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The Serenity of Tea, the Botanic Thriller of Past and Present
By Matt Cole, Director of Education on Apr 8, 2010
The serenity of my evening tea was abruptly shattered by a mildly shocking recognition. For those of us who reach a certain age--not the same age for all of us, but you'll recognize the quandary if you have reached it--its no longer a question of "Does art imitate life, or vice versa?" its "Am I imitating my parents or did I become them?" After dinner, after my mother read stories to us, after my father finished the dishes, that was when the tea was served. Us children merely stole away (so as not to rock the boat and remind the adults of the impending pajama deadline) but I remember both parents turning toward their printed material (mystery novels, the daily paper, or even a thick biography), raising the cup of clear-ish, light brown hot water to just below their lip, and blowing softly across the surface. The cup would hover, just close enough to their lip to feel the heat, and another breath would skim the surface. And a pause. Then a repeat. And as often as necessary until the temperature would no longer scald the tongue and throat.
Tonight I am sitting, waiting for the pot to boil, and sitting rapt by my thoughts and imagination. True, I'm rapt in front of a glowing computer screen, not the printed page. But neither am I abandoning the sentences and paragraphs for "New Moon" showing on another screen nearby. Words and tea are my respite this evening.
I shouldn't be surprised I'm gravitating toward the familiar: I've been fighting a cold for days, and the warm liquid on my throat, steaming up my sinuses, moistening my lungs, is desirable rejuvenation. The patience of waiting for the pot to boil, the cup to cool, and the tea to steep is a ritual demanding I be present in the moment. I think about my parents' steady hands, finally setting the cup down squarely on the coaster without looking, flipping one page, and the sneaking out to retrieve the cup. It seems now that their minds easily grasped both the story on the page and the presence of the tea. Typing allows me slightly less latitude--I'm very conscious of each time I raise the tea, and each time I return fingertips to keyboard.
At the Gardens, there are a number of ways to we celebrate the connection between people and tea. One upcoming class is Zen and the Art of Tea which centers on not the botany, but the ritual, enjoyment and meaning of tea, particularly the Gong Fu Cha from China. As I write, class on the 8th appears to be full, but some spaces are open on the 15th.
Many readers will be familiar with the Japanese Tea House in ShoFu-En, and I'm pleased to say that classes featuring the Japanese Tea Ceremony also return this summer. The traditional ceremony performed in an authentic Tea House (manufactured in Japan and assembled in Denver by traditional craftsmen) is a terrific way to connect to another culture. The first of these classes is in June, and there are a choice of dates on Saturday and Sunday.
Years ago, I had the good fortune to be in southern China, seeing tea leaves being harvested from Camellia sinensis as other visitors have before me. But a new book, For All the Tea In China by Sarah Rose, makes me aware how things might have gone differently. It details a strange intersection of botanic insight and corporate espionage. In the nineteenth century, China was the source for tea, and the British East India Company wanted the secrets of how to produce it in sufficient quantity to supply England's thirst for the "genial beverage." So they hired Scottish botanist Robert Fortune to go where westerners were not welcome, and bring them the answers. How often has the fate of empires hinged on botanists? It's fair to say that bringing tea cultivation to India changed the world in a number of ways. I think about the clash between cultures at that time, or orientalism and imperialism, or nationalism and profit, and am fascinated by a prospect of a person moving through that mix and escaping unharmed. He is also a scientist remembered to this day, who brought many Asian plants into cultivation in the West. Furthermore, Robert Fortune's writing might make good reading itself, like his Three Years Wanderings in the Northern Provinces of China. However, in some of the excerpts I've seen, I find references that make me cringe: knowing that it was "common" for Europeans of the time to hold themselves superior doesn't make me comfortable with his attitude or assumptions. Perhaps time and other sources will help me place him in context. Perhaps a deep breath, and another sip of tea will help turn me to more serene contemplations.