Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Steeped: A Lovely Little Tome About Tea

When I moved my North Coast Holistics office into Hancock’s Jutila Center, I began by setting up a place for making tea. I plugged in a burner, arranged my favorite set of blue mugs next to a good kettle, and stacked boxes of herbal, green and black teas on a shelf below. When someone comes to see me, I often welcome them with the warming ritual of offering tea.

I now own a copy of the perfect book to go with my tea stand: Steeped: In the World of Tea, edited by Sharon Bard, Birgit Nielsen, and Clara Rosemarda, photography by Juliana Spear. This beautiful collection of essays, poems and images looks at tea and its everyday but influential place in our lives.

The book serves up a selection of literary morsels that provide flavorful companions to teatime, many just about the right length for one cup. Take, for instance, Emily North’s sweet snippet “When Mom was a Hippie,” about the author’s back-to-the-land period in rural Vermont with her young daughter Violet. Living a lifestyle infused with the gathering of wild herbs for medicines and decoctions, she shows the importance of tea as she captures some of the magic of this phase of her life:

With Violet in bed, I lit the candles in the kitchen and made a cup of tea; often yarrow, which resembles Queen Anne’s lace and grows in meadows. Yarrow reminds me of August, just before the summer begins turning to fall, which it does in Vermont before September. If on one night in August there is a new crispness in the air, then by next morning, the spiders will have strewn the meadow and raspberry bushes with sodden webs. Thus, the smell of fall arrives, along with the golden rod, and this is how you know summer is passing.

At night, I sat on the front step to watch the stars while sipping my tea. Yarrow allegedly enhances psychic powers; the fields and woods around me thrummed with unexplained noises….

Then there’s Clara Rosemarda’s “Strong Brew,” a powerful piece about her relationship with her father. “My father and I shared a love of tea and adventure,” Rosemarda begins, and then blends the experience of tea-drinking into the evolution of this parent-child relationship in a way best described by one of the essay’s concluding sentences:

Teatime, that sweet destination, a golden rim that shimmers on the surface of my memory, weaves my father and me together, fellow travelers on separate yet intricately entwined journeys.

I also loved Sharon Bard’s “Streaming Green Tea,” a meditation on communicating with colleagues in a different land. In her story, Bard describes a 1977 exchange visit with teachers of severely handicapped children in Japan and punctuates it gently with the presence of tea:

All eyes were on me. I put down my tea cup. It was time to talk.

“I, too, am a principal of a small school for severely handicapped students. Most of our pupils are more disabled than the children here,” I began, enunciating slowly. Mr. Mochizuki translated.

“We had hospitals for children like these in California. But then our governor signed laws for them to leave the hospitals and go back into the community. In part to save money.”

Translation into Japanese. Nods.

“Now there is a movement to include these students in regular programs. Into a less restrictive environment. So they can have equal education. We call it mainstreaming.”

More translation.

“Please say it again.”


Notebooks opened. A Pilot Razor pen appeared and one of the men carefully inscribed that Western buzzword into neat little ideographs.

“Main steaming,” said another. Two of the men looked at me. The third looked over to the flat teapot, connecting my term with the escaping vapors.

Full disclosure: I know two of the three editors of this book, having met both Sharon Bard and Clara Rosemarda years ago when I lived in Sonoma County, California. Both are independent thinkers, smart and very creative women, and I am not surprised to see them produce a book with such thoughtful, high-quality content. I’m equally impressed with the contributors I don’t know, including photographer Juliana Spear, whose luscious, evocative images keep me flipping through the pages every time I pick up this volume, just for the pleasure of looking at it.

Though Steeped is small in format, it brims with literary flavor and artisanship. It’s a book as delightful and nurturing to curl up with as your favorite cup of tea.

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