What is Fire and Why Do We Like It

Everyone loves fire. Perhaps not when it's burning down our house or enveloping neighboring forests, but under controlled circumstances, fire is hypnotically soothing. Few activities are more satisfying than gazing at a campfire, and we especially appreciate the way fire ignites our favorite tobaccos.

We're hard-wired to be fascinated by fire. Our evolution has progressed alongside and perhaps because of fire, which has been an essential factor in our survival since before we were homo sapiens. Homo Erectus used fire for cooking a million years ago. It's doubtful that they could actually generate fire, but they used it and learned how to preserve and probably transport it short distances. And cooking alone was instrumental in providing additional, less parasite-infested, and easier-to-chew-and-digest calories. Anthropologists believe that the responsibility of caring for a community fire enhanced our speech potential and social tendencies.

... fire enhanced our speech potential and social tendencies

In 1999, primatologist Richard Wrangham proposed what he called the "cooking hypothesis." Our distant and ancient ancestors became bipedal about 6 million years ago, freeing their hands for more dextrous applications, and about 2.3 million years ago, homo habilis arrived, generally considered the first recognizable human of our forebears. Their brains weren't much bigger than those of their predecessors, and they retained many ape-like qualities. About half a million years later, homo erectus arrived with brains twice that size and looking more like we do today. In a 2013 article on discovermagazine.com, author Kenneth Miller explains Wrangham's hypothesis:

Wrangham credits the transformation to the harnessing of fire. Cooking food, he argues, allowed for easier chewing and digestion, making extra calories available to fuel energy-hungry brains. Firelight could ward off nighttime predators, allowing hominins to sleep on the ground, or in caves, instead of in trees. No longer needing huge choppers, heavy-duty guts or a branch swinger's arms and shoulders, they could instead grow mega-craniums.

Thus, fire helped us get smarter, and contributed to the calories necessary for hungry brains to grow. At the same time, we were becoming more sociable and cooperative, because those who could work together to maintain fire had a higher incidence of survival and therefore better opportunity to contribute to the gene pool. Fire was a Darwinian game-changer.

... fire helped us get smarter

We have been gazing into fires for a million years, so it's easy to understand that we have a special relationship with it. In modern times, we have little need for continuous cook fires, but our relationship with fire remains and is especially poignant in terms of pipe smoking. We rely on fire to produce the plumes of smoke we enjoy, and there's little doubt that the manipulation of a bowl of tobacco and the ember of ignition that migrates through the bowl is similar to the activity of feeding and maintaining a fire, such as our ancestors did for uncountable generations.

Maybe we have an innate need for a personal relationship with fire and smoking fulfills that need. Pipe smokers may be especially attuned to that instinctive attraction. Cigar and cigarette smokers use one match and they're good, but we pipe smokers make a time of it, preparing our tobacco as if collecting tinder and firewood, loading the bowl as if arranging wood so that it will burn well, and feeding the ember of the burning tobacco by tamping, or providing additional oxygen by poking an aeration hole into the tobacco for improved combustion. Instead of a constant flame, however, we light and relight as necessary. When we're smoking, we're doing a pretty good job of approximating the tending of a campfire.

That doesn't mean we're more primitive than cigar and cigarette smokers, who seem to have capitalized on modern conveniences, but we may be more nostalgic. We seem not to be dismayed by the gadgetry and effort invested in maintaining a bowl of tobacco, which is often an objection voiced by those who try — and subsequently abandon — pipes.

We pipe smokers clearly have an affinity for flame, summoning it repeatedly as we enjoy our tobaccos. Still, fire represents an elusive concept. It is not solid matter, though it makes a visual impression; not liquid, though it flows and undulates like moving water; and not air, though it can be extinguished, in the small amounts we use it for, by a well-aimed breath. The ancient Greeks proposed a theory that all matter is made of a combination of four elements: earth, water, air, and fire. That understanding of matter became a foundational principle of philosophy, medicine, and science for thousands of years.

We pipe smokers clearly have an affinity for flame

We have learned more about fire since those days. It is not a fundamental element but is produced by a chemical reaction called combustion in which an ignition point is reached to produce a flame. Primarily composed of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and water vapor, fire emits heat and light as part of the reaction, both of which are useful when controlled and applied to our everyday lives.

The chemical reaction producing fire is called exothermic, which means that it releases more energy than is necessary for ignition itself. The reaction has three requirements: fuel, oxygen, and energy (typically that energy is in the form of heat). The chemical reaction will continue as long as sufficient fuel and oxygen are accessible.

When our pipes go out during a smoke, it's because one of these requirements is deficient. Most often it's because the fuel (tobacco) runs out, and we all know that ash doesn't burn; we need more tobacco or sometimes just the accessibility of tobacco through continuous tamping to bring more fuel to the active ember. At other times a pipe may go out several times before the fuel is exhausted because there is insufficient oxygen. Sometimes a heroic gesture is necessary, and we aerate the bowl by inserting a pick through the tobacco into the heel, opening an air channel. We may sometimes breathe lightly into the stem or blow into the top of the bowl to provide more oxygen or drape our fingers over the top of the bowl so that a bellows-like action of accelerated air supply will bring more robust combustion to our bowls.

