Friday, April 22, 2016

Burning of olive branches an ancient tradition in Mediterranean region

Lucy adds branches to the fire. Piles of burning olive
branches is a common sight in Tuscany.
All through February, March and April, I see them—men and women out in the olive fields, trimming branches, piling them up and lighting them on fire. Thousands of trees and millions of branches fuel fires on every hillside. I’ve counted as many as a dozen fires visible from a single vantage point.

Considering the environmental impact of so many open fires, I’ve wondered why the branches aren’t hauled away for chipping and composting, or even chipped in the field with portable devices. I’ve been told that the burning must be completed by May 31, but a lot of smoke and ash is generated before that deadline.

Dorothea and Eberhard worked along side us.
I now have some ideas why burning is preferred to chipping, as Lucy and I had a chance this week to participate in the gathering and burning process. Our friends from Germany, Eberhard and Dorothea, invited us to their home in the hills near Viareggio, and we spent an afternoon and the next morning helping them clean up branches that had been cut for them by a local olive farmer.

Even though the branches had just been cut, they burned extremely quickly. Eberhard told me that we had to keep the burn pile small, and I soon saw why, as even a four-foot by four-foot pile created an intense heat. The leaves are full of oil, and they sparkle and flame up quickly, like dry fir tree needles, or small firecrackers. A larger pile would burn so hotly and quickly that you couldn’t go near it to add branches, and the heat would damage any nearby trees. The piles require near constant attention, though, because if left to burn alone for about three minutes, they will burn down and go out. The hot ashes can be rekindled fairly easily, but not without putting a lot of smoke into the air until they blaze up again.

Almost done!
Our conclusion was that a lot of branches can be burned in a short time, making burning more economical than hauling away or chipping. I’m also not sure that the chemicals in the oil-filled leaves and branches would make good compost anyway.

The chips, however, might be a good energy source. Olive pits are now being used in fireplaces and energy-producing incinerators. The website reports: “Olive pits don’t just burn; they burn well. In fact, pound for pound, olive pits produce more energy through combustion than hardwood, according to the not-for-profit engineering organization ASME. Musco Family Olive Co., for instance, generates about half of the electricity needed for the company’s olive processing plant to run simply by burning the olive pits that it once paid to ship to the landfill.” I would think that fuel from chipping olive leaves and branches would also be a good heat source.

Aside from that, we appreciated the chance to participate in an Italian tradition, a task that my ancestors performed for thousands of years.

“I loved being with our friends and doing something that we see Italians doing every year,” Lucy said. “It’s interesting to know that people have been doing exactly the same thing we did throughout the centuries.”

1 comment:

  1. Just like you guys to help out. Is there a particular scent when they burn? In so many ways fire and friends go together. How many times gathering around a warm fire is catalyst for good conversation.


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