Biopoetics: Ashenhalted II

I’m so thankful to Firefly magazine for publishing this poem last month; you can read it here (pages 8-9) or listen to it: here.

So this poem rose out of my love of the word ‘ashenhalted’ which I coined in my first poem of my Sugar Maple cycle, Acerum on Fomalhaut b, and from learning (via my brother the distiller) that Jack Daniels whiskey is mellowed over sugar maple timbers. I did some research into that process, called the Lincoln County Process, and this poem takes on the nitty-gritty of that charcoal-making, spirit-purifying process.

To begin, a sugar maple is cut down; typically tall trees are preferred, so I would suspect these are trees mature enough to have created their own fruit (the samara). When a tree is cut down, the roots are cut off from the rest of the tree; the roots will run out of the nutrients provided by the photosynthetic leaves and the rest of the tree will dry out without water from the roots, causing cells to plasmolyze (when the cytoplasm shrinks away from the cell wall due to severe dehydration).

The cutting down of the tree will also impact its environment. Heavy equipment used to cut down the tree will compress the soil, which can cause reduced soil aeration and slower drainage rates, along with making it harder for new roots to push through the compacted dirt. The loss of trees can also make it so that nutrients needed for the growth of new plants are more quickly leached from the soil, with no mature roots to take up excess water. Another impact of mature tree loss is increased sunlight reaching the forest floor; while this can be negative (allowing takeover by invasive species, increasing soil temperature, etc) it can also allow the fruit dropped by that tree to be competitive and grow out of the shade of the mother.

Making charcoal at Jack Daniels, Jack Daniel Distillery; Public Domain

The cut-down tree is split into planks (4 feet by 2 in. square), which is, in my mind, the approximate height and thickness of a young sapling. The leaves and smaller branches, a lifetime of the tree’s work, are discarded. Pyres are built by stacking 343 planks on top of one another, and four pyres are burned at a time, set alight with 140 proof whiskey, “each pyre tilted so they collapse into each other” (“Charcoal Mellowing”). They are burned outside for two hours before being doused with water; the lumps of charcoal are then ground up. It takes sixteen pyres to make enough for one charcoal mellowing tank.

This charcoal is what is used to filter out the bitterness that is inherent in the whiskey after distillation; while dripping through the charcoal, the bitterness is taken up leaving a smoother product. After a maximum of six months, the charcoal in the tank is flushed with water to remove any whiskey that soaked into the charcoal and the spent charcoal is used to make barbecue brackets and smoking pellets.

Citation for Quote:

“Charcoal Mellowing.” Diffords Guide, n.d.,

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