From Our Readers

Activism in the Teaocene

I once was a frontline activist dedicated to protecting ancient rainforests and the indigenous people who inhabited them from destruction.

I unfurled banners from gigantic construction cranes, rappelled off monumental bridges, blockaded giant ocean-going cargo ships, and scaled international financial institution headquarters to remind my fellow humans that the growth of ancient forests was more valuable than economic growth.

I was arrested by the FBI, Secret Service, Coast Guard, and municipal police. I almost fell 200 feet to my death while deploying a banner in high winds after all three of my safety systems failed simultaneously. The banners that I and others risked our lives to deploy appeared on the pages of The Boston Globe, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and Washington Post.

Eventually, I trained the next generation of forest activists on how to utilize technical climbing skills in direct-action scenarios from secret training bases called ‘action camps.’

All the while, I had the great fortune of working with the most courageous organizations protecting ancient forests like Rainforest Action Network, Greenpeace, Forest Ethics, and the Ruckus Society.

And then my activism changed.

I attribute this change to a variety of factors, like the evolution of our culture and increased security post-9/11. The attacks on the World Trade Center meant the risk associated with direct action and banner deployment became less about falling off a high perch and more about getting shot as a terrorist by paramilitary law enforcement. Additionally, as our environmental problems became increasingly complex, simple memes painted across banners seemed less able to address problems and viable solutions. The proliferation of digital media transformed our collective perception. The difference between tangible physical world environments, like actual forests and the ones and zeroes appearing like nature on the Internet, seemed less and less clear.

My intuition demanded change.

This was the same intuition that had originally assured me in my youth that the insanely dangerous driver I had hitched a ride over a mountainous rainforest would not injure me. I was meant to take this ride with him. He crashed the car—totalled it—leaving me stranded overnight in the forest so that the old trees could begin to speak to me.

Now, as a seasoned activist, my intuition insisted I take an unpaid speaking gig in China. During a layover in Taiwan on my way home, I sought out an obscure ceremonial tea center in the hinterlands. I stayed for three weeks, studying the art of building fires, boiling water, holding tea bowls, steeping leaves, pouring tea, and cleaning utensils. Before I left, I used my every dollar to buy a kettle, teapot, and bowls made of special, energized clay. And I purchased tea: tightly-packed puerh cakes, hand-rolled oolongs, intense red tea, and tea aged with chrysanthemum blossoms.

This was far from ordinary tea. It was ‘wild’—grown not just organically but from tiny seeds that have the potential to tower into hundred-year-old trees (rather than stubby cloned bushes that fill plantations saturated by pesticides).

Drinking this tea made me feel wild. A feeling of focus, euphoria, and clarity emerged every time I drank it. This was no Lipton tea bag/English Breakfast/artisan blend of juniper berry tobacco and orange pekoe.

One well-experienced friend calls this kind of tea ceremony the ‘ayahuasca of the current age’—without the vomiting, illegality, or impaired car-driving. The tea master who taught me describes the tea plant as a friendly species that co-evolved to serve humanity.

Today, I daily practice an ancient tea ceremony gently adapted for the 21st century. And whenever I do, I feel like I’m taking communion with a venerable ancient giant.

The root system of a 500-year-old tea tree imbibes the tea with a vast collection of minerals, elements, and simple good vibes.

A tea ceremony also alters time. Friends dropping by for a quick tea session have discovered on more than one occasion that five hours have mysteriously passed.

These experiences led me to building a dedicated tea space I named Teaocene Studio. This seemed a more uplifting alternative to the Anthropocene period we find ourselves in, where human activity has become the dominant influence on climate and environment. During this Teaocene era, human and many of the myriad of non-human life forms are learning to collaborate and enjoy each other’s company again.

In short, my main method of forest activism has changed.

I used to rely on strategically dramatic methods in an attempt to preserve ancient trees from industrial destruction. These days, I prefer to drink sacred beverages made from their bodies.

There is a reason that for millennia Zen monks and Taoist sages drank tea as part of their everyday practices; they had dedicated their lives to cultivating the subtle connection to the diversity of life forms on the planet.

Seems I’m dedicated to the same.

All materials used in the Teaocence space were found repurposed or antique (obtained from an obscure Asian traditional craft warehouse in Alhambra). Wall panels include early 20th century summer/winter Japanese sliding doors, antique steel motor oil signs, machine parts, and tea-dyed silk. The ancient tea ceremony elements and space are reconfigured for contemporary culture. Kettle stand: found douglas fir scraps, beeswax; Tea table: found wood, beeswax, non-metal joinery; Tea bowl stand: 19th century shipwreck plank, recovered from Lake Erie.