"Come up the driveway, past the boat on the lake at right and chicken coop on left. Pass the bell tower, bear to your right, walking up the brick path that leads to the tea house, and enter through the large steel doors on left. Pass through the stone tunnel below the tea house, up the brick steps, past the worm palace and moat on the left....."
I have suddenly become Dorothy searching for the (tea) wizard in a Chinese/Nepalese version of Oz. I would not be entirely surprised to see the Tin Man or the Scarecrow waving to me at any turn of the brick path. Whimsical stone sculptures stand erect by half-built "castles" and towers. The brick path brings the visitor over bridges and streams and past ponds and chicken coops. I wonder when the Lollypop Kids will appear to greet me. "We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto," I think to myself bemusedly.
Finally making it to the open-air deck of the Chinese-style tea house which faces a panoramic cathedral of old-growth redwood trees, I hear the music of male voices discussing the completion of a Japanese tile roof. "Helloooo???" I chime. "I'm just coming down from the roof," I hear in response, as David magically flies down from above to welcome me to his kingdom. Neither hidden behind a curtain nor donning a cape, David appears before me. He is as lovely, rustic, and authentic a character as his magnificent Chinese tea house with its gnarled-wood antique Chinese chairs and festive Nepalese prayer flags. We shake hands, and I return the quiet grin spreading beneath Hoffman's kind and curious gaze.
David's private tea house, to which guests are welcome by invitation only, is the ultimate place to savor the delights of tea and take in the lavish gifts of the magical redwood forest (not to mention David's inspiring company). But a late autumn chill drives us into David's home, as the tea house, for now, is unheated and open to the elements. I have brought with me a photographic print as a gift for David and Bee, yet something in me wonders if I should have brought tea. It seemed imprudent at best, and cheeky at worst, to bring tea to someone whose legendary status in the U.S. tea world is dwarfed only by his reputation among Asian tea groupies, who follow him around China to find out which teas he will buy each season.
We enter David's warm and cozy home, which, like the tea house, faces out to the great Northern California redwoods. "Did you bring your favorite tea?" he asks. Hawks circle the air. I shake my head. "Not this time," I say, feeling a bit sheepish. I look around the wood-and-glass home to see the lovely gifts of nature David and Bee have collected, as well as some Asian art and writings. One piece of writing tacked to a beam in the house especially moves me:
"These three ways
lead to the heavens:
asserting the truth,
not yielding to anger,
----Dhammapada, verse 224
David is indeed generous, bringing out three different pu-erh teas to taste, one in a bamboo casing, one a cake, and one a loose tea. He steeps the teas in ceramic gaiwans, lining them up, each behind a tasting cup, so we can taste the brews, one after the other. He pours the rinse water into a three-legged earthen frog, which he loves because of its stability, and it's mirroring of the Chinese belief in the strength of three-pillared bases.
"Which tea do you think is the oldest?" he asks me later. "How do you judge the age of a tea?" I ask. He says there are many factors, each of which can be faked. Hmmmmm....All of the teas are smooth, and each has a very different and distinctive aroma and flavor. One is brisk, vegetal, and almost astringent; one is mossy and changes on the tongue, and one is very earthy, the "dirt" taste many associate with pu-erhs.
One tea has a particular depth and, as I decide not to risk flaunting my ignorance, I wait for him to tell me that it is this complex tea which is the oldest. "Probably around 1992," he says. "This tea is much darker than the other two," he offers, pointing to a different tea, "so some might guess this to be the oldest tea. But the darkness of the tea doesn't mean its older. It's this other tea here which is the oldest", and he points to the tea in the middle, the mossy one with the personality that keeps growing and shifting with such subtlety.
The afternoon moves forward, the tall trees tossing themselves into a rose sunset. It is time to go, to let David relax after a long day of working on the roof, which has been in the making for years and years, David says. We promise to meet again. "Next time, I will bring tea," I add.
"Can you find your way out?" David asks. I assure him I can, although within moments of departing, I find myself in a maze of tunnels, trees, streams, and collected things that have not yet found permanent homes. I click my heels three times.......