For many Native American people tobacco is a highly sacred plant that is stitched into many creation myths and so in some ways ritual use of tobacco is mandatory for simply just being in the world. The plant is used as medicine in varying ways, in ceremony, (neither of which I know anything about) and is given as gifts to people but also to the natural world when some kind of taking must happen. For instance it is not uncommon to gift the sibling trees of the one you might cut down a gift of tobacco at their roots. Or before hunting to gift the land tobacco. Or if you have to move a sizable stone you might leave tobacco in the hole.
The fortune I have cannot be tallied for having a substantial garden space in my home in New York City. Many or most don’t have the same privilege. To be able to grow some food and to have my hands in a small patch of earth is a kind of true wealth indeed. It took years of bringing in soil and soil remediation and cleaning to make it okay to eat what grows here. My sun isn’t great and will probably get worse with a new highrise going up, but I have some.
There is decent evidence that tobacco was grown on the island of Manhattan where I live for a least 6,000 years, possibly longer. But certainly in the area for that long. If you have an understanding of the earth being alive then I wonder if the land here misses having had tobacco grow in the soil here. In the same way that the scent of a particular food from your childhood drops your chin to your sternum with nodding gratitude. And that might be a sizable reason why I’m growing these tobacco plants here and now; to see if I might court a relationship with the place and see if that might enrich my capacity to more fully inhabit the place of where I live and not just the city of where I live. Maybe the place will speak back. Maybe.
This is my third year of trying to grow tobacco in my garden in New York City. After the second failed year I asked a friend who has been growing tobacco for some pointers. Her counsel worked and this year I have real tobacco plants that you can see here in the pictures. One of the things that my friend June said was that all plants can be teachers but that tobacco is a real unique kind of teacher but she didn’t want to say more about what tobacco might say.
It is worth saying again if you are a new reader to these missives, I am a Jewish lifelong, born and bred New Yorker. And while some of my ancestors rolled cigars professionally, I have no ritual history with tobacco. This is an attempt to learn as opposed to trying to become or appropriate anything indigenous.
Perhaps with all of these learnings about old ways and paths that are written about here in these missives week to week the aim should not be the mimicking step-for-step emulation of the ancients and their ways. Sometimes those ways are not walkable, let alone seeable to our modern eye. But, maybe it is to experience for our circles, and ourselves, the aspects of human existence out of which arose those ancient forms which when we see them elicit such a feeling of longing.
If we seek to only and solely replicate then otherwise, we, the modern ones may remain forever superficial while the real will remain ancient, far away, and therefore, outside of ourselves and our lived experience.
So, I’m not sure what lesson I’ll be learning from tobacco. Or from growing tobacco. But I do know that while cases of the highly infectious coronavirus continue to frighteningly climb that tobacco was instrumental to modern science understanding what viruses even are.
In 1882 German pathologist Robert Koch discovered the bacterium that caused the scourge of his day – tuberculosis. In his publication of his discovery he included a short guide for linking microorganisms to the diseases they caused as far as he knew them at the time. This even more fully confirmed the science of germ theory, the modern understanding that specific pathogens make us sick. But it didn’t only shed light on medicine. The world of botany also was glad for Koch’s discoveries.
European tobacco crops in the 1800’s were suffering from a blight of what was called ‘mosaic disease.’ Botanical pathologists set out to identify its root cause but were stumped. A Dutch botanist, Martinus Beijerinck, realized the source was neither a bacterial nor a fungal infection, but something completely different. But what that something different was to be figured out.
Today, it is common knowledge that viruses can be found nearly anywhere. Most viruses are harmless, about 8% of human DNA is virus DNA. Some viruses are extremely dangerous like the coronavirus we are contending with currently. But viruses are so small—and so strange—that it would take decades for scientific consensus to agree that they exist at all.
With this ‘mosaic disease’ Beijerinck, and other scientists, in a race to find the cure took a similar approach – get tobacco sap from sick plants, filter it through porcelain dust and then see if what came through the other side would re-infect the tobacco. And it did. While other scientists thought they had made errors Beijerinck named the mysterious contagion contagium vivum fluidum—a contagious, living fluid. As a shorthand, he reintroduced the word “virus” from the Latin for a liquid poison to refer specifically to this new kind of pathogen. Though he was wrong about a virus being a fluid his ideas didn’t really find much purchase and just sort of sat around because the technology didn’t exist yet to see a virus but bacteria could be seen. Other unknowingly viral diseases went unsolved as being specifically virally induced until the late 20’s until better technology allowed viruses to be seen.
While the tobacco mosaic disease was not solved in the lifetime of Beijerinck he is considered the progenitor of virology not just by coining the name of the word that is so often on our lips the last few months and likely to come for some time but also by creating the first processes to filter for viruses.
All this said it allows for the fact that one thing the human relationship with the tobacco plant has taught humans is the knowledge of viruses. This is a thing to learn from tobacco.
There are different ways of having a relationship with the natural world. Here at Primal Derma it seems important to stand for the esoteric ones as well as the practical and efficacious ones and consider both of them as kinds of relationships worth having. So while the relationship with cows, the land, and human health all matter in our gathering of tallow to make skin care so does the efficacy and the Omega 3s and conjugated linoleic acids in the tallow which are just modern scientific names for ways of knowing. I still can’t say what I will learn from growing tobacco but I have learned about how critical it was for humans to reckon more fully with our health.
Thanks for reading and for your support.
Until soon enough
Both tobacco articles were fantastic as I use it for pipes and cigars. Much respect Matt