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A Winter Smoke

 

Winter in Victoria can be gloomy, for sure. Sometimes the clouds stay so long you almost forget
what the sky looks like behind them. Sometimes the rain lasts for days on end. I've felt this gloom
myself in past years, but have since found a way to keep it away: strategically timed walks
complimented by a good pipe-smoke.


If you want to survive a Victorian winter emotionally unscathed, the key is to think tactically
about the weather. Last week, the wind rushed in hard off the Straight of Juan de Fuca, bringing a sharp
rain with it. As a result, I spent most of my time comfortably inside, watching through the sliding-glass
door in my living room as branches swayed and raindrops bounced, and listening to the white noise of
it all.


But earlier today there came a warm calm, a balmy high-pressure system from the south. Surely
it was time for one of my therapeutic walks. The first question was: which pipe do I pack?
Considering that I intended to be out for at least a couple of hours, I needed a large bowl, so I
went for the largest in my collection – a Brigham Voyageur, a billiard bent like a shepherd's crook, with
a coarse rustication and deep cherry finish. This pipe never fails me: it holds a good hour-and-a-half of
smoke, and always burns proper, right to the end of the plug. Today I decided to pack it with Solani
White-and-Black, a ready-rubbed English black flake hand-blended in Germany to be heavy and
smooth, punctuated delicately with orientals and latakia. Because I wanted to stretch the smoke out for
a long walk, this rich, slow-burning tobacco was perfect. I tamped it in, grabbed my keys and coat, and
was out the door.


However infrequently the sky is blue here in January, when it is, it's a blue like nothing else.
The blue of the North-Pacific winter is subtle, easy to miss. And like so many things that are easy to
miss, it is truly precious. As much as the warm summer sky automatically brings us outside and wakes
up all the trees, so the cold blue of the winter sky needs to be sought out, like a fine vintage, or a rare
book. Because I live across the street from the beach, I got an eyeful of this blue as I stepped out into
my front yard. Standing there, taking it all in, I saw the sky, the still surface of the harbour reflecting it,
and the Sooke Hills across the water. I carefully lit my pipe, being sure to get the slow, even burn that I
was after. I wanted it to smoulder like the low winter sun over the Olympic mountains to the south, and
as it did, the heat of the unseasonal weather kicked puffs of white cloud off the distant foothills, so that
the snow-capped peaks seemed to float above them.


I crossed to the sea-side of the street and followed the coast east, thinking as I walked and
smoked how beautiful this place can be, especially in the off-season, when one can have a modicum of
space to one's self while enjoying the stretch of park along the Dallas Road bluffs. It's nice to be out in
the summer amidst the hustle-bustle of cruise-shippers, joggers, and dog-walkers, but one simply can't
smoke comfortably among so many people who don't smoke themselves. Soon a new bylaw will make
it a minor offence, like jay-walking, to smoke in such public places. But even though this law has not
yet come to pass, when smoking in crowds one must still deal with people's glares, feigned coughs, and
loudly-spoken exclamations of disgust and contempt. So these winter days bring not only the brilliant
electric shock of the cold blue sky, but also the space and air to breathe in from a nice pipe – a situation
that is altogether suited for relaxed contemplation and general gloom-relief.
As I came to the mound for which Beacon Hill Park was named, I turned from the sea, crossed
back to the other side of the road, and began to climb. In April this hillside is covered with camas lilies
and tall green grasses, but today the grass was brown and flat against the earth, the lilies waiting
underground for the absent warmth, just as all the people who would also be here in spring waited now
inside their heated homes. I crossed the hill to the southeast side, to where the graves of Lekwungen
chiefs are marked by boulder-cairns and stone circles, made more prominent then by the bareness of the
ground around them and the brightness of the lichen coat that bloomed orange and green against the
grey stone, made plush by the winter damp. If I had thought to bring a bit extra, I would have sprinkled
a bit of my tobacco there - a sign of respect for the land shared by nearly all indigenous cultures in the
Americas.


This connection between tobacco and the spirit of the land is obvious to anyone who has ever
meditated over a pipe or cigar in a place of natural beauty: a warm heavy feeling comes over the body,
gently rooting it to the ground, while the mind is quickened, sharpening the senses. Colours become
more vibrant, shapes become more sharply defined, and everything is seen in greater detail. A
correspondence is struck between the sound of wind through branches and the emotional state of the
smoker. This was what I felt as I rounded over the hill, past the cairns, and emerged into a copse of
twisted gary oaks. Their jagged branches spiralled up stark black against the cold blue. The ground was
still a dull brown; but woven through the rough bark of the oaks, and perched thick where their
branches forked, was a green coat of moss and small ferns. While the trees slept, the little bryophytes
who lived on them soaked up rain and grew lush in the cool air.


When it had been an hour since I left home, and my pipe was half-smoked, I took one last
moment with the trees, and turned back to the water and homeward. As I approached the bluffs I could
see that across the water the clouds had risen dark above the mountains and now made a chiaroscuro
with the white peaks. I took my time on the way home, and as I walked, the sun began to sink into the
west, its light becoming redder as it dropped. The snow on the far mountains turned from white to pink
as the clouds above softened from grey to purple, until, just as I came to my front door, my pipe gave
up its last bit of smoke, and the sun extinguished itself behind the hills across the harbour.
This is just one of many ways to relieve the dolour of winter in Victoria, one that works
particularly well for me, as it did today, and one that might work for you as well. As I have said, the
key is strategy. Take what the cold season has to offer that the warm does not: the solitude, the pale sky,
the stark trees, the green moss, ferns and lichens, and the pink of the sunset reflected off mountain
snow. Any of these things taken on their own could warm a frozen spirit. Take them all together, and
you have a recipe for peace of mind and happiness that could easily bring anyone through these short
days to the Spring that's waiting just the other side of February.