Now is the in-between time. It’s no longer really summer but fall is not yet here. The fishing is as good as it’s been all year, but for me at least, it’s like a good bowl of tobacco in a favorite pipe. It started off well, full of potential and excitement. There were a few hiccups along the way, a little burble in the shank, probably due to the moisture that has stoved into the hills for what seems like weeks on end, and has had a soggy effect on the fishing too. The mid point was strong, tasty and full of moments of pleasure. A few times I was greedy and puffed harder, trying to demand more from the sweet smoky leaf, and as always, I got bit. Now near the end my tongue has grown weary, and the flavors, while still present, have fallen victim to my own fatigue. I’m going through the motions, only occasionally surprised by some level of texture rather than taste.
Deer season opened yesterday, but the predator in me hasn’t yet been stirred by the cooling air. I can’t hunt when its hot, and I’m confused by those who can. I’m working with the dog every chance I get and getting excited when I spot a grouse along a Forest Service road. The mast looks like it will be a good one and the squirrels are already fat and feisty. Grouse season won’t be here for another month and the squirrels and other small game still have two months of peace before they are harassed and harried by near misses from a .22 caliber rifle, the occasional unlucky one looks the wrong way left or right, moving his head into the path of an errant shot.
I’m currently on the front porch with a bowl of a sample English, in a tall chimney Saseini second. Off in the woods I can hear the call of a screech owl. The poor lonely bastard sounds like he might leave the limb at any moment, purposely fail to open his wings, and hit the ground with a dull thud, ending it all. The screech owl is a tiny raptor not much bigger than a robin. Its call however, is larger than the woods in this quiet in-between moment just as the sun is setting, the night slipping out of the coves and hollers to settle in to the fading valley floor.
My superstitious grandmother, who I called Mamaw, use to tell me that when I heard his lonesome cry that it meant someone I knew was going to die soon. I’m sure for her this was true. She had lived long enough to know lots of folks and a good many of them were already near the end. For a child this was terrifying. I didn’t really know that many people and most of those I did know, I depended on for food and shelter. As an adult I laugh to myself and think, “well of course.”
As an older child, I sat on Pop and Mamaw’s front porch down in the foothills listening to call of the little owl and to stories about my unhinged, hillbilly folk hero of an uncle, that had lived a few miles up the road in the mountains. He was a rolling stone of a man, full of adventure, who always made it home to his good and patient wife and their passel of wild kids. They were poor, just as we all were, but he always had money hid back somewhere when they needed it. He relentlessly tortured his children with practical jokes and other mischief, a trait that was supposedly passed down to them, and so on to my cousins, who I was always fairly guarded around. Those stories, about that man (whom I never met), told to me during that awkward time in between childhood and adulthood probably had more bearing on the path I would eventually take, than any other one influence in my life.
On the second week of November the brown trout will spawn in the Davidson river and I will turn 40. Some of you reading I am sure just chuckled and rolled your eyes. "Forty is young." you tell me, "wait till you are....." While I’ll concede that point, I still argue that my perspective on mortality is 10 years better now, than it was when I considered it at 30. I know a lot more people now, and even Mamaw has chosen to follow the call of the little screech owl.
Forty is, with out a doubt, an in-between time. I’m far too old to be cool and far too young to be respectable. I haven’t really proven anything at this point, but I’m not yet to the point where I have nothing left to prove. Sure I can fix things around the house and I have some concept of how money works, but the only thing I’m really old enough to know is that I’m not really old enough to know anything.
At this point the tobacco in my pipe has lost its sweetness and is starting to turn spicy and existential. I take a few slow gentle puffs, hoping to coax something subtle out of this concentrated and nicotine laden mass of tar and ash. My heart begins to race as a euphoric anxiety settles over me. Ive been at this bowl for the better part of an hour and I’m just now to that spot the cigarette smoker gets on his first draw. I don’t inhale my pipes and I’m not addicted to the tobacco, but that doesn’t mean that the drugs aren’t there (It also doesn’t mean that Im not an addict, Im just not covering that topic here). This is a sensory thing for me, the smells the tastes, the thoughts, the intricacies of packing, lighting, pace and rhythm that make a well prepared tobacco perform as its supposed in a well made piece of briar. The idea that, if you get it right, the experience can be like tasting a fine wine, but with the counter balance that, if you get it wrong, the experience will be like a mouth full of bitter ash and lye. The line here is very thin, and must be walked carefully. At first with great attention, and later with out any attention at all, allowing your unconscious mind to operate the rhythms it has developed through repetition and practice, while considering other matters entirely. To give your pipe any conscious thought at all, is to cause your experience to vanish like the wisps of smoke a few feet out from your face. To do this properly you have to find that space in between presence and disassociation, that uncomfortable place where your mind is open and vulnerable to its own thoughts and demons. You have to find that place, and stay there.
