A tea ceremony for the victims of the 1980 Mount Saint Helens volcanic eruption.
A Ceremony for Life by Tomer Keysar
Ash, Trees, Volcanoes by Boheng Zhang
There the trees,
happy of heart, grow marvelously green,
and spring water
gushes forth with a gurgling sound.
I admire how
things grow and prosper according to
and feel that
thus, too, shall my life go its round.
—Original Text by Tao Yuanming, 405 AC; Translated by Lin Yutang
On May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens in southwest Washington state erupted. Its unexpected side blast took away the lives of fifty-seven people and countless animals and trees. The column of ash and gas of the blast rose more than fifteen miles up into the atmosphere, and over 520 tons of ash was blown by winds eastward across the U.S. As much as it was a tragic event, from a non-human-centric perspective, it was also a manifestation and a reminder of the liveliness of the planet we live on, the limit of human power, and the connection between human lives and the lives of animals, trees, and the Earth. I was vividly reminded of such connection through Frank Gohlke’s photographs of Mount St. Helens. Gohlke Returned to Mount Saint Helens to record the aftermath of the eruption in three consecutive years from 1982 to 1984. He focused not on the human lives that were impacted but more so the lives of the trees across the flanks of the volcano. He showed dead trees lying and standing, some deprived of their branches, some broken in half; yet, I sense no pain nor do I hear screaming or crying when I look at the photographs of them. They all silently lie between the sky and the volcano, as if actively but patiently waiting to be brought back again to the core of the planet. They seem to blend so harmoniously with the ash fallen on their bodies, like old friends, like they’ve shared the same body before. Only when I witness their beings do I realize and understand that whether it is ash or trees or even humans, we are all part of one system. We take in other beings through breath, through photosynthesis, through subduction, through the Mid-Atlantic Ridges and the deep-sea trenches.
Another source of inspiration was a guest lecture by an Irish artist, Siobhán McDonald. In the lecture, she presented her various works involving trees and human lives. She showed through her works how the two forms of living are so intimately intertwined with each other. In her work Hidden Monuments, McDonald shows how the starvation and dying of humans in Bronze Age Ireland, was so vehemently demonstrated and expressed through the burning of trees. It is through the burning of the trees that we can hear the crying from 2000 years ago. The remains of the trees, the charcoals, were a testimony to the strong human desire to live. In another work of hers, Future Breath, the tree in central Dublin, in turn, cries through exploding, in response to the exceeding heat and drought. Humans and the photographs, in this case, become the testimony to the tree’s living, crying, and dying. The reciprocal relationships between humans and trees across Siobhan’s various works have touched me deeply. Trees and humans, humans and trees, we are the testimony and witness of each other’s presence as well as absence on this vast planet. A new configuration and realization of my own body in that of the trees is the starting point where I envisioned this project.
I wanted to create a form of commemoration as well as celebration both to mourn the deaths, but also to reflect on the birth and existence, of human, botanic, and planetary bodies, all vitally dependent on volcanoes, their power and their mercy. Thus, I turned to my practice of Japanese tea ceremony and the specific form of using kinindai ( 人台) for a ritual of commemoration and meditation. A significant part of the tea ceremony is the appreciation and reflection on our intimate relationship with tea, the single species of tree, camelia sinensis, that has the infinite possibilities of joy and pleasure. While drinking tea, especially matcha, used in the ceremony, all the substances of the tea leaves are partaken. They travel through our bodies and become an intimate part of ourselves. It is through drinking tea that we can taste the work of the unique enzymes of this particular species, smell the mountains and rivers where the trees have grown, sense the existence of the carbons in the air, and feel the lava and the ash that has formed the ground and enriched the soil. Through the ritual of tea ceremony, one realizes that humans are not objective observers of this immense exchange and cycle of energy, carbons, and substances but active participants in it.
To highlight this aspect, therefore, I curated several elements of the tea ceremony. The tea bowl (chawan) that would sit on the kinindai and be served as an offering to Mt. St. Helens is, arguably, the most central utensil of the ceremony. I decided to get my hands on some volcanic ash from Mt. St. Helens and incorporate it into the glaze of my making of the tea bowl. After sifting and removing some of the larger particles, I mixed the ash with a premade milky white glaze (original to my ceramic studio) and applied it onto the bisque ware. I was, again, inspired by Gohlke’s photographs; therefore, I painted the ash on, mimicking the lying trees after the eruption. To my surprise, when fired, the ash melted in the kiln, flowing down along the side of the bowl, which created the visual effect of trees growing, with their roots strongly in the ground. It is the expression of the ash; it is telling its own story of the life, the death, and the revival of the trees. When the tea enters the bowl, the celebration of the cycle of life becomes even more vivid. With the help of my tea ceremony sensei, I was able to source and serve tea grown in Nanei, Kagoshima prefecture, just across the Kinkowan toward the southwest of Sakurajima. The growth of the tea had, undoubtedly, been ensured and strengthened by the volcanic ash from Sakurajima, which has been erupting almost daily. And in this particular tea ceremony, the tea is offered back to the volcano, not only to commemorate the death of other trees from but more so to remember the lives made possible by volcanic eruptions.
Lastly, to further reflect on how this relationship between the volcanoes and the trees might mean to human living, I chose an excerpt from an essay written in the year of 405 A.D. by the poet, Tao Yuanming, as the spiritual guidance and the substitute for an actual scroll for the tea ceremony. The piece portrays a resigned official who returns to his home in the rural countryside and his experience during his travel back. In the specific excerpt, this official describes how a farmer has told him that the spring has arrived, the sight of blooming lush trees, and the sound of gushing streams. Toward the end, he exclaims that through these sights and sounds he realizes that everything has its seasons and times, and human lives are nothing different from the beings of trees and waters. It is through the seeing of the reflection of his own lives in the blooming spring that he eventually understands and finds peace in the moving and resting, the living and dying of his own life, and more generally, all human lives. Through transcribing this text, deploying my almost lifelong practice of calligraphy, the spirit of text and the ceremony, both in the metaphorical as well as material sense, became more deeply embedded in my body.
I shall refrain from describing the tea ceremony here because it is not something meant to be reenacted or even represented. It was a ritual for its own presence, not for a past or future outside its being. As one of the famous mottoes of tea ceremony goes and Tao’s essay reminds us: ichi-go ich-ie (一期一會), all things have their times, and we can only enjoy the particularities once in our lifetime. Every tea leaf, every tree branch, every fallen ash grain, every human breath is unique and fleeting; however, as participants in the exchange of carbons, the cycle of energies, and the subducting and drifting of the tectonics, we are also one body and, thus, everlasting.