January 12, 2017

Just about a year ago that I last posted to this blog. Every so often I realize how thankful I am for this group and feel the urge to do a little scrivening. Some nights around the fire, it's nice to just sit back, close your eyes and drift along the current of shifting light and dark the fire imprints on your eyelids while the crystal-cold air and heat embrace and hold you in perfect serenity. It's these moments that transcend common time and transport us into some long hidden mythic time. Sometimes what's best given and received around the fire are the far deeper things we hear and the companionship we share in perfect silence.

There's some magic in the flames and the quick-caught-and-lost tang of an unidentifiable something in the skirling woodsmoke that triggers far distant and even more evanescent memories. It's good to be here, just the mere fact of our assembling each week through the long and rolling year. Maybe you feel the same.

The moon, playing hide and seek behind a scrim of broken stratus cloud, lent its ghostly light to our small band from time to time. What must it see as it spreads its benison over us, a benison a thousand thousand times eulogized by the poets and rhapsodes of old? A small knot of men, knuckled in close to the fire week after week reaching for something transcendent, something beyond, that we occasionally glimpse as through a glass darkly.

It's always good to raise a glass of something cool with the smoky taste of earth and toast the fellowship we enjoy around the flames, a fellowship that's been unbroken for the last twelve years.

Here's to the next twelve. Looking forward to sharing it with you.



January 7, 2016


Assembling on a fairly mild evening after a two week hiatus for Christmas and New Year’s, we ignite our kerosene-doused log fire and lean in close to catch some echo of the mystery that seeks us on these winter nights. We wrap our hands around a tumbler of something cool and smoky, with just a hint of danger. Our briars and meerschaums are filled with all manner of incense, wreathing around our heads and trailing off into the dark-riddled skies like whispered prayers. We are here, listening, listening. If we’re still enough, we catch the faintest ghosts and memories of some far-0ff hidden country.

Tonight was a bellwether of change, the first time in my memory when several of our members read aloud poems they composed about the mystery sought for at these Thursday gatherings, of both the seen and unseen. It is wonderful and inspiring to see how others value the uniqueness of the circle, of the timeless draw toward sacredness, mystery and flames; to get the perspectives of how each man comes to feel and understand the amalgamation of pipe smoke, single malt, camaraderie, fire, cold weather and everything else that hints at the road that goes ever on and leads us we know not where.

With the permission of each author, I have posted all four pieces that were read this night. So strike a match, ignite a bowl of something special and settle back. Thanks for your part in keeping the circle alive. We need you.

Greg Bunch

Three men gather ‘round the pit
Preparing the fiery light.
Each has come this cold, dark night
To muse, bless, smoke and spit.

Three men stand around the wood–
Split and stacked and doused with oil–
Sabbath-resting from their toil;
Rejoicing in all good.

Three men raise their pipes of briar.
The chorus joins to chant the creed;
They have come because they need
A purging from the fire.

“Lady of the Fire Pit pray
That ‘round these coals God above
Will draw men with his patient love
Into Eternal Day.”

Three men laugh and tell their tales.
Eleven laugh and quaff their Scotch.
Judas sneaks and checks his watch
Planning the betrayal.

Three men see within the flame
A world torn with woe and grief,
Scorched and crying for relief,
Longing to be freed of shame.

Three men rise above the pyre–
Father, Son and Holy Ghost–
Swirling in the blowing smoke
To Betelgeuse and higher.

Peace Returns
(Bert Bunn)

Light is the breeze that lifts away the smoke,
Soft is the crackle of the wood in the fire.
High floats the ash and red its embers;
Peace returns to my soul.

Familiar is the briar-Root I hold in my hand,
Old is the friend and warm its bowl.
Soft is its sent as it wafts thru the air;
Peace returns to my soul.

Quiet are my thoughts as I contemplate the pages,
Old are the meditations of its script.
New are my musings introduced between its covers;
Peace returns to my soul.

Cool is the air on my neck and cheeks,
Quiet is the gate as it squeaks on its axis.
Colored are the leaves as they hang from the tree;
Peace returns to my soul.

Ascending are the prayers as I Neal before the Immortal,
Pains are the pose of my heart.
Removed are the burdens of this daily toil;
Peace returns to my soul.


Nine Notes on the Brotherhood of the Briar

(Chris Grant)


It is not the fire that draws me in.  

Not the flames twisting free,

leaping over cut logs—

teepeed, teeter-tottering. 

A jig of light across my hat and boots, scarf and gloves.

It’s not the wide brushstrokes and scribbles of color,

Glowing embers and firecracker pops:

A child playing with the light switch.

It’s not the fire that draws me in. 

It’s the smoke. 


Follow the swirling rings of the Spirit 

moving within and without 

these friends’ faces flickering in the round.

I see the shape of the wind.

God is not in the wind

but hinted in the rippling veil of ash,

the brooding ribbons of dark.

I get a sense of His movement.

Amazing He doesn’t snag an edge

and set a corner of his train

ablaze and billowing.


Pour me a thumb of single malt.

