[ 2 ] Ancient charcoal

At the end of a long line of displaced Sicilians named Carbone, I turned up. Not the very end. There would soon be more of us. In fact we have contributed a boy and a girl of our own, with another boy (or girl) on the way. Procreation is a family tradition, mysterious procreation. We don’t know what’s coming until he/she gets here. If it’s a girl, watch out. Boys in this family are just so much easier. If it’s a girl, we will welcome her with open arms and open hearts. And open eyes. She will be a handful. Anyway one of our traditions is to leave it to the last second to reveal whether It’s a Boy! or It’s a Girl! I, Giuseppe Carbone, am keeping tradition alive.

Carbone is a practical name, unchanged for centuries maybe. It is pronounced car-BONE. Or car-BO-nee. Sometimes car-bo-NAY. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that we’ve got a name with some oomph. A brand, a tag, a handle that stands on its own.

It’s a fundamental name, maybe even elemental. Some Italians use the last name to honor a long-departed patriarch (DiCarlo, DiMaggio). Some names are unintended, emerging when a disinterested immigration officer substitutes place of origin (Napoli, Roma) for a complicated surname (Barbagelata, Picchinotino) he would rather not transcribe. Some names are beautiful in their own right (Benigni, Fellini). Some are gorgeous (Bellucci, Rossellini, the daughter). Some are just meaningless lyrical words (Abbattista, Iamazzo, Littizzetto, Mastroianni). Or maybe these words do have meaning. I don’t know. Some names just get right down into it: Ferro, Argento, Carbone. Iron, silver, charcoal.


1. charcoal

2. coal

3. coke

4. carbon

Charcoal is ‘carbone di legna’: carbon from wood. Charcoal was the primary heating and cooking fuel of Sicily well into the twentieth century. Tile-lined stoves held chunks of charcoal, brown-black, fanned by palm leaves to turn fire-red. My ancestors produced the stuff by cutting down trees and burning them. They did this for a living. We are now preoccupied with preserving trees. Carbone also means just plain ‘carbon’, which, more than even oxygen, is fundamental to life itself. It is carbon dating, after all, not any analysis of the oxygen content, that establishes a bony artifact’s place in antiquity. Carbon has staying power.

Actually, il carbonio è l’elemento chimico della tavola periodica, not carbone. That’s true, that’s how it is named in the periodic table. Carbonio is far more likely to be used to denote elemental carbon than is carbone. When we refer to the carbon skeleton of an organic compound we say ‘scheletro di carbonio di un composto organico’. If we talk about carbon trading we write ‘offset di carbonio’, or even better, ‘scambi di diritti di emissione’, which references neither carbonio nor carbone.

Scambi. Italian for ‘trade’, not ‘scam’.

Carbone, on the other hand, most commonly refers to charcoal. Charcoal can be made from anything, animal or vegetable, but it is usually produced by charring wood in the absence of air. Wood is the best. Wood is what my ancestors would have used: wood stuffed into a kiln from which air is excluded, or wood tightly packed and shaped into a large cone set to burn slowly. In the cone method, a fire is started at its base. Slow, steady combustion is maintained by a modest amount of air, oxygen, drafting up through the bottom. An insulating layer of turf or moistened clay draped over the pyramid limits the airflow. In an effective cone there is little or no flame. Over a good long time the organic material disintegrates or is leached out. Wood can be carbonized at 220°C, producing a soft brown charcoal that flames easily. Charcoal skillfully produced at higher temperatures is highly carbonized; it is light in weight and black in color. It snaps apart in the hand. It may not flame until close to 700°C.

CHARCOAL: carbone, carbonella, or my favorite, carboncino.

I could claim that the Carbone clan of Sicily included a number of skilled colliers who produced only the finest charcoal. But I’m not at all sure about this. I am reconstructing a story spread across many hundreds of years. Some of this is conjecture, to fill in the gaps, to keep the story flowing. Mine wasn’t an educated family, not until the last hundred years or so. Nothing at all was written down until the early nineteen hundreds, and even then there was no intention of maintaining a history. It’s a pity. Every family has some history lost.

In this history reconstructed, we have the Carbones performing many of the tasks involved in charcoal production. They gathered the wood and stoked the kilns and shaped the cones. They controlled the combustion. Over time they got more efficient, recovering sixty then seventy then eighty percent of the available carbon. In the process they helped strip the Mediterranean of some of its finest forests. These were nice forests. Now it wasn’t entirely at their hands, although the charcoal makers did (incompletely) burn quite a bit. The bulk of Sicily’s old growth forest, however, was harvested to supply the great construction effort underway many kilometers to the north. Sicilian Munti Nèbbrudi fir trees were felled by the tens of thousands to support the roofs and floors of homes in the Roman Empire. And to keep it in charcoal. The charcoal makers, these were the men of the family. The women were something else altogether.

Although charcoal production was an industry of great import, and we were intimately involved, I can find no evidence that the charcoal-making Carbones of Mussomeli were ever in charge of anything, not in Sicily. They were neither owners nor managers. They were not local leaders. As far as I can tell, the Carbone men possessed some skill but had no schooling. For this particular family, neither education nor opportunity nor success would come in any significant measure until they left Sicily, for Italy’s north, for the United States, for Canada, and for Greenland. This is where I live now, Greenland. I was born here, the last-born middle child in a family of eight, plus two parents.

We have entered the third millennium, family-wise. I am part of the 100th generation of Carbones, a generation comprised of me, my seven brothers and sisters and a smattering of cousins. How can I be sure that ours is the 100th? I can’t. But in piecing together our family history I am pretty sure that we were there to scorch the trees that fueled the stoves that fed the men and boys who cut down more trees to build the Roman Empire. I peg the beginnings of the Carbone clan at roughly 24 CE, when the first vocal charcoal maker likely identified himself as such. It would be a practical matter, to distinguish himself from the hunters, the Cacciatores, and the gatherers, the Raccoglitores. You don’t hear anyone using those names (as names) much anymore. (Modern Italian and ancient Latin are not always in agreement. I know. But the Latin carbo or carbonis meant ‘carbon, coal, charcoal, burnt wood’).

Let’s say, then, that through Roman and Syrian and Saracen domination of Sicily we carried on, chopping down trees, desiccating wood. The name Carbone has survived through the ages. One hundred generations? I figure perhaps 18 years or less to a generation early on. Then 18 to 23 through the 15- and 16- and 17- and 18-hundreds, into the mid-20s by the mid-20th century, soaring to a high of 42 years in the early part of 21st century before falling back to 28 or so these days. Twenty or twenty-one years is an appropriate average. One score plus one. So:

24CE + (18x60) + (23x30) + (25x5) + (42x2) + (28x3) = 2087

2087, the year I was born. OK, I cooked the math, yeah. I’m no scientist. My brother is, however, and so is my mother. And her mother as well. In any event, genealogy is an approximate science at best. Yet even with objective data lacking for eighty or more of the intervening generations I believe I can make a reasonable claim that mine is the 100th.

But we’re going to start this story with the 99th.