I sometimes get asked why I smoke a pipe. It is, after all, the rarest method of tobacco consumption in Canada these days (only about half of one percent of tobacco users are pipe smokers). If it’s nicotine you’re after, there are more efficient, though arguably more diabolical, delivery methods than a cantankerous old briar. A pipe is also regarded by many as an anachronism, something belonging to the past that reminds one of leather-bound books, slightly damp tweed and Granddad telling stories by the fire.
Similar to a cigar, the smoke from a pipe is tasted rather than inhaled, so I don’t crave nicotine from my pipe, but I must admit to harbouring a bit of sentimentality when it comes to the hobby. My father smoked a pipe, and though he passed when I was still quite young, the olfactory memory kicks in when I catch a whiff of pipe tobacco on the air and part of me is back snoozing on the Old Man’s lap feeling the deep rumble of his voice through his chest. It’s a comforting feeling, but in itself surely not enough to warrant the time and expense of this somewhat eccentric activity.
My best answer to the question is that some people meditate. I smoke a pipe.
Humans are creatures of habit; repetition comforts us. Similarly, the focused pattern of selecting a tobacco blend, packing and lighting the pipe is almost sacramental in nature to a pipe smoker. Like a priest laying out the wine and wafers, or a chef organizing her mise en place before beginning to cook, preparing and packing a pipe is the ritual through which a piper prepares for what is to come.
Touching match to tobacco for the charring light releases the first tantalizing flavours and aromas of the blend and signals that the main event is about to start. A light tamp and a second match set the tobacco properly aglow and it’s here that I, like many other pipers, start to visibly relax. I settle a bit deeper in my chair, my shoulders drop an inch or two, and my eyes may or may not close briefly as the first puffs of smoke rise toward the heavens.
When I’ve got the time to properly enjoy a pipe, a bowl of tobacco can last an hour or more, during which time I am certain that it appears that I am doing, well, nothing. This facade is just that, however; it appears that I am doing nothing, but in reality I am quite involved in a number of activities like Breathing, Pondering, and Tasting.
You may argue that Breathing shouldn’t count as an activity – it’s the automatic and largely subconscious means through which the body takes in oxygen and dispels carbon dioxide, after all. How much attention does breathing require? I could ask the same about yoga, and I suspect the answer is the similar.
Breathing, or more specifically, the control of one’s breathing, is central to the activity of pipe smoking. Breathe, breathe, sip. Breathe, breathe, sip. Developing a breathing cadence that keeps the tobacco ember at a slow, cool smolder brings out the best in most blends and avoids “bite”, that dreaded steam-roasting of the tongue caused by overheated smoke. Breathe, breathe, sip. Breathe, breathe, sip.
Such controlled breathing does not come naturally but rather must be acquired through practice. It is also a skill that, in my experience, is nearly impossible to execute while agitated, upset or otherwise unsettled. In this way, smoking a pipe forces a certain calmness upon the piper. Focusing on one’s breathing centres the mind, slows the heart rate, lessens anxiety and relaxes the body. In such a meditative state the mind is free to wander with the smoke, going where and as it will, but more often than not returning at the end of the bowl with a solution to whatever problem may have been plaguing the piper. Sherlock Holmes was thus Pondering a mighty conundrum when Conan Doyle set his fictional detective a “Two Pipe Problem”!
My third major activity while relaxing over a pipe is Tasting, which should come as no surprise to anyone. Pipe smoking bathes the olfactory senses in richly aromatic smoke with every sip. Sometimes I simply let the flavours wash over me, and other times, like when sampling a blend for the first time, I make a conscious effort to isolate and qualify the constituent tobaccos in a blend. This is both another way to focus the mind while smoking and also identify those tobacco varieties that the piper finds enjoyable.
Thankfully, there are pipe tobaccos available to suit every palate, mood and occasion, whether you’re after the campfire smokiness of Cyprian Latakia, the deep, rich earthy notes of Dark Fired or the sweet summer hay of bright Virginia leaf. With sufficient sampling and experience, every pipe smoker will find a favourite blend, though rare is the piper with only one tobacco in the cellar.
The great diversity of choice, opinion, personal truth and occasional bit of nonsense within the pipe smoking community never fails to captivate me, but ultimately, I think pipe smoking is a very individual pursuit. What works for one piper may not work for another, just as one’s favourite blend is guaranteed to be the last thing another will want in his pipe. Enjoy the journey, and wherever and however you partake of the hobby, may the smoke continue to rise peacefully for you.
Smoke your pipe and be silent;
there’s only wind and smoke in the world. – Irish Proverb