Winter tea


This time of year, there’s nothing I enjoy more than a cup of tea. When the sky turns grey, and the moisture falls heavy in clouds of snow, I come in from walking my dog with a thin icicle dripping from my nose.  In a moment apart the steam from my mug then warms my nose and soon enough my gut. I am warm and refreshed.

It is the break that makes it special. The water has to be heated and the tea steeped for 5 minutes, and then it is time to relax. I have to make time for tea, I have to stop being in motion for a short while to enjoy it.

In this moment the revelation comes as the steam rises in thin curls that disappear into nowhere. Evaporation like this is what makes life on earth possible, although in nature it is driven by the warmth of the sun. But in my small mug I can imagine the mysterious forces that bring water away from the sea.

I am a bit of a tea snob. I only drink Twinings teas or those tins that come from an Asian market with the only writing in the Latin alphabet reading “Bonai” or “Oolong” or “Pu-Erh.” My favorite is Twinings Prince of Wales, which is actually a wonderful Keemun from Anhui Province in China. I always use what is called “loose tea,” or “tea” to me –  never “bag tea” or “bag” to me. The inconvenience is worth it for a better beverage and a more sustaining moment.

In my black tin of Prince of Wales there is a small amount of water that makes up the plant material I am brewing. This water fell as rain with every indication that it would wind up in the Yangtze River. When I swirl out the leaves in the bottom of my cup and dump it down the sink, it winds up in the Mississippi instead. An Orange Pekoe from Assam similarly is made of water destined for the holy Ganges, but it also winds up in the Mississippi. The movement of these small amounts of water is far from what they expected.

This great movement of tea around the world is not new. As early as the 17th century large shipments were made to Europe. Attempting to tax it caused a riot in Boston in 1773. It was so profitable that the greatest technology of the time, the Clipper Ship, was invented largely to move it faster in the mid 19th century.

Water is supposed to move by evaporation and condensation. Ours is supposed to come up from the Gulf of Mexico in a great cycle that makes the Mississippi nearly a closed system. It is not supposed to come in on Clipper Ships, airplanes, or any other conveyance devised by man. But it does. Not very much, but some tiny bit.

This won’t change the level of the Mississippi one bit when everything thaws out in spring, but it changes the feel of the winter around me. A cup of tea, and the small moment it takes, pushes the winter back in a thin curl of steam with the warm smell of its own story written in the cargo hold of a ship or a plane crossing the globe.

With a bit of steaming water and a moment apart it becomes the stuff that life is made of.