Three months ago I had the painful experience of coming out of an engagement with someone I had known as my best friend for the past few years. It was a time when I could have easily imploded, but this time I tried to do a few things differently. The first has been intensifying my practice of yoga to discipline my body and watch my strength, flexibility, and balance grow better each day. The second was to start seeing a therapist and making the commitment of unraveling the big ball of neuroses that we all accumulate in the process of growing up. The third was my resolution to grow tobacco plants from seeds.
During the messier half of my twenties, I had an unhealthy cigarette smoking habit. After not smoking for more than 5 years, I decided to grow my own tobacco as a symbol of a lust I had conquered. If you’re the way I was when I first kicked the habit, you’re probably on the verge of gagging when you read the word “tobacco.” You’re thinking of the nauseating smell of stale tobacco permeating a heavy smoker’s clothes, their tainted teeth, fingernails, and breath. You’re thinking of one of the biggest cons of the last century, the tobacco giants and the victims they exploited for profits.
What surprised me most about growing and curing my own tobacco was how different it looks and smells from the conventional stuff. How tobacco is cured (the horticultural term for “aging”) determines how mature tobacco looks, smells, and tastes. With each cured batch, the combination of humidity, light, and how long tobacco is left to age determines its final character. While I know, as a physician and scientist, that inhaling any burned organic material is harmful, my personal experience has also led me to believe that the 200+ chemicals added to cigarettes further contribute to cigarettes’ addictive potential and physical toxicity. Cigarettes were engineered to be as addictive as possible.
I’m a creature of habit. Growing tobacco taught me that the conditions under which seedlings germinate are very different than the conditions under which a seedling grows, which are different than the conditions that a mature plant needs to reach its full potential. While a little shade won’t hurt tobacco, other than stunting its growth a little, the plants are exquisitely sensitive to dehydration, reminding me every evening to give them the water they need to continue reaching for the sun, shedding their leaves at their ankles as they perpetually outstretch their crowns to the sky. Curing perfect tobacco requires experimentation and patience; the first time is awkward, the experience not fully satisfying, but once you find the right environment to let your freshly harvested leaves marinate in time, patience, and love, they will never disappoint. (I found one particular room in my home in the Bay Area where my tobacco ages beautifully.)
Grown by many indigenous people as well as by early European immigrants to North America, families of means grew tobacco on their property for personal consumption the way they would tomatoes or carrots. A good harvest meant enough tobacco to last the year, and a bad harvest meant no tobacco for personal consumption or gifting until the following year. Growing tobacco has made me a more patient man, a more devout lover, and a wiser soul. If growing one’s own tobacco is an act of love, then cigarettes are prostitution: love stripped down to a strictly physical experience.
As I step into the Indian Summer of my bachelorhood, I look around and realize how grateful I am to still be healthy and young. Being single again in the Bay Area has been an incredible experience, a realization that had escaped me while I was too busy comparing my life’s timeline and milestones to those of my friends. It’s harvest time, and as I pick the leaves off my tobaccos and hang them to dry, I’m surprised by a text from an old college friend. The last time I had heard from him, he had just married a beautiful young woman, and I expected a house, a golden retriever, and kids to follow. I remember thinking how far behind my life milestones I was; friends younger than I were getting married and having kids, and there I was still a medical student. He was now going through a bad divorce, his text read, 3 years after his Facebook’s relationship status had changed to “Married.”
The ritual of growing, harvesting, and curing tobacco helps me apply the same patience, devotion, and love to all my life’s endeavors. Like the tiny seeds that didn’t germinate until they had the right conditions, so too does the progression through each of life’s stages require the right conditions, without which a seedling will perish. And like the innumerable seedlings that suddenly sprouted from a bed of seeds, so too does one need to choose and focus on a handful of opportunities while discarding the rest, for too many seedlings can crowd one another and keep any one seedling from maturing into a plant. And like the handful of plants that grew into tobaccos, so too does each plant eventually need its own soil, water, and sunlight, or else it risks withering in the shade of its neighbors and casting its own shade on others.