This place, this state of mind, this in-between space is not just proper for smoking a pipe but for any task that requires a great deal of focus, with out a great deal of thought. Its been described many times by athletes as ‘in the zone.” In his 1976 book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, author, and Princeton University Psychologist, Julian Jaynes makes a case that up until about 2000 B.C. that most everyone operated in this space/zone almost all the time (He also makes a great deal of other controversial arguments that won’t be necessary to tackle here but I encourage you to pick up the book and warp your mind a bit when every you have the free time). Most of us also find ourselves in this space more than we would think. Unfortunately we waste this wonderful gift on things like driving cars, and playing video games (How many times have you arrived at your destination without any real conscious recollection of how you got there?). It would be much better wasted on a trout stream, at a firing range, stalking a stand of hardwoods, or playing an instrument with a group of strung out jazz musicians.
The lack of smoke from the pipe jolts me back to reality. There is a conscious task to perform. The moisture from the combustion in the top half of the chamber has been filtering down through the bottom layers of tobacco just ahead of the the cherry. This makes the bottom layers a bit more difficult to keep lit and will eventually end is what is know as dottle. Dottle is the small amount of soggy nasty tobacco in the bottom of the bowl that has acted as filter for most of the smoke, won’t take a flame, and is not that pleasurable to smoke even if you can get it lit. It is usually knocked out and thrown away, unless you are Sherlock Holmes and own a Persian slipper. I haven’t reached the point of dottle yet, but talking to you has caused me to forget to tamp the pipe and now I have to relight. If I am lucky, and I prepared everything correctly in the beginning, the drying of the tobacco, the packing of the pipe, the lighting and tamping, etc., then I may burn clean all they way to the bottom with just a bit of ash and no dottle at all. This happens occasionally.
The first stream of smoke after the relight is strong, thick and dry. I need to slow my cadence after a few puffs and get back to my space. The crickets and cicadas are calling quiet to each other now. The screech owl has gone silent but is out there somewhere close by. He is either perched on a limb high up an oak tree ripping the head off a small and still struggling rodent, or plotting to. In the late winter he will call again and reach the ears of his good and patient wife. They will reunite in a hollow tree, make love, and rear their altricial young. He will hunt for and feed her while she incubates the future, tender moments between savage killers. Im sure he looks forward to seeing her again but for now he hunts and lives alone. I think about his cry and wonder if its not just the instinctual call of a night bird or if it serves some other purpose for him. What sense does it make to announce to the forest of prey that you are now preparing to take lives? Is he such a hunter and so strongly a believer in fair chase that such a warning is only proper? I think about the old english fox hunters blowing a horn before the hunt as I draw on the old english style tobacco from my pipe (made in England by Englishmen), a pipe that is literally called an Old English.
I don’t think this little bird is much of an aristocrat. There must be some other reason for his call. There are other owls in the forest and they call in the evening just as he does. Night will be here soon and there are mice and rabbits to be killed and eaten, there are probably preparations to be made for winter. With the summer days so long it leaves little time to get things done for owls and vampires. Soon he will have to find a suitable hole in a tree for his mate, and during the spring he will attend to her and the kids until they can fend for themselves, by early summer the cycle starts all over again. All of his time is consumed with work and family. When does he sit on a limb with the boys, chew on a rabbits foot, puke up pellets, and discuss last nights hunt, the lack of good mouse habitat, how things aren’t like the use to be? Does he gather with the boys on the banks of the creek for a quick drink, and maybe shit on a few rocks to slick em up a bit for the next days fishermen?
Nature has made him a solitary creature. His nights are spent alone. He works and toils in silence, he dedicates himself to his tasks and his family. He cries in the in-between time, not for help but just to get it out. This is his moment of reflection as the sun is setting. His time to mourn not what was lost but what he has never had. The good lord made him a killer, not a social animal. He envies the mice and rabbits who he will soon murder, and as it all wells up in side of him he cries out a cathartic shrill and whinnied call before he flies down from his perch to get on with his nightly duties.
The last draw from the pipe has no resistance and whistles through the stem. It has smoked down to ash and left no dottle. I make my own little call as I blow forcefully through the mouth piece to clear any small pieces of tobacco and ash that may have made their way into the shank of the pipe. It is getting late now and I need to go in and tuck the girls into bed. If I have time I’ll watch a TV show with the wife before we head to bed.
Have to get up early in the morning.
Plenty of work to do.