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The Silence of Tobacco

The Silence of Tobacco

by Giovanni Fernández Valdés

My grandfather, who smoked cigars since he was 15 years old, always told me that the practice was a solitary act, one that involved great pleasure, and it provided a chance to find yourself. I always thought that it also had a certain dose of melancholy.

From the moment I arrived at the Quemado del Rubí Plantation in San Juan y Martínez, I think my belief turned into a confirmation: the entire process of producing and collecting tobacco is, per se, a silent pact between Man and Plant.

You can see it when the farmer puts the first seed into soil: it is a soliloquy with the plant that it will become in five or six months’ time. You pray to God that the weather will be good, that there will be enough rain, that there won’t be too much sun and that the cold weather will let the stalks and leaves grow strong. This mystical communion is almost always conducted in silence, with no words to get in the way of the ritual.

And so the tobacco plant begins its growing cycle in soil that is perhaps not very fertile, with little water and a lot of sun, and perhaps with an uncertain prognosis for its survival. Likewise, this is a survival process that has to take place in strictest solitude, without the discomfort of having any other plant nearby, otherwise everything dies. And it would seem that the Plant Kingdom has been complicit in deciding to give it its own space, its own path bound up with Man, because very little grows by its side and if it should make an appearance, it is as if the tobacco plant demands that the farmer weed out that inconvenient neighbor plant.

Whenever you visit a tobacco plantation, what really impresses you is the tranquility of the place, resignation to the fact that here you have to work hard, but without company.

And so the moment arrives to harvest the leaves. The farmer protects the plant from the north winds that blow in diseases. The tobacco knows that the farmer will not let any pests encroach into its space. The plant stands firm, its leaves grow and the farmer, bending over, first picks the leaves that are closest to the earth. And thus, for a moment, they are together so that the north winds do not stunt growth or impede that future cigar and its final smoke.

When the leaves have been collected, the process of sewing them is undertaken by women, another act of extreme solitude. Should you attempt to strike up a conversation with any of them, you realize that you are cutting into the silence, that you have interrupted the ritual. Their blackened hands, their aprons and their hair pulled back merge together with the sturdy thread and the long needles doing their work in the curing barns. Men and women living at the farm have been involved in jobs related with tobacco ever since they were children, forever.

Then, the leaves are left to their fate, slowly drying, while they need yet again the complicity of the farmers to do battle against the inclemency of the weather.

The deveining and the art of making the cigar strike up a new conversation between Man and Leaves. Every one of the layers has its own vital importance for the vitola, but if you were to ask a tobacco farmer how he makes his choices, he would almost always answer: “The leaves tell me; all you have to do is listen to them and you will see how each one reveals itself to you at the right time.”

The Apostle José Martí would write that at a given moment “of supreme anguish we light up a cigar or a cigarette, the smoke then envelops us, not just our chest, but right into our soul, and it later seems that within the whitish spirals some part of our immense sadness dissolves into the distance.”

At the Finca Quemado del Rubí Plantation, I also heard people say that you only give the gift of a cigar to someone you sincerely appreciate so that they can enjoy it in silence and so that they can encounter their deepest thoughts between the smoke and the ash, as my grandfather used to say.

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