Wednesday, January 14, 2009

They came for me in uniforms

The second day of the year was nice one here in South Louisiana. Clear with a stiff breeze. Cool but warm enough to work in shorts and a tee shirt. It was a Friday in the midst of a looooong holiday weekend. You gotta love those Thursday holidays with the thrown-in Friday off.

At least. I got to enjoy a four-day weekend. Dr. Spouse, not so much. She was at the clinic. The day after New Years, when most people have the day off, is a big day in the vet biz.

It was great day to be outside. I sorted, sifted and packed a load of finished charcoal already in my kiln, a 55-gallon drum. (Read about making charcoal here The domino effect and here Domino effect, part 2.) Then I filled it with another load of split wood. After wood splitting, loading the drum is one of my favorite parts of the operation.

The splitting is a rewarding on a physical level. My maul and I making wood do something it does not want to do. A little intellect in decoding where to make the hit followed with brute force. (If you've ever split the reluctant water oak, you know about the force needed.)

It's a guy thing: a touch brains and lots of testosterone combined with violence. Maybe that's why I can't get my daughters interested.

Splitting the oak into small enough pieces takes work. But seeing tubs full of chunks ready for the barrel or bins full of wood for seasoning gives me a sense of accomplishment. Maybe because I have a desk job.

Also, I like carefully loading the barrel to get as much wood in while leaving room for air circulation is like putting together a three-dimensional puzzle. Then I get to set it on fire.

THAT is the best part. Burn, baby, burn. (I guess that's another guy thing.)

Once the fire's burning strong, the drum lid goes on to limit air flow and the batch smolders for hours and hours as the fire cooks the wood into charcoal.

The process pumps out smoke. Not in wisps but clouds. Smoke thick enough to withstand a good wind. These pics give you the idea

Now, my little lumber camp is in the far corner of my backyard, a couple of hundred feet from the nearest neighbors who are across a deep and fenced-off canal. I've cooked up a dozen or so batches over the last three and half months. On calm days, I can create a pretty good haze. Even in wind the smoke takes time to disperse.

On that first Friday of the new year we had a stiff gusts. Not strong enough, it turns out.

While the kiln smoldered, I was up beside the house shovelling the last of a load of wood chips I had convinced some tree trimmers to dump at the house. Great mulch and almost free. (I did tip them $20.) I've embarassed my daughters in inventive ways over the years, inclucing chasing down trimmer trucks towing chippers and loaded with shredded wood.

I was loading the wheelbarrow when I heard the fire truck. The siren wailed closer before it switched off while the engine was down the block. I could hear the rumble of a big diesel engine and the hiss of the air brakes as the truck crawled by.

I left them alone. Why flag 'em down? I had no emergency.

The truck cruised by and I went back to my task. Not long after, I was in the back corner spreading mulch under our satsuma trees when I saw a fire engine cruising down the street on the other side of the canal but paid them no heed. Still no emergency here.

Another few minutes and I hear the hiss of air brakes on my side of the canal and here come a couple of our city's bravest pushing through an overgrown gate and fighting through thick weeds and into the yard.


"Open burning is against the law," the big guy says while the little guy heads for the barrel. (By this time, the smoke was more wisps than clouds.)

I warn them about the dogs. We have four and when they're in a pack, they can be a handful around strangers. Fortunately, the biggest were in the house and no clue about the commotion out back. Our Chihuahua mix, never bright and always fiesty, greeted them like old friends.

"It's covered," I say. "I'm making charcoal."

"You still can't do it."

"What if I was cooking meat?"

"That would be different," he says.

"Right," I think to myself, "I wouldn't be making nearly as much smoke."

The little guy reaches the barrel and sees the bin full of finished charcoal.

"Hey, he IS making charcoal."

They relax up and tell me a neighbor had called in a complaint. Twice. They couldn't find the source of the smoke on the first trip and took 20 minutes to track me down on the second.

I seal up the barrel and end the burn.

Then, I spend a couple of minutes outlining the charcoal process and promise to change my technique to not make so much smoke. They are suitably awed by the size of the yard (we're in the middle of the city) and get a view of the recent four-house mini-development that went up on what once was the 2-acre yard on the east side of us.

The didn't even know the houses or the private street were there.

I ask if they grill at the fire house. "Yes."

Gas or charcoal. "Charcoal."

They leave with about 15 pounds of premium hardwood lump and I'm left with a partially cooked batch in the barrel.

I can't blame any neighbor who complained. My hobby cranked out A LOT of smoke.

I haven't cooked up any since but all that split wood won't go to waste. I have two bins piled a half-cord of oak split into 4- to 6-inch chunks. I will make charcoal, just in another way. After all, my charcoal cooks great on a grill and was a big hit as Christmas presents for friends and family.

Thanks to the Internet, I know another (cleaner) method.

I'll get another, smaller steel barrel that fits in the 55-gallon drum. I'll drill holes in the bottom of the smaller barrel set it up on fire bricks inside the big drum. Fill the smaller barrel with chunks and seal the lid. Building a fire inside the big drum and under the small barrel will cook the wood into charcoal.

A well-ventilated fire in the big drum will make little smoke. Cooking the wood chunks in the smaller barrel emits tars and gasses that will burn, creating even more heat to cook the wood. Essentially, the smoke that irked a nieghbor converts to heat. It will take more attention to keep the cook fire going but keep the Man off my case will be worth the effort.

Looking back, I shouldn't have taken the easy (and smokey) way. I wasn't being a good neighbor.

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