Day one – Hell: LEARNING FROM STUPIDITY
The time of charcoal burning, like everything else this year, came late and in a bit of a rush. Last year’s surplus was sold all sold off in a week. The demand is there to be met. So burning needed to be started, even though clearing the brash (branches which are too small to use) in the natural ash nursery has not yet been finished.
One of the great things about charcoal burning, in theory at least, is that it goes on by itself in parallel with other productive activities, such as clearing brash, sawing timber or writing books. With this idea in mind, I brought my old laptop computer to run off the solar power in the cabin space, so I could work on the long promised third edition of Taxonomies: Frameworks for Corporate Knowledge.
Full steam ahead
Since it was, for me, the first burn of the season, I thought it would prudent to light only two barrels concurrently, instead of the usual four. The lighting and the loading of the bins went perfectly. The smoke billowed out copiously, made almost perfectly white by the steam coming from the carbonising wood. One of the crucial factors in a burn is how long it takes for the moisture and the gases to be cooked out of the wood before the charcoal starts burning itself, risking a little pile of white ash at the bottom of the bin, rather than it being half full of beautiful black charcoal. A quick burn is about four hours. A slow one can take six.
So three and half hours practising parallel processing with the computer would leave some time in hand in case the burn went faster than expected. Back at the cabin I spent nearly three hours trying to connect my lovely old Protec computer screen to my vintage Dell Latitude before realising that I would need to get a driver, impossible without an online connection. Considerably wound up by this time (including the “silly me” feeling inflicted by the machine), I thought I would go out early to watch the last clouds of white smoke before the end of the burn.
It takes about 10 minutes to walk from the cabin to the burn site. After about five minutes, I began to worry. I could see no smoke. Had the charcoal been made, and was it now burning itself up? When I arrived, there was no smoke. Even the piece of wood which I used to prop the lid open to let air in was black with one end beginning to glow red. It fell on the ground, near a pile of charcoal I had unloaded from Mike the Druid’s first burn, the week before. My priority was to close the lids and smother the fire by removing the bricks from under the barrels, starving the now burning charcoal of oxygen.
It may have been two minutes later, certainly not more than three, that I looked up and noticed one tiny wisp of smoke coming from a corner of the pile of Mike’s charcoal. It must have been ignited by the smoking end of the ventilation prop. No problem. I put out a minuscule red glow, and went back to making sure no air could get into the bins. When I looked again after another minute or two, there was another tiny wisp, and then another even smaller one. Damn. I began to spread out the pile of charcoal to find the glowing bits to extinguish. But unlike with a wood fire, I realised to my horror, that by spreading it out I was just letting more oxygen get to to more of the charcoal, while pushing the the tiny glowing embers out into the dry woodland full of brash tinder. For a while, I thought I could just pick out out the smoldering bits of charcoal by hand, and save the rest. I couldn’t. The only thing to do was shovel up every last piece into the (luckily) metal wheel barrow to sort out it on a large slab of concrete surface back at the cabin.
By the time I arrived there were still only two or three wisps of smoke coming from a wheel barrow which was piled high with lovely black charcoal. I emptied it on the concrete floor still thinking I could separate the burning bits from the non-burning bits. Wrong again! Without a lot of water, the charcoal proved to be impossible to put out. I had to pile it into all available metal buckets and charcoal burners rendering about £30 worth of charcoal into a few cupfuls of white ash.
Just in case, exhausted and fraught as I was, I went back to the burn site, to check whether any minute grains or fines I might have left behind could have re-ignited. They had. I had to bury it all eight inches deep where the clay is was still damp..
Although it cost me £30 and a couple of hours extra work, of course, the lesson about the dangers of charcoal burning was priceless.
The lesson is:
- Do not spread glowing charcoal to put it out as with a normal wood fire.
- The ONLY way to make sure it is safe is either to burn it all, or soak it with water
- ABOVE ALL, take all precautions not to light English Coppice Charcoal outside a metal or stone burner.
There is a second lesson, too.
- British Coppice Charcoal is very easy to light, it burns for a long time and it does not go out
- It is just what is needed for a BBQ.
3 kg bags
Day two: Heaven – DOING THE JOB PROPERLY
The next day I returned, having learned my lessons. Obviously, I could not practice parallel processing with the charcoal burning in the cabin. I would need to be there watching all the time. So I took the laptop with me, and hence also a folding chair. The frustration and controlled panic of the previous day was replaced with the ever-moving, rustling, buzzing and singing calm of a sunny woodland on a warm day. On the principle of always coming back stronger the second (or third) time after a setback, I lit all four barrels. In half an hour, the white smoke was billowing again in its endlessly fascinating curvaceous patterns. I set up the chair in deep shade of a huge split oak tree and a grove of young hornbeam.
I opened the laptop and found the file I had been working on, when out of the smoke bounded a black dog, followed by Clifford, the Actor, who had said he had wanted to learn to burn charcoal. Naturally, I shared the safety lesson of the previous day first. It took a relaxed 45 minutes to show him how the whole process works, that is, except suffocating the fire down at the end. After another hour of chat and rehearsing a comedy routine, Clifford departed, leaving me alone with the portable … and the rest of the woodland and rolling white smoke.
This day’s lesson is that with proper safety precautions charcoal burning does not have to be a hard, dirty and hot two day long industrial job done by sweaty labourers with coal-black faces. It can be relaxing, genteel and even heavenly. It is something that anybody can do with a used oil drum or two. There is a ready market for the product. British Coppice Charcoal burns far better than the lump-wood imports. And most importantly, it gives people another motivation for managing derelict woodland for bio-diversity, not to mention the pure pleasure of doing it.
The day’s burn yielded seven bags — about £40 worth which is better than a “slap in the belly with a wet fish”, as my father used to say.
As for the parallel processing work with the computer, I cannot claim much success. I found that mere mental work could not rise beyond being a mere distraction from simply being there with all the other beings, although some useful thoughts did cross my mind.