Kind of Coal

It’s really not about the product, however useful and historically accurate.

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And it’s even greater than the process–though that is itself wicked cool.

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For 22 years–give or take–Mark’s been making charcoal on that little hill in Chiltonville.

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He’s created a little world which many of us still think about every September, even if we’re a thousand miles away.

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It’s a perfect storm of research, experimentation, and calling on the help of curious souls who recognize the legitimacy of what he has created and who want to help out-

-or at least have a look-

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And in the end, what matters most is the continuity–a sooty perseverance through it all.

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While the wood coals, friendships have been made among many good people who have helped over the years.

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The annual rituals which support this event are vital, if a little humble.

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Some of us are grizzled enough to have memories of menacing hurricanes creeping up the coast…

Do we have enough hay and leaves for the wind-break?

…and sudden fires which we had to be put out in the wee hours.

We’ll never forget that one day in 2001 when the skies above us were so blue-

and so quiet.

Each year, every year, he has built his pile just so-

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-with perfectly-sized wood discovered by chance on a visit to a local farmstand where he saw bundles of firewood for sale.

No one will buy these sticks, the brothers told him–it doesn’t look like firewood to most people.

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And when the pile is made, with the help of several friends he covers it over.

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It’s not a bonfire, after all.

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There’s a draw to the mystery of what Mark creates–

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He has always been accommodating to one and all-

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Even as his helpers make their own accommodations for the next few nights-

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A sweet rest. But that’s not chocolate on the pillow-

The collier casts live coals into the chamber in the middle of the charcoal pit.

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Now begins the slow alchemy of transforming wood into coal.

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Brows catch soot as the unmistakable scent of wood turning into coal wafts down River Street, looking for quarter among older September burns.

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This is a prayer that we may put all of it into context and, through the haze, sift out the purest parts:

22 years and counting.

Twenty and two.

That’s a lot of baskets full of coal.

That’s a lot of hard-boiled eggs.

So many people come and gone–

And not to trivialize or patronize, but today’s drama is nothing new. It is as transient as the greasy blue smoke rising up to the heavens.

The collier’s pit has been there all along–year upon year–

–burning away all the crap and other things which are not needed.

It remains a celebration of  a shared and special thing–

Which has survived through it all.

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This counts more than anything.

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That is a beautiful thing.

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10 thoughts on “Kind of Coal

  1. sally says:

    There really is something special in the air at burn time…there’s nothing else like it. And waking up the next morning to find that your baby smells like a coal pit is a beautiful thing.

  2. Kevin Ponton says:

    Sounds fun. Wish I’d been there.

  3. George says:

    What a legacy, I am honored to have been a part of it for seven of those years. The best part for me is that I can always make a good, clean, hot burning fuel no matter where I am if need be. Thank you for teaching me so much Mark.

  4. Hello from a fellow Wood collier, this time from the Year 1599 in Wales! I am one of the crew that do an annual burn as part of the Bullace Farm Living History display in Wales each summer. I would love to be able to compare a few notes with a fellow traditional period collier, if you are willing to? Our Living history website: http://www.bullacehill.com/ and my own (somewhat neglected) Tudor charcoal blog is at http://tudorwoodcollier.blogspot.com/. Great work and thanks for sharing these great pictures.

  5. Rick says:

    Hi ya James! Thanks for being in touch. I remember hearing from you several years ago when I was writing The Riven Word and blogging on a similar topic. Glad to hear you folks are still carrying on at Bullace Hill! As soon as I hit SEND on this reply, I will forward your links to Mark Atchinson, the blacksmith/collier pictured in this post. (I’m not sure Mark even calls himself a “collier” as he is too humble to appropriate a trade after only 22 years!). It’s a small world of like minds and you two should definitely stay in touch. Forward me a direct email if you’d like @: rmckee62@hotmail.com and I’ll send that to Mark as well. Thanks–

  6. Was just there last Thursday, and I’m glad I checked out the burn – didn’t realize the history of what was going on. Things were pretty quite by then – only saw a few wisps of smoke from the burn. Still pretty cool.

    • Rick says:

      Glad you stopped by, Wade. Mark fires that puppy up each year in early Sept, if you are local again next year. The digging out of the pit is kind of cool in itself–like digging out potatoes.

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