A man sits in an armchair, watching television. The screen displays a fire merrily burning in a fireplace. The man is mesmerized, like most people when they stare into a fire. Plus, this is Norway, where the flicker and crackle of a fire, even on a television set, is unalloyed entertainment and primal gratification. Norwegians take their wood burning seriously, as would you if you chose to live where a winter’s day is regularly -20℉, and there are lots of trees and fine stove makers.
The fire continues to burn on the screen, and burn and burn, uninterrupted. A hand fleetingly enters the television picture and adds a fresh piece of wood to the fire, but evidently not enough for our hero, who is no longer mesmerized but has passed through the looking glass. Without taking his eyes from the screen, he reaches over the arm of his chair and grabs a hunk of rock-hard beech; in Norway, a piece of firewood is always there when you need it. He tosses it on the fire. The television implodes. Like his television, the man is shattered, having been so blissfully out of body and now so rudely returned to it, there in the armchair in front of the smoking ruins of his boob-tube blaze.
This story is true — reported in The New York Times, no less — and telling. It explains why Norwegian Lars Mytting’s Hel Ved — “Solid Wood” — is a bestseller all over Scandinavia. Fire and Scandinavians go way back, the very best of friends. Their trust and synergy go unspoken. Hel Ved is published here as Norwegian Wood (which is, admit it, pretty crafty) — a peerless, pathological entrée into the world of firewood.
Mytting is charily romantic about felling, splitting, and stacking wood. At one point, he writes that building a woodpile is like being “at work inside a poem.” Whoa! Lars! You were waiting for him to go overboard. Then you realize how apt the comparison: picking each piece of wood, turning it this way and that, fitting it just so that it can breathe and provide the right positioning for the next piece. The woodpiles one encounters in the book’s many illustrations — tooth-achingly sharp, as expected from Abrams — are as artful as an Andy Goldsworthy and are given proper attribution: “This stack was made by Arthur Tørisen”; “a fine, robust square woodpile stacked by Eimund Åsvang of Drevsjø.” Bravo, Arthur. Bravo, Eimund.
What Mytting does so well is mix the practical with the transcendental. “The woodcutter who attunes himself to the ways of nature and the passing seasons will quickly find his reward. The annual growth cycle of trees means that the best time to fell them is in the winter or spring, well before the leaves have started to bud.” Here we have the music of the spheres as filtered through the hydrology of dendrology. Dropping a tree is “full of subtleties, little tricks, and arts,” says Mytting’s friend Hans Børli. “You’ve got to be able to get that tree down on a dime.” Though this is not an instruction manual, Mytting hints at the witchery involved. Splitting wood may be incantatory in its repetition, but it “requires your full and complete attention, and if it doesn’t get it you might find the ax sticking out of your leg.” By the way, “many tree species will shrink and swell slightly during a lunar cycle. However, contrary to traditional belief” — felling when the moon is in its last quarter — “the difference is most notable in the five to six days before and after the full moon.”
Mytting the joyful existentialist: “One of firewood’s most attractive qualities is that it burns up and disappears.” Still, this will only happen if you season the wood properly, a process that starts with the standing tree and ends in a smattering of ash; if you don’t thoroughly understand how to season your firewood by the end of Norwegian Wood, then there is something wrong with you. There is a chapter on what Scandinavians talk about when they talk about cold, others on the subjectivity of the chopping block and the evolution of the woodstove, and a special section, wisely given its own space, of “cold facts,” so that they don’t clutter the story. He extols the virtues of holly, hornbeam, and hickory and introduces the dark side of the forest, where you may harvest some sumac or manchineel, thus to fill your house with poisonous gas when fired up. And just to shiver your timbers, there is a photograph of a woodcutter working away at felling a 400-year-old Douglas fir, 8 feet across and 260 feet tall. A great bite has been sawed out — it is a wonder that the tree is not already on its way down — and the cutter’s head is inside the maw as he reaches for a better angle to apply his chainsaw. Big surprise that logging has the highest mortality rate of any occupation.
Everywhere there is knowledge to be gleaned: on coppicing; on the environmental soundness of wood burning (managed properly, argues Mytting, it is a carbon-neutral renewable); on Newton’s second law of motion as it applies to the swing of an axe; the amount of BTUs thrown off by a particular species; comparative weights per cord; and drying rates depending upon the character of the stack. Equipment nuts can feast on the appallingly dangerous tools of the trade: chainsaws, axes, peaveys, bow saws (“Many enjoy the workout this kind of ‘analogue’ cutting provided [mainly, we might as well admit, ex-military types and gym teachers]” — Mytting, duly, is full of tinder-dry humor). One omission is a photo of the inside of a shop where axe heads are forged, the sort of place that Vulcan would easily recognize.
Passion: it is such a beautiful thing to witness. “Here it comes at last. The cold time. The great time. . . . A moment of truth arrives just after Christmas: Have you got enough? For a man may skimp on the price of his daughter’s confirmation and still be forgiven . . . . But for the man who would see his family freeze in winter, there can be no forgiveness.” To provide and protect; “only where love and need are one,” wrote Robert Frost, axe in hand. The fruit of labor, the pleasure and security, or, as Mytting would say: “You know exactly where you are with a woodpile.”