Calabash has come to represent a shape not a gourd
Current wisdom suggests that acceptable gourds can only be grown in the Ladismith region of South Africa. When Calabash proliferated they were cultivated for the specific purpose of becoming a pipe. Presently, if you can find a farmer that grows the gourd he doesn’t grow it or shape it to be a pipe. In North America they are grown mostly for crafters. In Africa the are grown for crafters and for more utilitarian use.
Availability of Briar vs. Calabash
I believe there should also be no shortage of gourds. Yet there is. If you do find a source for gourds, the odds of finding a suitable shape, with suitable wall thickness, lack of mold, mottling, or cracks is slim. The problem is not regional, it is economical. Nobody can afford to nurture and grow gourds as they did in the last century. Like briar, the process cannot be mechanized. Farmers need to now grow for the niche market; artisans like myself.
My personal search for Calabash
The History of The Calabash states the US Calabash is of a different species, Lagenaria siceraria (Bottle Gourd) and can’t be used for pipe making. I was told you need Lageneria Vulgaris and that you can‘t make a pipe from a gourd grown in the United States. I figured I’d try anyway; after all “a rose by any other name is still a rose.“ Tell me something can’t be done and I’m apt to try. I do this to learn by my mistakes and to form my own conclusions, conclusions which might or might not be the same as the experts. Guess what?
My conclusions differ
In 1909, he wrote a circular (Circular No. 41) for the US Department of Agriculture called The South African Pipe Calabash. His audience was the home gardener. In theory the home gardener living in the States could grow their own gourds and for pennies fashion a pipe. Supposedly the growing season and climate in the states is not conducive to such an endeavor. Based on my experiments, I believe that the seeds have evolved and adapted to our climates and conditions, and are now suitable for pipe making. What differs among US gourds and South African gourds is the cultivation and care during the growing process. The US gourds are grown primarily for crafters and artists, not pipesmiths. The African gourds are also grown for crafters and for more utilitarian uses. Nobody seems to be growing them for pipes!
My search for suitable gourds
I am not the only pipe maker to face such calamity, such odds. Bill Taylor of Ashton Pipes had one (1) Calabash he planned to use to fashion a pipe for Gary Schrier in research for The History of The Calabash Pipe (to be reviewed in next month's newsletter.) The demonstration was to take place in Taylor’s London workshop. It was canceled because the gourd met “early mechanical destruction.” This was in 2001, and the odds aren’t getting any better. Or are they?
You need your “pitch rate” to be effectively nil
Gone are the seeds, the culture and unfortunately, the demand. Even in the Ladismith area of South African, one Calabash farmer turned to US seeds as a source. Has the Calabash come full circle? They met with failure as the seeds which grew fine in the states failed to thrive in South Africa. I learned this first hand from a farmer in South Africa who had been growing the calabash for over a decade. He now has seeds which grow prolifically on his farm.
A conversation with South Africa
He also told me that they (the blacks - his words) use the gourds primarily to carry water, and their “treasures.” The farmer, presumably white, uses his gourds to grow his herbs in. When he spoke of the gourds usage, he became animated and his accent thickened to the point where I could no longer understand what he was saying. His wife uses them to make African art and crafts which she sells on the South African equivalent to Craigslist. Anything they can make with them, and sell, is a boon as jobs are scarce.
Their daughter acts as a liaison. She communicates with me from the city via email. Her father had asked me to make a sketch indicating my needs. I did my best, then scanned the sketches and emailed them to her. She then faxed them to her Dad. Like Elsa in Washington he too needed to sort through thousands of gourds. He has appoximately twenty to send me.
Contrary to popular belief
That there is only one place in Turkey (Eskisehir) from which to get Meerschaum further complicates the Calabash pipe making process. In the early 1970s, Turkey banned the exportation of raw meerschaum nodules creating a Turkish Monopoly. They do however export pressed bowls. There were also Meerschaum deposits in Africa but it was inferior in quality. Schrier emphatically states that there is no difference in smoking quality between block Meerschaum bowls and pressed and only a slight difference in the coloring of the bowls after long-term use. Luckily the production methods for making them have improved and the meerschaum bowls that I received from Turkey are not pressed but reformed in a more gentle fashion, more conducive to consistency and the absorption of moisture.
Save the Calabash!
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