Tuesday, April 20

My History With Pipe Tobacco

The Volume Library, 1927
Lately I've rekindled my interest in a couple smoking varieties, namely, pipes and pipe tobacco. I started with pipes a few years ago because I had some money burning a hole in my pocket and happened to be walking by a tobacconist, Lewis Pipe & Tobacco, Mpls. The sight of a cabinet full of pipes took me back to walks with my great-grandfather, Dzia Romanski. Our family would converge on my grandparents' house in Olympia, WA, and at some point "JaJa" would take me for a stroll through the woods. He paused to light up an old, old pipe, pick up a twig, and we'd set out. I thought the twig was part of a magic trick: as we walked and talked, he would start whittling the end of it and when he had finished, there would be a huge, fat slug in the middle of the path. He would stoop to stab it with the sharpened twig and hurl it into the woods. That was just his way. (Years later, I realized that woods was thickly crawling with slugs and it wasn't a trick of timing the carving of his stick to coincide with conjuring a slug for impalement.)
Altered from Sp. tabaco, according to Oviedo, the name in the Carib of Haiti of the Y-shaped tube or pipe through which the Indians inhaled the smoke; but according to Las Casas, 1552, applied to a roll of dried leaves which was kindled at the end and used by the Indians like a rude cigar. Even before Oviedo's date the name had been taken by the Spaniards as that of the herb or its leaf, in which sense it passed from Sp. into the other European langs.: Pg. tabaco, It. tabaco (1578), tabacco (Florio, 1598), F. tabac, whence Du., Ger., Boh. tabak, Du. (17th c.) taback; Pol. tabaka, Russ. tabaku. The original forms tabaco, tabacco, were retained in Eng. to the 18th c., but gradually driven out by tobacco. Da. and Sw., and many Ger. dialects, have also tobak, Ger. 18th c. toback.
(Oxford English Dictionary)

Decades later, as I was wrapping up my Creative Writing degree at Metro State, I was in a design class that tasked us to create a PowerPoint presentation on any topic we wished. I chose the structure of a pipe and felt pretty proud of learning all the bits and pieces to the pipe, arranging them for convenient dissemination in a little lecture. I only gave the lecture to one other student, however, as we were paired up to evaluate each other's presentations. Hers was on female castration, replete with photos: this was still a practice in her homeland and a matter of some concern to her. By the end of it I was almost too humbled to bring up my frivolous presentation of an idle pastime.
1588, from Sp. tabaco, in part from an Arawakan (probably Taino) language of the Caribbean, said to mean "a roll of tobacco leaves" (according to Las Casas, 1552) or "a kind of pipe for smoking tobacco" (according to Oviedo, 1535). Scholars of Caribbean languages lean toward Las Casas' explanation. But Sp. tabaco (also It. tabacco) was a name of medicinal herbs from c.1410, from Arabic tabbaq, attested since 9c. as the name of various herbs. So the word may be a European one transferred to an American plant. Cultivation in France began 1556 with an importation of seed by Andre Thevet; introduced in Spain 1558 by Francisco Fernandes. Tobacco Road as a mythical place representative of rural Southern U.S. poverty is from the title of Erskine Caldwell's 1932 novel.
(Online Etymology Dictionary)

As a child, it never occurred to me that pipes had parts to them, that these parts had names, nor that tobacco could come in different flavors. Had I a little more wherewithal, I would have thought to ask JaJa what flavor tobacco he was smoking, though in likelihood he would have told me it was a terrible habit I should avoid. We never had that conversation, though, and I picked it up almost four years ago. I find it a very meditative practice, and I will sit with a book and enjoy a pipe on our porch or simply smoke on the front steps, focusing on nothing but the flavor of the cool smoke sliding over my tongue. I've got five different pipes for different purposes, including one bought from an antique sale and a long, thin, white clay pipe replicating what American soldiers were using at Fort Snelling over 200 years ago. Some pipes are reserved for the dark and bitter tobaccos and others for the more sweetly flavored classes. What intrigues me about the pipe is that it gets better with more use: layers and layers of smokings "season" it, in a way, like a cast iron skillet, until you're not only smoking the tobacco you just packed into it but also a little portion of every bit you've enjoyed throughout the pipe's life. On so many levels, this is a meditative practice.

No comments: