New customers often grimace at the price of tobacco and say “this is an expensive habit.” The first thing I tell them is “it’s not a habit, it’s a hobby” (also we pay the State’s exorbitant tobacco tax).
But that’s not strictly true–on either account. Tobacco can become an addictive habit, especially if, like me, you tend to overindulge in the excellent flavors that come with fine cigarettes, cigars, pipe tobaccos, snus, snuff, and chew. But one doesn’t become addicted to the flavor–just to the nicotine. When one smokes a certain way–when one smokes to fall in love with the noble leaf, to let the flavors of sun, water, soil, sweat, blood, time, and memory, you are not addicted, but bewitched. It’s as if a magic spell has been placed on your tongue and whether your puffing on a contraband Havana or a fine matured Virginia, the spell is the same.
This is more than a hobby. Do we say that connoisseurs of fine wine are merely hobbyists? Do we say that the art patron is merely killing time with something he finds enjoyable? Is tobacco a hobby, or a habit? Or does it rest somewhere between, around, and outside those categories? Perhaps it resides alongside Joy–the feeling that we get when something completely purposeless has been done exceptionally well.
The rest of the world tells us that tobacco is worse than useless–dangerous, a nuisance, even a conspiracy by “Big Tobacco.” They are searching for a reason to explain away why people would even want to inhale a mildly narcotic leaf with some toxic properties. They tell our children that tobacco is gross, bad for the environment, bad for the human race, and isn’t even cool.
They spend so much money and time telling us the opposite of what is obviously true–people smoke because it brings them Joy. There is something primitive and primal, yet civilized and sophisticated about a pipe or a cigar. On top of that, there is something mysterious–almost magical about scented smoke wringing its way around one’s nose, through the body, in the hair, resting above one’s head before it scurries off with an eddy of soft moving air. The three largest stereotypical images of the pipe smoker reflect these three forms of joy–primitive, civilized, and magical. That’s why we see the cigar store Indian, as politically incorrect as he may be, standing guard in every store, why the “English Gentleman” and Sherlock Holmes spring instantly to mind whenever one sees a bent-stem pipe, and why many of our esteemed new customers insist on calling churchwardens “wizard pipes,” “Gandalf pipes,” and “Hobbit pipes” (we should send Peter Jackson and the Tolkien family a check for the boost in pipe sales, I think). What all three of these noble stereotypes share is the joy they get and the respect they give to the fine leaf. And while I will not suggest donning a feather headdress, a top hat, or a wizard robe, I think we have a lot to learn yet about the magic and the art of appreciating tobacco.
Next time you smoke, think of it as a sort of offering. Watch the wisps drift off and know that they are perfuming the nose of some other infinitely beautiful person, or are perhaps adding to the incense around the altar of some mysterious god. And then sit back, watch the mundane roll by, and know that whatever this thing is, it is no hobby.
It’s Joy, set on fire.