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Un Magazine 10.2

Charcoal, chalk and pencil

Nathan Gray

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10/33

Article

Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing.
— Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’, 1973

1.

Charcoal is a residue, the remaining carbon and ash left behind when a plant or animal has had all of the water baked out of it by a process known as pyrolysis; the thermochemical decomposition of organic material at elevated temperatures in the absence of oxygen.

Between Roman times and the nineteenth century charcoal was used as the main fuel for smelting and smithing iron and later steel, steel being an alloy of iron and carbon also used charcoal in its composition. Unlike wood, charcoal burns hotter than the melting point of the metals and so, as demand for metals grew so did the demand for charcoal.

Production of charcoal was precise and time consuming, charcoal makers or colliers would live outside of cities to be nearer to sources of wood and to make and maintain their ‘piles’; large mounds of vertically stacked wood that were organised around a central chimney and covered in earth, straw or peat so that when lit no oxygen could enter and cause the pile to catch fire. The key to making charcoal is burning without fire.

2.

In 2015 an elderly relative of my partner, walked out into his orderly vegetable garden, covered himself in petrol and set himself alight. I remem­ber my partner getting the call, I remember the look on her face and that neither of us could tell anyone about it without crying for months. It was the hardest to tell our son.

Joe was ninety-two so his death itself was not shocking, it was his choice of method. Though he was old he had seemed happy and far from senile so his action was not something I saw as accidental or delusional, it was a choice. At Joe’s funeral his son hinted at a depressive side to his father. He had been fiercely independent, refusing to live with relatives and hanging onto his drivers licence as long as he could. It was when he lost his licence that my partner and I began to visit him more regularly. I remember him talking with disdain about his sister’s nursing home but there was nothing to indicate what was to come. We always left his place talking about how nice it was to have one sane, happy relative.

When I chatted with my partner about writing this, she used the phrase, ‘the kind of pain where you’re not afraid of more pain’, but it was something we couldn’t see.

Photograph originally published in <em>The Age</em> on 20 October 2015. It appeared in the article, ‘Hazara community shocked, angered at death of Afghan asylum seeker’, by Rachel Wells and Nicole Hasham
Copyright <em>The Age</em>

3.

When nineteen-year-old Hodan Yasi set herself on fire in the Nauru detention centre on the 2nd of May this year, she did so less than a week after twenty-three-year-old Omid Masoumali died from doing the same thing. Both of them had been on Nauru for more than three years.

Hodan was not the second person to self-immolate as a protest against their treatment by Australia’s detention system but the eighth since 2001. Seven of these self-immolations occurred in a period of just over two years; the period between early April 2014 and late April 2016. So far three have been non-fatal, the case of Hodan is yet to be decided.

Their names are:

Shahraz Kayani
Unknown
Leo Seemanpillai
Ali Jafari
Unknown
Khodayar Amini
Omid Masoumali
Hodan Yasi

Nathan Gray, <em>Charcoal</em> 2016. Charcoal on paper. Image courtesy the artist

4.

As charcoal production advanced, the use of charcoal kilns made the process of charcoal production more efficient. These charcoal kilns and Köten (colliers huts) can still be seen in the forests of Germany.

In central Europe and Britain, the high forestry cost of charcoal making gave rise to fears of a wood shortage in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Though plausible on localised levels, wide-scale wood shortages were not a reality until the nineteenth century; the fear of wood shortages in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries seems to have crystallised around rivalries between groups. Scarcity economics then, as now, is often about competition between groups for resources, rather than actual scarcity. I would guess that this competition is often paradoxical: the group that controls the resource feels most precarious. It is the insecurity of the privileged.1

5.

Burns to humans are often described in degrees. First-degree burns only affect the epidermis, as in the case of sunburn. Second-degree burns affect the dermis and epidermis that are rich in nerve fibres and therefore extremely painful. Third-degree burns go through all of the layers of skin and often cause numbness as the nerve fibres are destroyed, though these burns are usually present with first and second degree burns in the same patient.

When a person is burned from an accelerant applied to their clothes the fire burns hotter and deeper and is more likely to result in third degree burns. The main treatment of third degree burns is excision, the cutting away of the burnt dead flesh before it becomes infected. Excision in many cases includes amputation of fingers, toes and limbs.

Of those who die from burns, the majority die quickly from asphyxiation as the fire burns the oxygen in their lungs or they succumb to smoke inhalation. The majority of those who survive this period die within six hours, the leading causes being Neurogenic shock — shock to the nervous system, or Hypovolemic — shock that occurs when a body loses more than fifty percent of its fluids. Traumatic fluid loss occurs when burns significantly breach the outer layers of skin.

Nathan Gray, <em>Chalk</em> 2016. Chalk on paper. Image courtesy the artist

6.

The calcium carbonate that makes up blackboard chalk is the same as the calcium in our bodies. It can be burned to make quick lime. Quick lime is a desiccant, it removes water from things it comes into contact with and stores it. Since Roman times it has been used in building and agriculture to make cement and soil more porous. Chalk rock can be ground up, mixed with water and reconstituted to make chalk sticks for black boards.

Chalk is formed from the bodies of the eukaryotic unicellular phytoplankton, called Coccoliths. Plankton is not a type of plant or animal but is instead an ecosystem of organisms defined by their ecological niche. Coccoliths concentrate calcium from surrounding sea-water to form calcite shells. When they die, their bodies sink to the sea floor and are compacted into rock. The chalk formations of today formed in warm, tropical seas about one hundred million years ago in the Cretaceous Period, a time when sea levels were higher and there was significantly less land. The difference in the size of the ocean meant that there was far less land for mineral impurities to run off, resulting in a purer white form of limestone.

