The Soul of the Briar

I was recently asked what sorts of pipes I collected these days. The question resulted in quite a bit of pondering. I really couldn't answer the question, couldn't isolate a simple classification very well. I knew there was SOMETHING that tied my collection together, but couldn't put my finger on what it was. It's not the first time I've tried to figure this out, but, after hours of thought, I may actually have a clue, now.

Over the slightly more than 21 years I've been smoking and collecting pipes, I've noticed that, though my tastes in pipe sizes and shapes have changed several times, there's still something tying the collection together that has eluded categorization. It's easy to objectify shape, and even when we disagree over what a shape is called, we still acknowledge that the shape has a name, and that the pipe is that shape, whatever we call it.

I've gone through Princes, Bulldogs, Bent Bulldogs, Rhodesians, Billiards, Canadians, Lovats, Liverpools, Apples, and most recently, Scandinavian free form pipes. Not the weirdly shaped things that were very popular in the 70's, but really elegantly shaped variants of classical and neoclassical shapes; pipes like Blowfish and Elephant's Foot, and pipes without names, but I know them when I see them.

Sometimes, I'm surprised by my reaction to a pipe. At one show last year, I was on my way out the door, on my way to the airport, when a friend of mine told me of a pipe he'd just gotten, and decided it was too small for him. I LIKE small pipes, so he figured me an easy mark. He pulled a little grade 5 Il Ceppo saddle bit Dublin out - perfect straight grain, beautifully cut, nice long shank; a beautiful pipe. I'd seen lots of very beautiful pipes over the weekend, so what's the big deal? This one had something else going on. I couldn't put my finger on it.

And, THAT is the one thing that ties every single pipe together in my eclectic and diverse collection of about 300 pieces; the thing that is now so obvious was so hard to pinpoint. Every pipe in my collection, every pipe I have ever been really attracted to, almost in love with, has soul.

To me, a pipe is far more than just a furnace, a mere vessel in which to smolder some shredded leaves. It's a piece of art. It's a connection with history. It's a connection with the pipe maker.

When I smoke one of my Dunhills or GBDs from turn of the 20th century, I feel a certain communion with the fellow who made that pipe, with his family, the people who lived near the factory, the time. I feel a connection with every person who has owned and smoked the pipe before me. I feel a connection with history.

When I smoke a Heeschen or a Bengt, a Teddy a Kent or an Eltang, a Talbert, Tinsky or Bonaquisti, and so many others, I think of the pipe maker, of my relationship with them, of our friendship, our conversations. And, when I smoke the hand-made pipes of other makers I've never met, I think of who they might be, wonder about their lives, their families, what we'd talk about if we were ever to meet.

I don't collect mass-produced pipes. All of my pipes are either hand-made, or come from a time when MOST of the work was still done by hand. For instance, the only Savinelli I have is a wonderful Autograph I picked up in Chicago last year. It's a big, beautiful pipe, sculpted by someone who took great care in making THIS pipe exactly what it is. I don't own any new Dunhills. They're great pipes, but they're just not for me. I like the old ones.

Not all hand-made pipes have "it," not all are the "is of isness." I'm not a fan of many of the pipes that are very popular today. I get the feeling, somehow, that the pipe maker is doing his job, producing pipes, not the feeling that the maker has a love affair with the wood, with the process, with pipes. (You should see the way Teddy Knudsen handles a piece of briar or a pipe, fondling it, looking at it with more than just his eyes, seeking to connect with the heart of the piece, to understand its spirit. This man LOVES briar, and it shows.)

But, man, when a pipe really has "it," when it sings its siren song to me, I've GOT to listen, to follow the voice. It's the difference between a pipe I like and pipe I love.

A pipe often has a story to tell, if we take the time to listen. One of the things that makes pipe smokers, as a group, different from other categories of people, is that we seem to be more willing to listen to the stories. It's part of who we are, and we become the stories of the future. Our pipes can be a timeless reminder of our place in the history, talismans of our connection to the infinite.

Yeah. Pipes can have soul.