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An Illustrated Field Guide to the Art, Science, and Joy of Tea

From leaf to cup, by way of the history of human civilization.

An Illustrated Field Guide to the Art, Science, and Joy of Tea

“The first sip is joy, the second is gladness, the third is serenity, the fourth is madness, the fifth is ecstasy,” Jack Kerouac wrote of tea in his 1958 novel The Dharma Bums. Late one night that year, he walked five miles with an enormous tape recorder strapped to his back to keep the woman he loved from taking her own life.

Lois Beckwith didn’t die that night. She and Jack soon parted ways as lovers, but remained friends. Eventually, he introduced her to the man who would become her husband. Their son would go on to devote his life to tea.

In Pursuit of Tea founder Sebastian Beckwith fell in love with tea while working as a trekking guide in Bhutan and northern India in the 1980s, and has spent the years since procuring and advocating for the planet’s finest, most sustainably grown and ethically harvested teas. Traveling to and working with small farms in Asia’s most historic tea-growing regions, he sources teas that grace the menus of some of New York City’s finest restaurants and have powered much of my own writing over the years. In his workshops, seminars, and lectures, he has brought the art-science of tea to the American Museum of Natural History, the French Culinary Institute, and Columbia University.

Now, Beckwith harvests the wisdom of his life’s work in A Little Tea Book: All the Essentials from Leaf to Cup (public library) — part practical field guide to choosing, preparing, and enjoying tea, part love letter, co-written with his childhood friend, former firefighter, and Gutsy Girl author Caroline Paul, and splendidly illustrated by Caroline’s wife and my dear friend Wendy MacNaughton.

Radiating from the pages are deep knowledge, good-natured humor, and a largehearted love of tea — the plant, the experience, the ecosystem of botany and labor and ritual, which George Orwell considered “one of the main stays of civilization.” What emerges is an encyclopedia of fact and joy, delving into the cultural and political histories of tea alongside its practical science and daily delights, bridging the sensorial and the spiritual dimensions of this ancient tradition turned modern staple.

Punctuating the book are various curiosities from the history of tea, emanating broader insight into human culture, the nature of creativity, and the serendipitous, often haphazard ways in which new ideas take root. Take, for instance, the story of the tea bag:

Tea bags were invented in the late 1800s but became wildly popular only after a New York tea purveyor named Thomas Sullivan sent samples of tea in silk bags. These were intended to be opened, the tea emptied out and then brewed, but customers instead dropped the bags straight into the water — and then complained that the material did not allow for the tea to steep. Sullivan turned to a more porous cloth and the tea bag was quickly embraced in America (though most of Britain turned up its nose, using loose tea until the mid-1970s.)

There are also invaluable antidotes to various oft-repeated myths, misconceptions, and half-truths — from the elemental fact that the six basic types of tea (white, green, yellow, oolong, black, and dark) all come from a single plant, Camellia sinensis, to the complex matter of caffeine. Beckwith and Paul offer a scientific corrective:

Many of us drink tea to wake up at the beginning of our day. You may even have heard that Camellia sinensis contains more caffeine than coffee beans. This is true, but misleading. We use much less tea than coffee by weight for a serving, so your cup of tea actually has at most one half the amount of caffeine as a cup of coffee. The relative level varies depending on the leaf used (the buds have higher concentrations), the cultivar, the leaf shape (a larger leaf results in a slower infusion because there is less surface area than, say, a fanning tea grade in your cup), and the brew time and technique (since caffeine is water-soluble, the longer tea steeps, the more caffeine is extracted; powdered tea like matcha has more caffeine because the leaves are consumed, not infused). It is important to note that caffeine does not correspond with tea type, so one cannot categorically say that black tea has more than green, or yellow tea has more than white.

Tea also contains the unique calming and relaxing — but not sedative — amino acid theanine, which has been found only in Camellia sinensis and one mushroom, Boletus badius. Theanine has been shown to improve mood and increase focus when combined with caffeine. This may be why tea drinkers often avoid the anxiety and jitters of those who imbibe coffee (known to some of us tea lovers as “devil juice.”)

Complement the lovely Little Tea Book with Orwell’s eleven golden rules for making the perfect cup of tea and the MacNaughton-illustrated field guide to wine, then revisit the touching, improbable story of how Kerouac saved Beckwith’s mother’s life.


The Dalai Lama on Science and Spirituality

“What science finds to be nonexistent we should all accept as nonexistent, but what science merely does not find is a completely different matter.”

The Dalai Lama on Science and Spirituality

“The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both,” Carl Sagan wrote in his final book nearly four centuries after Galileo made the same point in his famous letter defending his life.

