Reading a book about firewood whilst sitting by a wood stove is a pleasant way to spend an hour or two. Especially when you are feeling sorry for yourself (I was) because some lovely student was overly generous with their germs. Fortunately for Mrs PlaidCamper, I suffered in stoic silence. Not true, I was simply engaged in the book she gave me, and it has certainly confirmed my almost outdoorsman status. Still so much to learn!
If you can get hold of a copy, you might like to read “Norwegian Wood – chopping, stacking, and drying wood the Scandinavian way” by Lars Mytting. I know, sounds a bit nerdy, yet this slim volume is quite wonderful, and strangely heartfelt, given the title. The approach is sometimes scientific, sometimes mathematical, but the overall effect is lyrical and philosophical. Apparently, the book has been a bit of a hit, striking a chord – a cord? – with a wide audience. Could it be that some are crying out for a simpler life? Maybe. It kept me quiet for a while.
To the book. Until relatively recently, almost all humans have warmed themselves with fire, and the primary fuel was wood. This necessitated a set of skills and knowledge fundamentally attached to being outdoors. In many places, the need for these skills has diminished in the last 60 years, with the development of other heating and energy sources. Perhaps more of us need to rediscover the skills and possibilities of wood for a fuel. Mytting’s book explores our changing relationship with firewood through pictures, poetry, history, and anecdotes that delight and engage. (If you don’t have a tear in your eye after finishing old Ottar’s story – his woodpile tale bookends it all – I’d be amazed, and you’d be cold…)
Mytting details how wood grown for heating can be one part of a national energy plan. It isn’t a magic bullet, but he is persuasive on how burning wood is comparatively environmentally friendly. Modern stoves are very efficient, and there are regions where wood growth supply can outstrip demand. It can’t work everywhere, but the ideas are intriguing. Large (or small) scale tree farms seem preferable to large scale power stations, nuclear plants, hydroelectric projects, and all the associated infrastructure required to deliver the energy. It’s not romantic or beautiful like an old growth forest, but it is clean. And no, I’m not advocating mass logging/deforestation to heat our homes.
The book isn’t all about national energy policy and planning, although the ideas presented are thought-provoking. Much of the book is more personal in nature. There’s an amusing foreword detailing the various types of wood chopper. Are you the stoic type? The neurotic hoarder? The poet? The standard bungler? How about desperado, melancholic or psychopath? If you’ve ever had to chop wood then you know there’s a little of each in all of us. Or if you’re me, quite a bit of the bungler.
When we lived in the western Perigord, the downstairs of our house was heated by two wood burning stoves, one in the kitchen, and one in the living room. In winter, we’d live in the kitchen most of the day, let the stove burn low, and then dash to the front room for the evening. Those stoves were efficient! If only I’d been as efficient.
The first autumn/winter, I enjoyed stacking the delivered firewood and chain sawing and chopping through the colder months. Manly work! Wielding dangerous equipment with purpose, skill, and aplomb. Or so I thought in my happier moments. The truth was, the novelty wore off by the end of each winter, and the enthusiasm didn’t really return with the next wood delivery the following September. I quite enjoyed the sense of purpose and productivity, but sometimes it seemed endless.
Having a ton of logs dropped onto your front yard on a sweltering September day isn’t too bad. Not when your Dad and brother are visiting, and likely to help shift and stack it. Except they suddenly developed all manner of ailments and a pressing need to prop up the local bar…hmm. I know, firewood is great. It warms you three times – chopping, stacking and burning. My planning (and help) was all wrong!
Having read Mytting, I know now that I should have received the delivery in spring, and then split and stacked the wood to get it dry over the summer – in artfully and scientifically arranged woodpiles (you’ll admire the many photographs of woodpiles Mytting has included. No, really, you will!) I honestly hadn’t given much thought to storing the wood. I was pleased enough to have arranged to get any at all given my terrible schoolboy French. Still, once you have it, all firewood burns the same, doesn’t it? Wrong again, PlaidCamper. See Mytting. I was the bungler, making mistakes that would get a seasoned Scandinavian feller hot under the collar. Although I have to say my homemade sawhorse was a thing of beauty – or perhaps splendid utility over beauty, but I promise you, it worked. Mind you, I never took a photograph (or patented the “design”…)
On to the hardware. If you read it, and you don’t already have them, you’ll be off looking at chain saws and axes (even if you don’t need one, or is that just me?) Axes! The names in the book are poetry: Oyo, Hultafors, Gransfors, Wetterlings, Fiskars and Vipukirves.
“Norwegian Wood” made me miss my wood chopping days. It would have been wonderful to have had some of the knowledge and skills back then. Still, as an almost outdoorsman who generally prefers to look forward, I now feel better prepared than ever, and maybe one day in the future I’ll be back in regular wood chopping action, heating a little cabin and getting it all done the Scandinavian way!
I’ll finish with a quote about the smell of a woodpile Mytting recites from Hans Borli’s “With Axe and Lyre”:
“It is as though life itself passes by, barefoot, with dew in its hair…When the veil finally starts to fall, the scent of fresh wood is among the things that will linger longest…”
Thanks for reading! Are you a chopper of wood? If so, what type are you? Please feel free to share a story or leave a comment, and keep your guy ropes secure.