7.

I, Pencil is a 1958 essay by Leonard E. Read, in which a pencil personified explains the wonder of the free market that is responsible for its creation. The graphite, wood, lacquer, copper and eraser come together from different continents not only from different industries, but made by people of different languages, races and faiths. It ends with the line: ‘Have faith that free men and women will respond to the Invisible Hand. This faith will be confirmed’.2

Ostensibly a call for personal freedom from government regulation, the essay instead illustrates the freedom of movement of capital and material, a movement built on the exploitation of differentials. The difference in pay, working conditions and material costs from one country to another means globalised industry is able to produce goods cheaply in one country and market it more expensively in another. For its continued existence this system requires a lack of freedom of movement by workers who might seek to migrate to countries with better working conditions.

As capital flows more freely migration has become more regulated, expanding the differentials in markets. Now, in many places, even those with legitimate fears for their lives are denied safety, resettlement and dignity. The continued existence of this system requires areas of the world where life is precarious and workers are therefore more easily exploited. Any movement of people that seeks better conditions, even when these conditions are a minimum requirement of safety and freedom from persecution, is treated as dangerous for the continuance of such a system.

8.

In ‘Autonomy, Recognition, Movement’, Angela Mitropoulos characterises migration as political. Migrant lives are politicised and restricted by repressive governments. Detainees in Australia’s camps refer to themselves as political prisoners and policy hostages. They perform organised acts of civil disobedience, yet it is ‘habitual to depict migrants as bereft of political action, indeed of activism’.3 This is often not only carried out by those with repressive agendas, but also by refugee advocates and activists. As sociologist Michael Biggs states:

Even when someone indisputably dies for a cause, as with self-immolation, this can be discounted by the refusal to grant agency: the protester was mentally deranged, or was duped by a movement organization.4

The act of self-immolation is spontaneous but has a history, it has occurred in waves since the 1970s in different countries, for different reasons. It is not a tradition, it is not cultural. Those who have set themselves alight in Australia’s detention system do not share one culture, unless it is the culture of detention. There is a Wikipedia page that documents instances of self-immolation globally and it appears that the current wave is here and now.
To say that these acts were done as a form of protest does not deny the fact that they were suicides. Ernest attempts by refugees to take their own lives that have been politicised by the choice of method. Their deaths in such deliberately agonising ways reclaim an agency that has been denied them.

9.

On 23 November last year I tweeted:

‘Don’t ask me why I’m crying unless you want to cry too.’

I wasn’t posting about Manus at the time, it was a rare post that related to my personal life being in total disarray, in crisis, but it communicated something in what it left out.

My tweet was retweeted by an Iraqi refugee in Manus Island detention centre, who then private messaged me.

‘Good morning. How are you?’
‘Thank you for support us.’

We chatted and I told him how much support he really did have in the Australian community and how awful I knew his situation was. I felt silly that my problems had been noticed and empathised with by someone in such a situation.

10.

None of the people who set themselves alight in protest of the draconian conditions in the refugee detention system died from asphyxiation. They lived to feel the pain of their burns, all of them lived long enough to be hospitalised.

Burning is a word that is often used to describe the sensation of pain. Words like searing or scorching describe different types of pain, but this does not work the other way around. There is no language to describe the pain of burning except burning itself. So at least in English, burning is close to being synonymous with pain.

The act of self-immolation is performed by people who suffer without being believed, whose pain is overlooked or ignored. It is a final act of desperation, an act that communicates precisely to all who witness or hear of it, a pain that cannot be ignored. The act of self-immolation is intended to communicate pain. Michael Biggs has termed this form of protest communicative suffering. It is a method of suicide intended to force empathy on the level of the body from a disengaged public.

11.

The Ursula K. Le Guin short story, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, is an attempt to imagine with the reader an idyllic city without an army or police force and free from organised religion and war.

The story ruptures at a certain point, with the author asking the reader: ‘Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing.’

She then goes on to describe a brutalised child, imprisoned in a cellar. A child whose suffering the city’s happiness somehow depends on, or perhaps it is simply a bargain with the reader, that in order for them to accept as plausible a utopic society there must be others that suffer.

It seems to me that Le Guin diagnosed something that I had not yet realised. That nations, states and governments are not only built on the suffering of those deemed to be outside of the care of those states, but that citizens feel this is the way it has to be. They intuit the unjustness of their privilege, but are unable to conceptualise a society without it.

Nathan Gray, 2016, with thanks to Julie Burleigh, Rachel O’Reilly, Tori Ferguson, Will Foster and Gabriel de Vietri. This essay was originally commissioned as a review of the A Centre for Everything event Omelas, Civil Disobedience & Pizza.


  1. Paul Warde, ‘Fear of Wood Shortage and the Reality of the Woodland in Europe, c. 1450–1850’, History Workshop Journal, 62.1, 2006, p. 28–57. 

  2. Leonard E. Read, I, Pencil. My Family Tree as told to Leonard E. Read, Irvington-on-Hudson, The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc., NY, 1958. 

  3. Angela Mitropoulos, ‘Autonomy, Recognition, Movement’, The Commoner, 2006. 

  4. Michael Biggs, When Costs are Benefits: Communicative Suffering as Political Protest, 2014, n.p.rs is available online as part of un Extended 10.2.