A recent Pioneer Works conversation about science and spirituality with physicist Alan Lightman, based on his immensely insightful and poetic book on the subject, reminded me of a different, older conversation contemplating the relationship between these two hallmarks of the human experience.

In the early 1990s, shortly after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, the Dalai Lama sat down for a five-day dialogue with a group of ten Western scientists and one philosopher of mind, seeking a scientific perspective on what Buddhism calls the Three Poisons: greed, hatred, and delusion — the primary classes of emotion that cause us to harm ourselves and those around us. The wide-ranging conversation, the synthesis of which was later published as Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama (public library), aimed to bridge ancient spiritual practices and modern findings in biology, cognitive science, psychology, and neuroscience in an effort to reveal the human mind’s capacity to transcend its own fundamental flaws.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet (Photograph: Tenzin Choejor)

With an eye to the complementarity between Buddhism, which has been exploring the human mind for millennia, and Western science, whose neuroscience and psychology are barely a century and a half old, the Dalai Lama writes in the preface to the book:

Buddhism and science are not conflicting perspectives on the world, but rather differing approaches to the same end: seeking the truth. In Buddhist training, it is essential to investigate reality, and science offers its own ways to go about this investigation. While the purposes of science may differ from those of Buddhism, both ways of searching for truth expand our knowledge and understanding.

Art by Oliver Jeffers for Love Letter America

Four millennia after the Buddha laid down his tenets of critical thinking, known as The Charter of Free Inquiry, the Dalai Lama points to the scientific method as our mightiest tool in the pursuit of truth, but also insists on applying it to science itself:

I have often said that if science proves facts that conflict with Buddhist understanding, Buddhism must change accordingly. We should always adopt a view that accords with the facts. If upon investigation we find that there is reason and proof for a point, then we should accept it. However, a clear distinction should be made between what is not found by science and what is found to be nonexistent by science. What science finds to be nonexistent we should all accept as nonexistent, but what science merely does not find is a completely different matter. An example is consciousness itself. Although sentient beings, including humans, have experienced consciousness for centuries, we still do not know what consciousness actually is: its complete nature and how it functions.

Calyces of Held — synapses made by axons carrying auditory information and contacting neurons in a brainstem structure called the trapezoid body. One of neuroscience founding father Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s stunning drawings of the brain.

The purpose of spirituality in a secular world, he argues, is that of a moral compass that tempers the destructive emotions that so often accompany our modern materialism. In consonance with Adam Gopnik’s insight into the essential nonreligious value of the Bible, the Dalai Lama echoes Martin Luther King’s assertion that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere [for] whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” and writes:

The more we pursue material improvement, ignoring the contentment that comes of inner growth, the faster ethical values will disappear from our communities. Then we will all experience unhappiness in the long run, for when there is no place for justice and honesty in people’s hearts, the weak are the first to suffer. And the resentments resulting from such inequity ultimately affect everyone adversely.

With the ever-growing impact of science on our lives, religion and spirituality have a greater role to play in reminding us of our humanity. What we must do is balance scientific and material progress with the sense of responsibility that comes of inner development. That is why I believe this dialogue between religion and science is important, for from it may come developments that can be of great benefit to mankind.

The concrete manifestations of and path to that civilizational benefit is what the remainder of Destructive Emotions explores — questions of whether these destructive emotions are an elemental part of human nature, what lends them their formidable power, and how much plasticity there is in the brain to allow for outgrowing them. Complement this excerpt with Nobel-winning physicist Niels Bohr on subjective vs. objective reality and the uses of religion in a secular world, pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell on mathematics, divinity, and the human search for truth, and Albert Einstein’s 1931 conversation about science and spirituality with the Nobel-winning Indian poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore.


The Original Marriage of Equals: The Love Letters of Feminism Founding Mother Mary Wollstonecraft and Political Philosopher William Godwin

“We love as it were to multiply our consciousness… even at the hazard… of opening new avenues for pain and misery to attack us.”

The Original Marriage of Equals: The Love Letters of Feminism Founding Mother Mary Wollstonecraft and Political Philosopher William Godwin

At the end of the eighteenth century, no woman anywhere in the world could obtain higher education. Women’s right to vote was more than a century away in both England and America. Marriage was a tyrannical institution from which women could liberate themselves legally only with great difficult and at great cost — in the entire eighteenth century, only four women in Great Britain were able to obtain legal separation from their husbands. In divorce, which only men could initiate, children were considered the father’s property — the mother was automatically denied custody. Married women had no share of the household’s property and no legal protection — a husband could violate his wife with impunity. In Great Britain, chimpanzees and other nonhuman animals would obtain legal protection from abuse in 1824 — two decades before the first legislature addressing violence against women. Even these laws exempted husbands from prosecution — a wife was still considered personal property, to do with as the husband pleases. No term for marital rape existed and the crime wouldn’t be codified as such for another two centuries.

