A worn and weathered large-leaf Assamica strain planted from seed in the 1970’s Cultural Revolution. I sampled the soil around this tree in Spring of this year, discovering to my amazement that over the decades it had cultivated an intricate network of beneficial bacteria and fungi around its root structure.

The tree produces sugars through photosynthesis and feeds them to soil bacteria and fungi through its root tips, and in exchange, the microbes go mine the soil for water and valuable nutrients to shuttle back to the tree roots in a remarkable division of labor, orchestrated through molecular signaling and perfected over hundreds of millions of years of evolution. The soil here was black, soft, and crumbly like chocolate cake… packed with earthworms (so not exactly like chocolate cake).

I had drunk and appreciated the tea from this field for three years before I conducted the study, and was never able to explain why the flavor felt so rich and balanced. The tree pictured here imparted to me first-hand how flavor in tea is birthed first from living soil.

“Modern” agriculturalists today couldn’t dream of concocting fertilizer formulations that are half as effective or precise as the underground networks that develop intuitively when we just step out of the way. The moment we start trying to out-smart the natural ecosystem, we’ve already lost.

This scraggy old tea tree, having laid witness to a world of transformation above ground, offered back to me an insight into the inner-workings of the underground. Mother nature is cooperative, efficient and intelligent beyond imagination. She has always, and will always, bat last.

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