29 May 2011

Pu-erh, the first time

I drink Pu-erh tea for the first time, fumbling in my attempts to work out a system that approximates the traditional gong-fu method. The first steeping's strong and powerful — probably excessively so, but perhaps that's not so bad: the distinctive flavours can't be missed and I'll look for them later as the steepings become more subtle, more what I'm used to. I lean in the doorway, looking out at the clearing afternoon, the sunlight breaking through, the shimmer of vivid green ryegrass in the paddock. The tea makes me think of old Chinese alleyways, someone old and hunched opening a wooden door and stepping into the past, red lanterns hanging in the evening, the smell of yellowing paper and weathered wood, the grunting of a pig behind a fence and the sound of fowls fossicking. I hear voices in a language utterly incomprehensible to me and realise I am alien, a stranger, passing through.

The tea smells like day-old chickens in fresh straw under a brooder lamp — the smell I knew so well as a child in a context unknown to most of today's children; a warm, soft, slightly sweet smell. We're primarily visual animals, but for me, smell is by far the most evocative of the senses. An unexpected scent dismisses decades and calls up old emotions: the smell of ripe apples returns me to my mother's pantry; cold ashes from a wood fire take me to a Ruahine hut; a particular fragrance conjures emotions so sudden and strong I half expect to see the woman who stirred them so long ago. Now I remember the feeling better than I remember her face.

This Pu-erh puts me in a past part lived and part imagined and suggests a future still possible. One day I might drink tea in a shop in that imagined alley and the present will be the past. This tea diffuses time and reminds me my life is less a thread unravelling than a tapestry being woven; when I taste, I'm closer to Christchurch and the sixties than I am to Palmerston North a month ago.

I've known this feeling before. Usually it happens unexpectedly. Some months ago as I drove into town I had that peculiar feeling of having returned to the past — not déjà vu but the feeling I'd recovered the sensation of being back in the South Island before I moved north, decades before the quake crushed Christchurch, before agriculture ruined the rivers, before tourism trashed places like Tekapo and Wanaka and created the abomination called Queenstown. A peculiar quality of the light, perhaps? I don't know; I don't know what evoked it but didn't care; the moment seemed imbued with significance — more like kairos than chronos. I held on to the feeling as long as I could, but without an aid like this tea the moment lasted only a few seconds. I managed to recover it; it disappeared; I dragged it back; it vanished.

Someday that feeling might return, but I have no idea when or under what circumstances. Now I have other things to enjoy: the prospect of travel in a few months; seeing my small, delightful friends in a day or two; meeting friends this evening; the sight of the kahu that moments ago circled low over the paddock; the bright afternoon sun through autumn leaves — and, of course, the taking of Pu-erh tea, which, even in my first encounter, draws the past and the future towards the present and enriches a life.

1. Many thanks to Jo, from Ya-Ya Teahouse in Christchurch, for his excellent advice, encouragement and tea.

Photos :
1. A starling at the moment of taking flight, Pohangina Valley.
2. The Ngamoko Range, a branch of the main Ruahine Range, on a nor'west evening from the lower Pohangina Valley.
Photos and original text © 2011 Pete McGregor