Friday, May 4, 2007

Burn, Baby, Burn

I love to grill. And that's why my back hurts.

I've spent the last few hours chainsawing some immense tree limbs that came crashing down at a friend's house during February's storms. His home was once a farm, and the property has quite a few stands of mature oaks and maples as well as a the remnants of an orchard with apple and pear trees. When the spring thaw started the ground was littered with downed branches, but we were able to clean up most of them during the stretch of nice weather we had two weeks ago.

That experience gave me a real appreciation for just how tough our ancestors were.

It was back-breaking work, even though we had chainsaws, a motorized log splitter, and a truck with an impressive hunk of Japanese iron under the hood to haul the logs to the woodpile. I can't imagine how physically demanding the job would have been with pure muscle power. Which is rather shameful, since I know my grandparents did exactly that for years and they were, to put it politely, rather delicate of frame. I'm over a foot taller than either of them, and my son is already two inches taller than I am, but by the time we stacked the last log of the day we were both ready to collapse.

Sad, really, to realize you're made of softer stuff than the steel and leather of your sweet lil' granpapa and mama.

Tonight we finished up the job we started two weeks ago. All the straight and true limbs were already seasoning in neat little stacks for next winter, leaving nothing but the truly sorry specimens for collection. Bent, gnarled hunks of wood that even a carbon steel blade attached to a 2000 p.s.i. hydraulic ram couldn't split. Well, it could, but the result would be chunks of misshapen shrapnel spraying every which way while a gang of shrieking idiots dove for cover. No, these sorry dregs of wood can't be used for firewood. Too many knots, kinks, and twists for that, but there's still something of value in the wood.

Some of the larger chunks will spend a year or two in the back of the garage before paying a visit to a bandsaw and, like magic, they'll be transformed. The same tortured grain that makes them unfit for firewood makes them perfect for woodwork, where their contorted swirls can come alive under a buffing of linseed oil and wax. The rest, all the lumpy little nuggets too small for anything else or so buckled and bent that they aren't stable enough for woodwork, will undergo another transformation. We'll load them into a steel drum connected to a nest of pipes, utter a few chants for good luck, and then practice a little ol' school alchemy:

Nasty wood + fire - oxygen = charcoal.

The kind of charcoal God intended, not those hideous artificial abominations called "briquettes" made from compressed fly ash, sawdust, melamine, and glue. Okay, they don't really have melamine in them, at least as far as I know, but who knows? If the Chinese are willing to put plastic scrap in food products the mind boggles at what could end up in something like a briquette.

No thanks. We'll spend the weekend swilling beer and swapping lies while the charcoal cooks, cools, and then gets bagged up in burlap sacks, just like in the old days. When it's all done we'll have enough black gold to fuel a summer's worth of grilling and barbecue and an ample supply of sweet, flavorful wood chips for smoking food.

It's going to be a great summer.

Note: If you're curious how backyard charcoal manufacturing works there's a great write-up about the process over here. I wish our half-assed setup looked half as nice.