Smoking a pipe is a balancing act in which the smoker continuously monitors the chemical reaction and modulates their technique to achieve a pleasant burn rate. Eventually, we reach an experience level at which the maintenance of combustion is natural and thoughtless, much as our forebears maintained their fires so intuitively after learning the basic rules of engagement.

Smoking a pipe is a balancing act

When we smoke our pipes, we are not merely enjoying flavor sensations available through no other means, but reaching into our prehistory and ancestry by approximating the foundational activity of the survival of our species. Fire, at a fundamental level of our psychology, represents warmth, contentment, and the ability to thrive in an unfriendly world.

Carl Jung wrote, "The difference between a good life and a bad life is how well you walk through the fire." We pipe smokers walk that path daily, and our lives are enhanced by the flames and flavors of our favorite pastime, integrating our past and present and acknowledging the importance of fire, which may not at this point in our evolution be necessary for daily survival, but nevertheless warms the soul and connects us with the keystone of our beginnings.

Category:   Pipe Line
Tagged in:   History Lighters


    • Alan B on September 24, 2021
    • Thanks for this article, Chuck. A great perspective on the motivations behind the hobby.

    • Clint on September 24, 2021
    • "...we may be more nostalgic". That's the damned truth. The entire pipe-smoking industry relies on us being nostalgic, but more and more I realize nostalgia just isn't what it used to be...

    • Daniel Shipley on September 24, 2021
    • Thank you for the campfire video, it calmed my racing thoughts, lowered my blood pressure, and allowed me to turn back into Bruce Banner. Like Pavlov's dog, those hypnotic flames brought back memories and triggered a response in me to step out into the night, light up a pipe, enjoy the sky, cool air, and the sounds that mother nature provides at nighttime. Makes me want to go off the grid. Nostalgia may be different nowadays, but I believe that there are still longings and memories engrained in our DNA that goes back to the beginning of life. That campfire video must have been on a loop, the wood (fuel) was never consumed. The eternal flame. I also enjoyed the comparison to pipe smokers and other methods of consuming tobacco. I've dabbled with cigarettes and cigars; I find the ritual, preparation, and sensory experience of smoking a pipe to be more relaxing and therefore lending to a deeper meditative thought process. It can be therapeutic...restorative. Like hitting the reset button. Thank you, Chuck.

    • Frank P. on September 26, 2021
    • I love to read your articles Chuck. Varied and interesting always. The fire by the river is a nice touch too. Slainte!

    • D. on September 26, 2021
    • Most excellent article, Chuck. I remember having a pretty good laugh at that Jerry King comic when it was first released, his work reminds me of Gary Larson: The Far Side. I totally agree that 'fire' shaped us as a species and impacted our evolution. Scientist say that the human population is still evolving. I just hope that pipes and tobacco don't get phased out sometime in our future evolution. You just don't see people smoking pipes on board STAR TREK'S 'The USS Enterprise'. Though Scotty still drinks his whisky, at least that's something.

    • Bubba D on September 26, 2021
    • There is no question that I have an affinity for flame. I teach wilderness survival skills, including starting a fire with bow drill or flint and steel as well as fire building, and my pipe smoking is clearly an extension for that love of the process required for maintaining the flame. Your article nails it Mr. Stanion. Well done!

    • MH on September 26, 2021
    • An excellent reflection -- thanks for sharing this!

    • Linwood on September 26, 2021
    • Thanks for another superb article Chuck! To add, there are papers on the sacredness of fire, as well as the sacredness of pipe smoking - obviously the two are of the same human psyche - and desires!

    • πŸ”₯πŸ”₯πŸ”₯ on September 26, 2021
    • Tyger Tyger, burning bright, In the forests of the night; What immortal hand or eye, Could frame thy fearful symmetry?In what distant deeps or skies. Burnt the fire of thine eyes?On what wings dare he aspire?What the hand, dare seize the fire? -William Blake

    • πŸ”₯πŸ”₯πŸ”₯ on September 26, 2021
    • *sieze the fireπŸ”₯

    • Very Like a Hobbit Except For Their Hairy Feet on February 15, 2022
    • Without question, THE most reliable way I've ever found for starting a campfire -- even in wet, cold, windy conditions -- is to stack your tinder and kindling carefully and then place a bunch of the finest grade of steel wool below your tinder. Then touch both terminals of a 9-volt battery to the steel wool. That completes a circuit which heats the steel wool red hot very fast, and lights the tinder, which lights the kindling, and "Robert is your father's brother!" You can then use a burning or glowing piece of tinder or kindling to light your pipe. Oh, and you can also warm yourself and also cook your food, of course, but lighting your pipe takes top priority.

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