And when I awoke I was alone, this bird had flown/ So I lit a fire, isn’t it good, norwegian wood? (Norwegian Wood, The Beatles, Rubber Soul)
One surprise Christmas bestselling book in the UK has been ‘Norwegian Wood’, which has the great virtue of being exactly what it says on the tin, or the book cover, ‘chopping, stacking and drying wood the Scandinavian way’, and more particularly, the Norwegian way.
I knew I must have a copy. Why? In my partner Hazel’s Cotswold home there’s a woodburning stove, and a stack of wood outside, under cover, partly seasoned – that is, partly dried, and I have the regular and rather enjoyable task of bringing it inside and keeping the log basket by the lounge fire well-filled. Sometimes the wood – I believe it’s all local beech (though we have some old indeterminate wood recycled from the rebuilding of the house next door) – flames up and lights the room, and we damp it down, and the room warms quickly, other times it’s slow and we open the vents and still it’s reluctant to flame. It has a mind of its own. But then of course – it doesn’t.
Read Lars Mytting’s book and all will be revealed. Wood as a highly practical activity, but also pastime, mindset, lifestyle, craft and (check out some of the woodpiles illustrated in the book) art form.
‘Every man looks at his wood-pile with a kind of affection.’ (Henry Thoreau, by Walden Pond, in the 1850s.)
I remember my step-mother’s father, in his 70s by the time I knew him, building his woodpile along a garden path facing south, several hundred feet above Lake Lucerne, where his family had lived for generations. The woodpile may also have been there for generations. I was 13 years old, and impressed. I watched a total lunar eclipse from the same path, the woodpile, maybe I should call it a woodpath, behind me, the lake below, the mountains reaching up beyond, and the moon a deepening shade of red above.
‘The ideal way to dry wood is to stack it as loosely as possible.’
Keep the surface exposed to wind and sunlight. ‘Logs dry best when the surface contact between them is minimal.’ And I love this quote:
‘In Norway, discussions about the vexed question of whether logs should be stacked with the bark facing up or down have marred many a christening and spoiled many a wedding when wood enthusiasts are among the guests.’
There’s the sun-wall woodpile, the firewood wall, the round stack, cord stacking, the closed square pile – just a few of the stacking options. There’s a wonderful photo in the book of a stack in the shape of a fish.
‘Splitting the wood is the part of the job Arne enjoys most.’ (Arne Fjeld, quoted by Mytting.)
And there’s sawing and chopping and splitting, though all are pretty much denied me. I don’t have a chainsaw, or a trailer, and that’s what you need in the Norwegian birch woods. But I do have memories of hand- and felling-axes from my Boy Scout days. How did we get away then with wielding such dangerous items? I loved the big felling-axe, lifting it up and bringing it down from well above my head, sliding my hand down the shaft, the smooth and mighty downstroke.
‘I don’t think people in the old days had a particularly personal or romantic attitude toward wood.’ (Arne Fjeld again)
These days it’s different, in England as well as Norway. Wood is a source of comfort, where once it was simply a matter of life and death over the long winter months. Piling and chopping and feeding the flames are these days recreation as well as necessity.
‘Wood is best when dried quickly.’
Drying gets conversations going. Cut trees down in the winter or spring, before the sap rises (and fungus and mould can’t get established in the cold) and let the wood dry during the summer for next winter use. And keep the leaves on! Strip the bark in two or three places and let the logs breathe. All apparently arcane but in reality hard, practical and close-to-the earth advice. (But not too close to earth – stack your wood off the ground.)
But many argue that you should leave it two summers. I guess it has much to do with space and time (a touch of relativity here): if you’re well set up, as a Norwegian farmer would be, then one summer’s drying may be enough.
‘Wood is the simplest form of bioenergy there is.’
Each wood burns in its own way, but what matters in the end is the density. An oak log will generate 60% more heart than an alder log of the same size, but ‘pound for pound (they) produce the same amount of heat’. The hardest wood makes the best firewood, but quick-burning woods may well be better for chilly early or late winter days. Mix them with a harder wood of beech or oak. For kindling use pinewood or twigs from deciduous trees. And there’s coppicing: ‘birch can have a rotation period of fifteen to twenty years and more.’
You can calculate how many kilowatt-hours of energy a tree can produce, and put a financial value on it.
Birch is ‘queen of the Norwegian forest’, not least because it grows tall and straight, with obvious advantages for felling and stacking. Ash is tough and strong, and ‘regenerates from the stool, and therefore is ideally suited for coppicing’. It’s also, for many cultures, Yggdrasil, the tree of life, so the symbolism as well as the reality of the threat from ash dieback is powerful. Green pine is almost impossible to burn.
I remember as a Boy Scout going on many a ‘woodfag’, and building fires for cooking that sometimes flourished and sometimes struggled. And with them the evening stew, and the immediate welfare of the small patrol of four boys in my charge. I’d have done well to know more about the kinds of wood I was collecting. But I do remember – we didn’t starve. The main criterion then as now is – collect dry wood. If you can break it with your hands, or it breaks easily under the axe, that’s what matters.
‘… thick woollen socks hung up to dry dripped and hissed onto the woodstove.’
Back to Gersau on Lake Lucerne, and my Swiss step-grandparents’ house on the hillside. Everything was wood-fired and there was a fine traditional stove in the sitting-room. (The earth closet extended a long way down into the ground, and was regularly emptied into a neighbouring field. But that’s another story!)
Modern clean-burning stoves compared to old-fashioned stoves have an extra supply of heated air. There are different kinds of stove: closed iron, soapstone, kitchen, tiered, tiled …. each with its own story. In so many areas of life we have lost touch with story, or we have story without history. Wood in Mytting’s hands, beneath his axe, is all about story, all about history.
‘Even in oil-rich Norway an astonishing 25% of the energy used to heat private homes comes from wood.’
Here in the UK woodstoves will never be a way of life as they are in Scandinavia. We’ll never have stacks of wood decorating our landscape. But as one source within an energy mix of renewables, with renewables part of wider mix of oil, gas, coal, nuclear, with the former growing as the latter diminish, wood could have a big future. Time is on its side, as stoves become more efficient, and if we take on board all the wisdom in Mytting’s book renewable woods might be more part of our own landscape, and carefully planned they wouldn’t need to be the scars on the landscape that pine forests have been.
And finally, there’s a poem I wrote a poem (The Woodman) two years ago, inspired by the sound of someone chopping one early morning, and that’s how I’ll end:
Across the field the woodman drags/ The log he would reduce with axe/ Raised high above his head it falls/ A wrench of sound breaks the still/ Of morning and there’s a rhythm/ As each repeated stroke is given/ A little extra force or thrust
For he who cuts alone would still be best/ Of all the woodmen, though no-one knows/ But he how so sharp blade so cold/ Could cut to such design/ Or how he to such contracted space/ Could aim his axe and lay to waste/ In single moments a century of time