Against this backdrop, the self-educated political philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft (April 27, 1759–September 10, 1797) composed her epoch-making 1792 treatise Vindication of the Rights of Woman — the ignition spark of what we now call feminism. “I do not wish [women] to have power over men,” Wollstonecraft wrote, “but over themselves.” Her dedication of the book read:

Independence I have long considered as the grand blessing of life, the basis of every virtue; and independence I will ever secure by contracting my wants, though I were to live on a barren heath.

Four years after she published her landmark Vindication, having survived a heartbreak so deep that it drove her to attempt suicide, Wollstonecraft met the political philosopher William Godwin. Their courtship was slow, even reluctant — not the mad and maddening magnetic pull of instant infatuation, but the gradual and careful advance by which two people come to know the depths of each other’s being and arrive at a love that springs from those depths.

William Godwin (portrait by James Northcote) and Mary Wollstonecraft (portrait by John Opie)

They were married on March 29, 1797, with Mary four months pregnant, and entered a true marriage of equals — a notion not merely radical but utterly countercultural at the time. Godwin, a feminist long before feminism existed, considered marriage a necessary evil in society — necessary for its structural and legal value, evil for its inequitable treatment of women. Their marriage would be different — a beautiful bond not based on bondage, one in which neither lost themselves in the other, embodying instead Rilke’s insistence that the richest love is “the strengthening of two neighboring solitudes.” They each continued working on their respective literary projects, exchanging ideas while sharing household duties.

They were different, too — undergirding Mary’s intense intellect was an emotionally expansive imagination, while William placed reason at the center of his character and conveyed his emotions, however strong, with great reserve. But these differences, despite occasionally frustrating the couple, complemented each other and enlarged each of their natures. Two centuries later, the poet Mary Oliver would speak to such complementarity in her beautiful meditation on how differences bring couples closer together: “All of it, the differences and the maverick uprisings, are part of the richness of life. If you are too much like myself, what shall I learn of you, or you of me?”

Wollstonecraft and Godwin came to be admired by their contemporaries as “the most extraordinary married pair in existence.” Charlotte Gordon writes in her superb mother-daughter biography Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft & Mary Shelley (public library):

Young poets and intellectuals gathered at the Polygon to pay court to these middle-aged radicals and to admire the partnership that they had forged. The Godwin/Wollstonecraft marriage seemed to unite all the principles they held most dear: freedom, justice, reason, sensibility, and the imagination — in essence, the ideals of the Enlightenment combined with the exciting new tenets of Romanticism.

But true equality in love cannot exist solely at the level of ideas — of shared interests and values. It springs, rather, from the deepest stratum of the heart — a parity of emotional investment in the relationship and a certain symmetry, certain balance of affection and attention. Wollstonecraft and Godwin’s few surviving love letters emanate such a rare and beautiful marriage of equals at the level of the heart. Several months into her pregnancy, convinced that she is carrying a boy whom the couple nicknamed “Master William,” she writes to Godwin:

I am well and tranquil, excepting the disturbance produced by Master William’s joy, who took it into his head to frisk a little at being informed of your remembrance. I begin to love this little creature and to anticipate his birth as a fresh twist to a knot, which I do not wish to untie. Men are spoilt by frankness, I believe, yet I must tell you that I love you better than I supposed I did, when I promised to love you for ever — and I will add what will gratify your benevolence, if not your heart, that on the whole I may be termed happy.

Godwin is not “spoilt” but stirred by her openhearted outpouring of love — instead of retreating into reserve, he responds with even greater sincerity of affection:

You cannot imagine how happy your letter made me. No creature expresses, because no creature feels, the tender affections, so perfectly as you do: &, after all one’s philosophy, it must be confessed that the knowledge, that there is some one that takes an interest in our happiness… is extremely gratifying. We love as it were to multiply our consciousness… even at the hazard… of opening new avenues for pain and misery to attack us.

The baby turned out to be not a boy but a girl, who would go on to author Frankenstein. Ten days after giving birth to Mary Shelley, the 38-year-old Wollstonecraft would die of childbed fever — one of the era’s most dangerous diseases — leaving behind the foundation upon which the next two hundred years of humanity’s model of gender equality would be built.

