Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking and Drying wood the Scandinavian way, by Lars Mytting

I read a good book the other day #14

Considering a potential husband? First, consult his woodpile…

Image: book jacketHands up those who would have thought it possible to write a whole book about chopping firewood and make it interesting! But that’s exactly what Lars Mytting achieves in Norwegian Wood. This was a Christmas present from my sister and it took me back to those teenage years when bull headed rebellion intrude on a boy’s life.

One of my chores was gathering wood for the open fires that we still had in our family home to supplement an indifferent coal fired central heating system. We had no gas in those days, so filling the coal scuttle from the store in the cellars was a chore that soon grew tiresome to a teenager with other interests. I also had to watch out for the toad who lived in our coal heap for years. I didn’t want to shovel him up and throw him on the fire along with the coal.

But when dad acquired a chain saw I discovered a new pleasure in contributing something tangible to the household economy before the time of earning money. We had enough trees in our large garden then to supplement our winter fuel, and during winter was the time dad and I would go out and choose a tree to saw down and cut into logs with our macho new tool. That was often cold work and sometimes hard labour dragging the logs back to the shed, then splitting and piling them, but it taught me to work with my father and to appreciate the value of useful, as compared to merely intellectual, work. But the part I enjoyed best was splitting the logs with father’s (or was it grandfather’s?) axe. I was not allowed to use the axe until a certain age, of course. You need enough physical growth and strength to wield an axe safely, to be able to swing it in a wide arc around your head and strike the log truly so that it splits and does not skitter sideways off the block, deflecting the axe head out of control. A miss-strike can result in the axe head making a beeline for your ankles with obvious disastrous consequences. The boat builder’s adze is an even worse offender in this respect. Luckily, I still possess both feet.

But I fear my efforts would have been laughed out of court by a genuine Norwegian woodcutter. According to Lars Mytting (and I have no reason to doubt him) in Scandinavia where winters are infinitely colder and longer lasting than our British affairs, which tend to be drearily damp and chilly with only a short burst of actual freezing thrown in for a laugh, woodcutting, like insulation, is taken much more seriously. And quite right too.

Going beyond the differences between a forest axe and a splitting axe, this and that make of chain saw, and how modern wood stoves burn more cleanly than those of old, Lars raises woodcutting, stacking and drying to an art form, including the beneficial spiritual and environmental issues of using wood as a heating fuel. When I say spiritual I don’t mean in the religious sense, I mean in the benefit to a man’s inner spirit when he feels he is doing something useful, not only for himself but for his whole family. Lars’ little side note of an old man rejuvenated by chopping his woodpile is especially touching.

Environmentally, wood is carbon neutral since the growing tree absorbs from the environment all the carbon it later releases in burning, so in a country where wood is plentifully grown it makes sense to use it as a heating fuel. Though not generally a great fan of rules and regulations I have to say that I do approve of Norway’s building regulation that (according to Lars) requires new houses be provided with a wood burning stove.

Sadly, in Great Britain our far more densely crowded islands are no longer blessed with so much tree cover as Norway, nor do we have such good access to what comparatively paltry few trees we do have for firewood. Lars says that in Norway many forest owners actually welcome firewood cutters into their forests because they help to thin the trees and carry away the unwanted surplus of a forest that is grown principally for building timber. I can just imagine (not!) rocking up in a handy UK forestry commission wood or at some private country estate with chain saw and axe slung over my shoulder and being welcomed to take what I want from their woods. Oh, if only… (And to think the history books say it was just so in medieval times, when every peasant had the right to collect firewood until greedy kings and land-grabbers got their grubby mitts on things…)

But it’s not all so serious as to be an art form. Take this (edited) extract where Lars tells us that in nineteenth century Maine, USA, a young woman considering a potential husband would be advised first to consult his woodpile:

Upright and solid pile: upright and solid husband

Low pile: cautious man, could be shy or weak

Tall pile: ambitious, but watch out for sagging and collapse

Not much wood: a life lived from hand to mouth

No woodpile at all: don’t even go there

Lars Mytting’s writing and the translation from Norwegian to English by Robert Fergusson are excellent, and there are many colour photos throughout the book illustrating points made. Lars almost makes me want to emigrate to Norway. I thoroughly enjoyed Norwegian Wood: Chopping, stacking and drying wood the Scandinavian way. If you think you might too, or somebody you know, rush out and buy a copy now.

One Thought on “Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking and Drying wood the Scandinavian way, by Lars Mytting

  1. Good write up Charles and so glad you enjoyed the book. I’m glad I don’t have to consider another husband and consult his woodpile first, although I do know someone who has a fantastic woodpile..

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