Why do you smoke a pipe? We all have stories to tell about what set us along this crazy path, but those stories are too often lost in time, even to ourselves. Pipes and pipe smoking have held a deep fascination for me for many years, but I have felt, recently, a bit like a lost traveler. Sometime during the past couple years, because of, you know, things, I found myself losing touch with my own pipe story, my why. Smoking a pipe started to become almost unconsciously automatic, just something to do. While I still enjoyed it, the celebration, the passion had gone missing.
Some back story may be in order. Pipe smoking is something that’s been in my brain from the first time, as a very young lad on a rainy day shopping trip with my mother, I found myself in Berkeley’s Drucquer & Sons. We were there to buy a gift for my uncle, probably some cigars. That part is fuzzy, but the impact of being in that shop has always been crystal clear. It was a place of wonder. Dark wood and glass cabinets were filled with what seemed like thousands of pipes of all shapes and sizes. The paneled walls with still more pipes, large apothecary jars filled with shop blended tobaccos, and shelves holding hundreds of colorful tins behind the counter all made a lasting impression.
Some years later, I had a high school chemistry teacher, a kind and gentle man, who smoked a pipe. (How things have changed. Today, the thought of a teacher standing in front of a classroom puffing away and pointing at the chalkboard with the stem of his pipe seems as strangely foreign as taking a walk on another planet.) His tobacco of choice was Borkum Riff. It made him easy to find; the aroma from his pipe lingered in the air wherever he’d been. Being a bit of an odd kid (a more polite word might be eccentric), I decided it would be fun to take up the pipe. I bought a blister-packed Medico from the local drugstore, and a couple pouches of tobacco – Borkum Riff, of course, and a Green Apple blend that smelled appealing to my naive sensibilities, but turned out to be something rather more treacherous than its aroma promised.
I did what I thought I’d seen others do, stuffing the pipe with strands of tobacco, pressing it down with my thumb, striking a match and puffing like a steam locomotive mounting a steep grade. It was not a successful start. The tobacco tasted nothing like it smelled, keeping the pipe lit was a Sisyphean task, and whatever minute pleasure revealed itself in the resulting hot, acrid smoke just wasn’t compelling enough to make the whole affair worth what seemed to be considerable effort. I soon gave it up, but the latent shadow of fascination would persist.
I tried a couple more times, but it wasn’t until my early university days that it really took hold. By then, pipe smokers were already becoming something of a rarity, but they were not yet on the endangered species list. One day, encountering a tweedy, bespectacled and bearded professor puffing away as he strolled through Sproul Plaza, a stack of papers and books in one hand, a pipe in the other, memories of that rainy day at Drucquer’s filled my head, so I wandered down University Avenue to pay a visit. In an instant, it all came back, all the magic and wonder. Walking through those doors took me into another world, another time. It felt like home.
The fascination instantly took hold, and I knew I wanted to, had to, perform whatever initiation rites were necessary to be part of this “secret society.” I started learning everything I could about pipes, about tobacco, about the culture and ritual surrounding this ancient pastime. I learned how to fill a pipe properly, how to light it, how to keep it going, and not to be concerned if I had to relight. I met interesting people, and had wonderful conversations. I was accepted into the fold. I became a pipe smoker. The passion and enthusiasm cultivated within those hallowed walls seemed like it would last forever, and it almost did. Until it didn’t.
What happened to change things for me? More than two years of no pipe shows, no casual meetups with like-minded folk sharing pipe and tobacco stories happened. Feeling alone, a stranger in a strange land happened. Not all at once. It was a gradual thing. I’d smoke my pipe in what I thought to be the same state of mind I’d always had. I still enjoyed opening old dusty tins of vintage leaf, savoring the flavors and aromas to be found within them. I still looked at pipes, still acquired new additions to my collection, but it just wasn’t the same. Gradually, the excitement began to wane. Pipes were becoming things, and smoking them was becoming something to do, not a way of being.
I remember thinking about a time when, at the Sacramento pipe show, I’d just picked up a beautiful sandblasted olifant made by my friend Paolo Becker. It was an exhilarating moment. I had a similar pipe made by his late father, Fritz, whom I’d known for years, and this pipe beautifully represented a commemoration of two generations of pipe-maker. I filled it from the tin of Piccadilly I had with me, and was in bliss. My friend David saw my exuberance, and asked, “How is it that after all these years, you’re still so enthusiastic about pipes?” It was a fair question. And, who knew that nearly 20 years later, I would ask myself where that fervor went?
Fortunately, the loss of pipe-lust was a relatively short-stayed guest that left my company more quickly than it had arrived. One morning, examining a favored piece in preparation of photographing it, it all came back in a flash. I relished the curves, the lines, the angles, the wood. I looked at it carefully from all angles, admiring the grace of it, the balance. I love photographing pipes. It’s challenging, technically, but even more so aesthetically. I try to not just take mug shots, but to make portraits that express something more than just a shape, a piece of wood and plastic. Pipes are things of both practicality and beauty, and I like to express that through my own art. Something clicked in that moment, the light came on, and Mr. Crankypants was shown the door.
Through the simple act of looking more carefully, more deeply at one of my cherished briars, I inadvertently rediscovered my why. The joy returned. I pulled that Becker olifant from its drawer, filled it from an aged tin of Piccadilly, and in turn, it once again filled me with all the wonder and enthusiasm that it did when I first got it. Now, all I need is to ring up a few pipe pals to arrange a get-together and share my rekindled enthusiasm.
Photo by G.L. Pease