“The Child Mary Shelley (at her Mother’s Death)” by William Blake

Complement this particular portion of Romantic Outlaws — which stands as one of the finest, most beautifully written and rigorously researched biographies I have ever read — with the love letters of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, another rare marriage of equals in an era of grave inequality, and Kahlil Gibran on the essential balance of intimacy and independence in healthy relationships, then revisit Wollstonecraft on the courage of unwavering affection and devour other beautiful love letters by Vladimir Nabokov, Virginia Woolf, John Keats, Albert Einstein, John Cage, Franz Kafka, Frida Kahlo, Werner Heisenberg, and Hannah Arendt.


The Mesmerizing Microscopy of Trees: Otherworldly Images Revealing the Cellular Structure of Wood Specimens

Stunning images that occupy the lacuna between art and science.

After a recent march in D.C., where I walked Walt Whitman’s love of democracy and his conviction that “America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without,” I set out to temper the tumult of the human world with an immersion in Whitman’s other great love — the natural world. Visiting the National Museum of Natural History’s Objects of Wonder exhibition, a splendid embodiment of Whitman’s admiration of the character of trees stopped me up short: a display of slides revealing the cellular structure of trees and shrubs seen under a microscope — stunning images that occupy the lacuna between art and science, resembling ancient tapestries and Klimt paintings and galactic constellations.

Cornus controversa (giant dogwood), radial view
Cornus controversa (giant dogwood), tangential view
Prosopis juliflora (a Mexican mesquite shrub), transverse view

The slides are drawn from the 4,637 specimens amassed by the prolific wood collector Archie F. Wilson (1903–1960) — the largest private collection of arboreal specimens from around the world, donated to the museum’s already formidable wood collection a year after Wilson’s death.

Cornus stolonifera (red stem dogwood), transverse view
Cornus stolonifera (red stem dogwood), tangential view
Picea pungens (Colorado spruce), transverse view

Wilson, who served as a research associate at the Chicago Museum of Natural History and went on to preside over the International Wood Collectors Society, cut his samples into meticulously sanded 7×3-inch blocks. Each slide presents a thin slice from one of the blocks, stained to reveal specific microscopic features of its structure.

Maytenus micrantha, tangential view
Maytenus micrantha, transverse view
Colubrina arborescens (wild coffee), tangential view

Beyond their aesthetic rapture, these specimens have taken on a wonderfully hope-giving new role in advancing science and the law. Half a century after Wilson’s death, they have become part of a vast database documenting the chemical fingerprints of wood, known as the Forensic Spectra of Trees — or, because scientists do delight in acronymic puns, ForeST. Much like artist Ryota Kajita’s stunning photomicroscopy of Alaskan ice formation are being used to understand climate change, scientists are using Wilson’s samples for vital wood identification, not only in advancing botany, but in combatting the worldwide epidemic of illegal logging and timber trafficking, which has swelled to about a third of the world’s wood trade — ecologically exploitive contraband estimated to be costing the global economy up to $152 billion per year, with unfathomed environmental costs as entire ecosystems are being decimated. (Trees, lest we forget, are the relational infrastructure of the living world.)

Picea (spruce), radial view
Cornus kousa (Chinese dogwood), transverse view

In Brazil, nearly 20% of the Amazon rainforest has been savaged by illegal logging in the decades since Wilson’s death — the loss of woodland approximately equivalent to the size of California. In China, rosewood has become the blood diamond of the wood trade — a species protected under the multilateral endangered species treaty CITES, yet ruthlessly logged for the manufacture of expensive Ming and Qing dynasty furniture reproductions. A quarter of Russia’s timber exports come from illegal logging and a devastating 61% of Indonesian wood production is traded illegally.

Tsuga orientalis, tangential view
Mastixia (an evergreen)

Accompanying the ForeST database is an advanced spectrometry instrument that showers the wood sample with heated helium atoms to instantly reveal its chemical profile, enabling customs agents and the various custodians of environmental policy to perform simple, cheap, noninvasive wood analysis that identifies illegally traded species and helps prevent these losses of tree life that take generations to recover.

Ricinodendron heudelotii (West African tropical tree known as “cocoa’s friend”), tangential view
Ampelopsis brevipedunculata (porcelain vine), transverse view
Salix fragilia (brittle willow), transverse view
Quiina negrensis, radial view
Cornus stolonifera (red stem dogwood), transverse view
Capraria biflora (goatweed), transverse view
Cornus controversa (giant dogwood), transverse view
Ailanthus integrifolia (an East Asian rainforest tree), radial view

Complement with French photographer Cedric Pollet’s beautiful photographs of tree bark from around the world and amateur wood collector Romeyn Beck Hough’s remarkable cross-sections of trees from a century ago, then revisit Hermann Hesse’s lyrical love letter to trees and this beautiful illustrated celebration of the forest.

HT Smithsonian Magazine


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