The Art of the Pipe

Pipe Smoking in the 21st Century

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The centuries-old ritual of pipe smoking is still alive today.

   Smoking a pipe was once one of the most elegant things one could do. Gentlemen would frequently have their portraits done with pipe in hand, and no evening complete without taking out his pipe and using his tongs to take an ember from the fireplace to light it (before matches had been invented). Many famous people smoked pipes, from C.S. Lewis, to Douglas MacArthur, to fictional characters like Sherlock Holmes. But that was then.

   These days, smoking tobacco in any shape or form is the second greatest sin in Canada (after owning a shotgun), and new laws require all tobacco products to be hidden away, out of sight, and tobacco shops are viewed in the same light as seedy, adults-only video stores once were (before the internet put them virtually out of business). Tobacco pouches now have graphic pictures and warnings about how bad for you the stuff is, and how it will ultimately lead to your untimely demise. Smoking a pipe is definitely not the social activity it used to be. But some people still engage in the centuries-old ritual of packing a pipe bowl with fine, aromatic, tobacco, striking a match and lighting a miniature furnace through which they draw the sweet, mellow, flavour from the burning leaves.

   The thought first entered my head to get a pipe while perusing through the fine tobacco products at the Dutch PX at Kandahar Airfield when I was deployed there two years ago, and when I came home, I bought a briar pipe from J.E. Giguere's in the Upper City. The first few bowls were mediocre, but as I slowly smoked my pipe, breaking it in like a new pair of boots, the carbon cake inside the bowl built up, filtered the smoke, and left nothing but flavour. Then, I met someone at church who also possessed a pipe and tobacco, and an interest in history, politics, current events, theology, sociology, and such subjects that men once discussed before the fireplace in the smoking room, where pipe tobacco burned and cognac was sipped. Instant gratification back then was an unknown concept.

   To be sure, pipe smoking is not for the impatient, the impulsive or those seeking immediate results with minimum effort. A pipe is not a cigarette, whose lighting is easy, and whose butt is discarded when finished. In order for a pipe to yield its fruit, there is much labour involved that requires patience and persistence. The bowl must be properly loaded and packed, or the pipe will burn too hot, or refuse to stay lit for more than a few puffs. One then must puff away speedily, which not only makes the experience frustrating instead of relaxing, but generates too much heat, and damages the pipe. The tobacco must be properly lit, or it will not stay lit, or burn unevenly, creating an uneven cake, and possibly burning out the pipe. It then must be smoked properly. Slowly and patiently, without inhaling the smoke, rather than the hurried puffing of smoke-break cigarettes. It must also not be smoked too often. The pipe must have 24-48 hours to dry before lighting up another bowl, or one gets a "soggy pipe", which is thoroughly disgusting. And finally, it must be properly maintained by disassembling and cleaning it. This is part of the ritual - carefully scooping the dottle from the bottom of the bowl, gently twisting the stem from the shank and running pipe cleaners through it, swabbing the top of the bowl, reaming the bowl cake if necessary, applying a thin coat of olive oil to condition the briar wood, reassembling the pipe, and finally, placing it in a pipe rack to dry for two days. Cleaning a pipe can take longer than smoking it, but the reward for patience, persistence and diligence is flavourful, aromatic pleasure.

   Pipe smoking is frequently lumped in with all other bad habits, but those who do so fail to realize that it's not bad, and it's not a habit. Pipe smoking is good for that discarded part of human existence known as the soul. It promotes thoughtful discussion and contemplative reflection, and the process of smoking a pipe disfavours heated, angry arguments, pettiness and curt retort. Which is probably why pipe smokers so enjoy their social time, and remember those conversations. The pipe becomes, as Edward George Bulwer-Lytton said, the fountain of contemplation, the source of pleasure and the companion of the wise. Once lit, it opens the threshold to the soul, and allows it to cross over into the physical world.

   We live in a physical world. People obsess with the physical and stress about their health so that ironically, it causes health problems. Food, which was once simple, is now fat-free, no trans, low sodium, half the sugar, reduced calories, and on and on. Eating has lost its place as a social activity, and has become a dreaded necessity in which the person worries about how many calories, how much fat, sugar, carbs or sodium he's ingesting. I enjoy the company of those from church - many of whom are immigrants who have not yet been affected by this trend. Eating is not merely the fulfilling of a physical need, it's a social activity that, like smoking a pipe, places something in the mouth and inhibits it from speaking too quickly. In such company, time becomes irrelevant, and minutes turn into hours as conversation wanders from subject to subject and back to where it began.

   Sitting on a park bench in the Bois de Coulogne Park in Sillery with a friend, like a couple of old men, I was able to observe the passers-by, who, depending on their generation, either gave us dirty looks as they ran with their iPods in their ears, or smiled as they slowly walked with canes. The elderly - those who have accumulated a life's worth of wisdom - understand why we sit there with pipes and tobacco pouches. It was then that I realized how isolated and individualistic our society had become. A person runs through one of the most calm and tranquil spots in the city on a Sunday afternoon, and fills his ears with music that he could listen to anywhere rather than take in the subtle sights and sounds of the park. Does he realize that the tree to his left is imported from Japan? He obviously can't hear the squirrel scurrying up the oak tree that has grown to engulf the wrought iron fence which once served as a line of demarcation between the orchard and the hollow.

   But the pipe forces one to slow down and watch, listen and think. Conversation rarely involves the shallow banter of a coffee break, because such only lasts a few minutes, and a pipe can burn for an hour. One is therefore left with only two options: find something more lasting to talk about, or stay quiet. Both are thoroughly edifying exercises for the soul - both his and that of his company. He smells his tobacco, and contrasts it with that of his friend, sees how each burns, and they may switch pipes for a puff or two. When conversation is spent, there remains only silence, and at that point, one sits and observes his surroundings. He sees the apples on the tree, and notes that they're pitted and have brown spots, unlike the unnaturally perfect ones on store shelves. They remind him of where he grew up, amid the fruit orchards of Niagara region, where he would stop his bicycle at the side of road and ask the farmer of he could pick one for a snack before he rode on. He sees the crab apple tree, and thinks of the one that was in his backyard as a child, and of the crab apple jelly that his mother used to make each fall. Suddenly, it's quiet enough for him to hear his watch ticking the seconds away, and as he looks at it, he realizes that nearly two hours have passed. His pipe has long gone out, but there's still daylight left, so they stay a little more, and find a new topic to discuss. Life lived at a slower pace, thanks to a simple piece of carved briar wood and some crushed tobacco leaves. The pipe is indeed good for the soul. And when it's not abused, it's also good for the body.