by G.L. Pease
“Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which con- templates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty. One person may even perceive deformity, where another is sensible of beauty; and every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment, without pretending to regulate those of others.”
– David Hume, “Of the Standard of Taste,” 1757
It was many years ago, during one my sabbaticals from my regular role as a code slinger and bit wrangler on the computer frontier. As I often did during my self- imposed exiles from the cultural necropolis of technology, I found myself employed part time within the comfortably anachronistic sanctuary of a tobacconist’s shop.
One day, I was in the back of the shop, the “factory,” up to my elbows in fragrant tobacco, lost in that Zen-like reverie well- known to bakers and blenders. The wife of the fellow who owned the place at the time (I’m nearly as old now as he was then— a sobering thought) wandered back to see what was going on behind the curtains. She watched over the top of her glasses, strangely fascinated by what I was doing— weighing out quantities of different leaf from large tubs stacked neatly on shelves around the room, carefully running my fingers through the strands, teasing them apart, then coaxing them back together as evenly as possible into a homogeneous mixture, periodically adjusting the moisture with gentle sprays until it felt just right. After a while, she interrupted my deliberate movements with an observation.
“You seem to really enjoy what you’re doing.”
“I do!” I enthusiastically replied.
This woman openly despised everything to do with tobacco, which accentuated the odd dynamic between her and the store’s keeper. Their relationship was a study in contrasts. He was a rough-around-the-edges but fairly well-educated fellow, with what my mother would have called a sailor’s vocabulary, and had a pronounced predilection for misanthropy. Often sporting a couple of days of grizzle on his face, he spoke with a gruff voice and a manner to match. He was rarely seen without an imported cigarette, a pipe—usually a Dunhill—or the stub of a cigar clenched between his teeth. She, on the other hand, was more refined in speech and appearance, her voice soft, her graying hair carefully coiffed, her modest outfits carefully chosen. She spoke kindly of and to others. Yet despite her gentle nature, she could have been the blackshirt poster girl for a modern-day anti-tobacco temperance movement. How they managed to get together, and get along, is anyone’s guess.
A few ticks later, she caught me off my guard with a legitimate but completely unexpected question: “Why?”
I’d never really thought about it. There was something meditative about blending, and it engaged my mind and my hands in the same way that many other creative arts do. But there was something more, some- thing deeper, and it took a little mental excavation to reach it.
“It’s like a sort of alchemy,” I said. “The elements of earth and water, of air and fire are brought together in the growing, the harvesting, the curing, the processing, the blending and, finally, in the smoking of the finished product. There’s beauty in the cycle of the transformation. Ashes to ashes. Seed to smoke. It starts as almost nothing, a tiny speck that is planted, nurtured along a trajectory of art and science and agriculture, and ends in a cloud of satisfaction and pleasure.” She stood silently for a few moments, still watching, then, “Hmm. Interesting.” Without another word, she turned and left. I’d dodged her bullet and gained a little insight into my own thoughts on the subject.
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