Amber glints in the glass.

Ah, there it is:  Burning peat.

It hovers on the back of my tongue like an ancient memory.


Honest friends are few.

Words whisper from worn pages.

Ideas edging combustion—

Pulsing coals in each line.

I perceive a rim of smoke 

before the burst of fractal flame.


Pipe smokers blow smoke.

This is both literal and figurative.


Are we marked by a sacrament of smoke?

Pack a bowl in the briar. Follow the ritual. Join the club.

Our glowing tobacco mirrors the open fire.

Are we known somehow?

Is it too much to speak of this immersion as a baptism?

Off base to mention it as a sort of communion:

the bread and wine of flames and smoke?

Is the idea of Common Grace going too far?


The Brotherhood of the Briar, pipe smokers all:

Lewis and Tolkien 

Bach and Beethoven

Faulkner and Hemingway

Camus and Sartre 

MacArthur and Patton

Franklin Roosevelt

Norman Rockwell and Salvador Dali

Walt Disney and Hugh Hefner

Moe Howard and Robert Oppenheimer

Virginia Woolf, Hunter Thompson 

Jerry Lee Lewis

Joseph Stalin and Groucho Marx

Einstein and Popeye


This evening fire is finite—

A certain circumference and then, fading,

the black pushes back.

The light is contained;

The luminous darkness holds.

Smoke is free,

moves incognito,

hovers over my shoulder,

covers empty space.

Fire gets all the good press,

but I’ll go with smoke anytime.


A sudden blinding, spark-speckled smoke:

The quick choreography of outstretched hands 

and heads bowed, eyes shielded.

God’s on the move.

Then gone. 

Later, at my unlit house,

I pull my sweater over my head.

It smells like incense.

I inhale long and slow, pausing by the closet door. 

28 Sacramental Moments

Mark Neal

We traveled through snowbound, nighttime neighborhoods, silent beneath deep, white drifts to hear each other’s bones creak in the cold under a dark sky riddled with stars

Smoke from struck wooden matches, a night of windy darkness

The immortal hunter Orion blazed and bent over us in cold benediction

The embers burned low and the moon sank into unfathomable distance beyond the horizon

As the night grew old, stars spilled across skies empty of city light

Bare arms of a lightning struck tree arch over us in benign protection

“We should savor this moment together around this fire,” he said quietly. “There will never be another campfire, just like this. There will never be a pipe just like this smoking moment.”

The wind rolled through the dark pine trees with a rush, scooping the sparks out of the fire and onto our clothes

A fire built from the bones of an old tree and a west wind that sends cedar-scented smoke stinging into the eyes

Like stumbling on a campfire in a dark forest, with shadowy forms crowded around the glow

A fresh fall of snow, a waxing moon riding the wheel of a dark sky, unimpeded and sharp with stars

It is no accident that we sit outside in all weather and grapple with real wind, real cold, real rain. We let the cold sink deep into our bones or the snow settle on our backs because they are unflinchingly real.

Trains pass and sound their horns in the distance: an apt metaphor for the intersection of our lives with this particular place

The moon gazed down at us on its way to some far country. It seemed small and remote, as if trying to hoard itself before bursting out at its full in a few days time.

The coals were bright as the night leaned in over our shoulders

The night wove a pattern whose thread was our conversation and camaraderie

The constellations pulsed brightly overhead among the bare branches of the trees, and a slim paring of moon sank rapidly, deep in the western sky

The Big Dipper flaming in the sky, the naked trees waiting to be dressed by the spring,  the way the darkness and fire felt on the skin, the smell of smoke in my clothes

Modern conquests are broached and unwritten pledges made

He said a brief prayer before we all left, and I could hear the owls calling in the trees and the dim fall of the coals and the rhythm of speech all weaving a pattern

The snow sifted down on us out of a dark, heavy sky. The heavy handed wind swept in now and again, flicking sparks from the log fire and spinning them through the air like drunken winter fireflies. Our single malt became slushy with the icy taste of fresh sky. We swaddled ourselves in fire bitten blankets and drew our circle in close around the flames, clenching pipes doggedly between our teeth.

Oak, ash and pine. Split and stacked as cordwood last year. Summer, autumn winter. Seasons have seeped into the bones of this aged wood, releasing in its smoke hints of past snows and leaf falls and late night summer heat. Good woods for a bright, steady fire. Good memories. Marking the long march of days like flaming beacons across the hills and valleys of the past.

And receding into that distance, the memory of far off conversations, of stories told back when the year was young.

The coals dropped quietly into the fire pit, and his hushed voice exerted both a soporific and commanding aura that was mesmerizing                   

The advance guard of winter has sent its scouts far and wide and they whisper on the night air of the cold to come, and drive the brittle leaves through the dark and slowly undressing neighborhoods

The inevitability of the seasons will bring us back around

I watched a paring of moon fight its way slowly through the branches of a tree to descend somewhere into the far, far west

This desperate map reading we are all engaged in as we journey in darkness and light onward through the rolling years.