There is no respect for the individual being in any of the trees—you can hardly tell where one ends and the next begins on most farms. It is just uncountable “tea”—product, value, stuff, object for consumption, etc.
Most Red Tea is processed in 3-4 phases: first it is picked and then it is withered in large piles. Most tea is spread out when it is withered, but Red Tea is piled to completely oxidize the leaves. It is then rolled for an exceptionally long time, to continue the oxidation and break down the cells. It literally turns into a pasty mass in the process. Then it is dried, usually in an oven. Our tea, however, is completely different. The farmers think we are crazy, but we reduce the withering/piling period and the rolling period, leaving some green in the leaves, which you will see when you brew them. The reason for the complete oxidation in normal Red Tea processing is to make the tea sweet and delicious. Nevertheless, we have found that such extreme processing removes some of the tea’s Qi, and distances it from the mountain and deep essence it touches. The leaves of these large-leaf trees are often bitter and astringent, but we can accept a bit of that along with the sweetness, can’t we? And isn’t that a significant life lesson as well? In the end, we’d rather have a slightly less delicious tea with incredible and relaxing Qi than the other way around.
This article was originally published in Global Tea Hut. Article and photo are courtesy of Global Tea Hut.
For me, I’m happy to buy the funny looking vegetables that are organic. I’ve always been drawn to unusual things, fruits, vegetables, people and tea. I do realize with tea however that on a commerical level, it is challenging to do this – hense the rise of smaller artisinal tea farms.
Fascinating that birds won’t eat the seeds of 2nd or 3rd generation cloned tea plants. Isn’t nature amazing?
I love your analogy about needing room to grow and yes, it is true of us humans as well.
Regarding the acceptance of bitterness among American consumers, I’m afraid that taste is king. We can wish otherwise but my experience tells a different story.
Unfortunately, we do live in a world where people can care less about trees and living creatures. As individuals, we need to help support organic farming. There are too many corporations that run the world and they shouldn’t be rewarded for their destruction.
I agree with you. We also need to get the government to fund small scale organic farms just as they do large agro businesses.