Tobacco Morning Fire
Last summer my dad grew a tobacco plant in Nebraska where he lives. When it was ready, he cut and dried the leaves in the sun. He gave me a couple leaves when I visited over Christmas. They are incredibly long and wide, the color of a perfectly toasted campfire marshmallow.
The scent of the leaves when burned is like fall leaves or the autumn season itself. It’s interesting to think how, on its own, without our cultural baggage, no one used to get addicted to it. It’s actually used as herbal medicine. It opens and dries the lungs. It’s a stimulant. It's considered "hot."
In Eastern medicine traditions, the Lung organ is associated with fall, the shrinking of Yang or heat, the rising of Yin or cold, the element of metal, the smell of rottenness (think of the wet decay of fallen leaves), climate aspect of dryness, pungent taste, the sound of crying, the emotion of grief. So tobacco might have a relationship with emotional disturbances like grief. Indeed, in an article I found about traditional Amazonian uses of tobacco, the tabaquero mentions his clinical practice of over 30 years, using tobacco for mental disturbances.1 Tobacco has deep implications as a gift, purifier, offering, one of the three sacred plants to First Nation peoples.
In the morning in the yurt I live in, I start the fire with a few splits of pine from a stand that died down the hill. Next to the woodstove I have a bundle of sage a friend gave me this winter from her visit to New Mexico, where I was born. It was fresh picked and smelled like a place not close to here, not from here at all, from far far away. In the morning fire I often add some sage, some birch, and now, some tobacco from my dad.
At some point, the genes that live within me, which patiently carried meaning and form for thousands of years before me, were native to somewhere. The people who carried them hung around some place long enough to become particular, to adapt. One of these places was an island off the coast of Ireland called Inishmaan. Just a few generations ago, everyone a branch of “me” was related to lived there. Another branch came from farther north, Norway. Yet another branch was from Finland, which potentially is related to the Sami people.
I relate to the present place I live, in the north, where winters feel long and there is often deep snow. Though I can’t say how much those polymer strands contribute to my present feeling. I don’t really know, in this present life, what it’s really like to be from somewhere. So I feel a little awkward when I offer tobacco, like a fraud stealing other people’s rituals. I offer sage from my birthplace, and I offer birch too: pieces of places I am from.
It might seem strange, but a month ago, when I started burning herbs on the fire in the morning, I felt a sudden difference in the day. Maybe I imagined it, but starting the day with something reverent, something offered, with actual gratitude, has an effect. It has slowly but surely, like a winch on a wrecker pulling a car from a frozen ditch, pulled me out of a place or direction I’ve been stuck in for years. My whole life really. It’s something I’ve been working on and trying to transform for a long time. But I guess this offering, while part of that process, was also a sudden break from the old pattern strong enough to make a noticeable difference.
Outside the light slowly changes. Chickadees bounce happily along the margins of the field. They survived the storm that covered these hills with deep drifts of powdery snow. The morning light in the east is pale peach. The sun rises earlier each day. The fire I started burns in front of me, and soon I add another log. In this moment, at least, I know where I belong.