Picked up pieces of Charcoal-Burn 2012
It just so happens that on the morning of the 3rd day of charcoal-burn, someone yelled out, “HAY”. Naturally, this led to Michael and Mark simultaneously shouting, “HEY LADIES!” in a long drawn out Long Island twang. The funny thing is, Michael’s hey ladies reference was a nod to the The Beastie Boys, while Mark’s ladies took it a little further back to comedian Jerry Lewis. In the smoky dew of a new day, these are some the little things that make charcoal-burn go. Maybe you had to be there…
Who knew that there were so many different kinds of smoke? Sometimes it’s thickly blue, humid and greasy, full of tars and things that provoke a body’s phlegmatic response. Other times smoke from the pit is white, dry and burning. The ability to read different kinds of smoke is another tool in the collier’s kit.
After three days, the pit was beginning to coal out on one side but not the other. Mark discouraged further action on the “hot” side of the pile by closing off vents at the bottom and waist, and “jumping” that side of the pit to compress the already-made coal and take away any voids. He encouraged the pit’s sluggish opposite by piercing the black veil with his piked rake, hoping to draw the shy fire over to that side. Making charcoal is a sustained attempt at balance and symmetry.
A charcoal pit is like an engine. You’ve got to prime the pump with enough firewood in the stack to bring the pile to an ambient temperature which will keep the pit running on its own. Then, the mix of fuel and air must be just right. Not enough heat and the engine sputters and quits. Too much heat and everything is gone to ashes.
A rich variety of historically-appropriate fare found its way up to the burn…
It was prepared, delivered, and “skullery-ed” by supportive interpreters while we went about our business. We don’t say it enough: Thank you, goodwives.
At our museum, sleep can sometimes be a form of interpretation:
Guests frequently ask us, is he real??
One of the happy things about where we work is the lack of roped-off areas. When you visit us, you can come right over into our rooms, to the edge of our saw-pits, or enter the bower of our screened charcoal pit, to explore and engage in the environment we’ve created. By our estimate, at least a couple thousand guests have carried away the arguably pleasant smell of new-born charcoal with them in their clothes and hair. Be bold when you visit us–come right up and ask us questions. We don’t generally bite, shaggy though our aspects be. Above, friends and botanists Irina Kadis and Alexey Zinovjev, founders of Salicicola, visited the museum for the first time Thursday to see our work. They arrived fresh from The Myles Standish State Forest, where they had been releasing a certain kind of weevil to eat a particular invasive. We share many similar interests with Irina and Alexey and we were thrilled to be able to show them our work. Making charcoal at Plimoth, despite its solitary traditions, is a very social event here.
One dapper gentleman who strode up the hill to see our work told us of the use of charcoal at The Battle of the Bulge and how it was essential for the men to use for cooking and warmth, as it burns without smoke. It’s ok to let people tell their stories, whether or not they are about the 17th-century. In addition to being a pleasant conversation, our smoldering heap led our guest to make an historical connection. We prize those moments.
So, 4 days and 3 nights and about a cord and one-half later, our burn is done. The vents are closed and we’ve heaped the black breeze on top of the pit. We hope to have a harvest of charcoal approaching 40 bushels or more. We’ll open the pit in the spring, keeping an eye on it in the interim, in case a recalcitrant coal flares up over the next week or two. Opening a charcoal pit is a little like digging potatoes.
We have it on good authority that the burn’s particular smell reached at least one mile north of where we are, past Jordan Hospital, and maybe as far as Bradford’s Liquors. But its reach has also extended across the pond, where friends have been corresponding in our comment section, their friendships and own charcoal-burning experiences shared and perhaps rekindled by the smoky fires of this burn. A collier’s reach knows no bounds!
from The Charcoal-burner, by A.A. Milne