The last charcoal makers

A clay pot with beans directly on the dusty earth near the fire, might seem an image of the past, but it is rather normal in the forests of Calabria region, in Southern Italy. There are men nowadays who do the work of their fathers, who do the exact same old gestures led by a skilled eye, an infallibility that comes from time, from past generations, every movement is calibrated and guided by knowledge The progress has brought few benefits, almost everything is done as before. The same effort, the same heat, the same sweat, the same curses and the same small gain. "A job cursed" said the oldest of the brothers who make charcoal, the day that I met him for the first time. A job that does not want to make almost nobody. Are needed thousands of logs, all moved by hand, first the biggest, are laid next to one another to form a kind of chimney and then, gradually, by choosing pieces of measurement and less weight is created a hemisphere several meters high and heavy from seven hundred to nine hundred thousands kilos: the "Carbonaia" or "Scarazzu" in local language. Finally mud and straw are used to cover and protect it like a mother's womb. Every day the same as another, one after the other, for all the time necessary to the complete cycle of a "carbonaia", about twenty. They tell me that they consider the "Carbonaia" as a child: once born, you have to give him to eat continuously. To explain this they use the slang term "civare": put to him's mouth. Perfectly in the center, the fireplace is the mouth of the "Carbonaia". When the wood becomes charcoal, has lost a fifth of its volume and its weight, what began as a hemisphere perfect now is turned into a soufflé deflated, the "Carbonaia is moving" they tell me. Trough the shape, smell and the intensity of the smoke, that they understand how it is progressing the internal combustion and drive it by the side holes. Wood, fire, earth and water, primary elements are the companions of the daily lives of a group of "craftsmen of the past" in a corner of Italy in 21st century.

©Sandro Pisani
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