Tumbling like the leaves,
Yeah, we are spiralling on the breeze,
Almost to the point of no return,
Everything will burn, baby, burn.
(If you’re anything like me, and you like a good soundtrack to accompany all areas of your life, I can recommend that you right click that link above to open it in another tab, and embrace the sounds of early 2000s Brit Pop, ie., Sally’s teenage years, while you read this post. Yes, the band really is named Ash, you can’t make these things up!)
Well folks, there’s a lovely autumnal chill in the air, I’ve seen a few leaves beginning to turn from green to golden, most of our harvest has been gotten in, and that can only mean one thing in the 1627 Village. It’s time to make a whole lot of smoke at our annual Charcoal Burn.
Charcoal burners, or colliers, have been building pits and burning coal for thousands of years, and we ourselves have been smoking out New Plimoth in the autumn each year for more than twenty. What’s the point, you ask? Well, there’s certainly no sense in spending all this time and effort to produce coal for a goodwife’s hearth, that’s for sure. This is for the benefit of William Palmer, nail maker and blacksmith in 1627 Plymouth. If you want to work metal, you need to burn coal. Typically, early 17th century blacksmiths in England would choose stone coal, you know, the kind you mine for, for their forges. But, given that there’s an abundant supply of wood in New England, and a distinct lack of coal mines, charcoal it is. Mark Atchison, our incredibly knowledgable artisan-blacksmith guides us through the process by way of his scrupulous research and vast wisdom learnt through years of hands on coal-making experience.
Here’s the Pit Boss himself, doing what he does best:
Mark is standing on what looks like an unruly pile of hay. It’s actually very orderly hay. For us, the process begins with the clearing of the already existing pit. It’s a round and flat area, on which the earth has been blackened through years of burning in the same spot. This is a good thing. Mark lays out the middle of the pit with a central, triangular tunnel around which billets of wood are stacked.
This photo is from 2011′s burn. This year’s is a little smaller, about a cord of wood.
Here, Mark and his apprentice Mattheo check out the hay placement, ensuring that the tunnel is kept open. It’s Mattheo’s first burn…initiation, anyone?
Once all the wood is stacked, making the dome as smooth as possible, it’s then covered with the hay, which is in turn covered with the previously mentioned blacked, ash ridden earth that surrounds the pit. We in the coal making business refer to this as “breeze”. The breeze will be used to control the burn, keeping it as slow and even as possible. Below, the guys are sitting/standing on the breeze that has been piled up around the edge of the pit. They’re shooting the breeze (sorry, I had to) before they have to start shovelling the breeze. There will be a ring of piled up breeze all around the pit which will be used later.
Once the pit is lit, it’s all a game of “Prevent The Pit From Burning Too Hot While Ensuring It Burns Hot Enough To Make Something Other Than Just Slightly Blackened Wood”. To protect the burn from inevitable gusts of wind, a protective shield of leafy boughs is erected around the entire pit – posts are set at regular intervals and then branches are woven betwixt and between to fill in all the gaps. Here’s Goody Bassett weaving branches in between a hurdle to make a door:
The fire will be lit at the bottom of Mark’s triangular tunnel and fueled as the pit smolders. He’s not looking for flames. Then, he and the guys will continue to control the burn by either making holes to allow air in, or filling in holes with more breeze to slow down the combustion. Every once in a while, he’ll climb up on top of the pit and dance on it. I think the technical (and perhaps more manly) term is “jumping the pit”. That’ll make sure any pockets of air are filled in before we have a bonfire on our hands. It’s not November 5th YET.
Come Wednesday, this is what we’ll be seeing, breathing and smelling – the smell is so distinctive, you’ve gotta come and give it a sniff.
The charcoal will burn from Wednesday morning until Friday around midday. If you can’t make it out this week, the pit will remain warm but not burning at least until the end of the season. And if you can’t get here before then, here’s a video from two years ago that’ll show you what you’re missing.