When you hear the words “Norwegian Wood,” you probably think of the song by the Beatles. But there’s another “Norwegian Wood” in town—it’s a best-selling book by Lars Mytting called Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking, and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way (2015). (The title of the book in its original Norwegian is Hel ved (2011), which literally translates as “solid wood.” The phrase has two meanings, as it also means a person you can trust, someone who is honest.)
Norwegian Wood is a non-fiction work that is part textbook about how to chop and store wood and part history book about how important it was (and still is) in Scandinavia. It is also a book that embraces the beauty of wood and how it affects people. The book begins, even before the table of contents, with a poem by Hans Børli:
The scent of fresh wood
is among the last things you will forget
when the veil falls.
The scent of fresh white wood
in the spring sap time
as though life itself walked by you,
with dew in its hair.
In the foreword you are introduced to Mytting’s neighbor Ottar, who inspired the book. In a November 2015 article, the Independent wrote: “We meet Ottar at the beginning of the book. He is a likeable, stoic neighbor in the small town of Elverum in southeastern Norway, where Mytting had moved to, and the man who taught Mytting that ‘a wood fire is about so much more than heat.’ In Elverum, winter temperatures hang around the -30 degrees Celsius mark. Ottar, retired with poor lungs, treats the annual arrival of his logs in spring and the subsequent time spent chopping, seasoning and stacking as a life-giving ritual. The book is a paean to all Norwegians who revere wood. These people know that without it, man would never have been able to inhabit land so far north in the first place.”
Mytting wrote about Ottar and his ritual of chopping wood during the warm months to get it ready for the winter months: “Ottar spent a month on his woodpile,” writes Mytting. “I’ve never seen a man change quite the way he did.
“Was it just the activity and the summer warmth that made him better? I don’t think so. It was the wood. All his life he’d chopped his own firewood … He enjoyed the feel of each log in his hand, the smell that made him feel he was at work inside a poem, the sense of security in his stack, the pleasing thought of the winter that lay ahead, with all those hours of sitting contentedly in front of his wood burning stove.”
Then, you are given facts: Wood is chopped, dried, and stacked in similar ways across the Scandinavia. Consumption in Norway, Sweden, and Finland is on average 550, 750, and 860 pounds per capita, respectively … Sweden alone goes through 3 million metric tons of wood a year. Even in oil-rich Norway, an astonishing 25% of the energy used to heat private homes comes from wood, and half of that wood is chopped by private individuals.
Scandinavia is passionate about all aspects of firewood, and, as Mytting says, “Many weddings and funerals have seen heated arguments about the best make of axe, or whether wood should be stacked bark up or bark down.” Norway’s love of wood can be seen in its commitment to the environment. In 2016, Norway became the first country in the world to commit to zero deforestation.
Before becoming a full-time writer, Mytting, 47, worked as a non-fiction editor and journalist. He said his editors wanted a book about wood chopping that was homespun and, in a way, a dig at old Norwegians. “But I didn’t quite agree. I wanted to write a book that my neighbor Ottar would read,” said Mytting.
And why is a book about Norwegian wood so popular, even with people who will not be going out to chop their own wood. It has been suggested that the reason for its appeal is there is something “honest, solid, and reassuringly ancient about wood.” Lars Mytting said that this about the woodpile:
“Its share price doesn’t fall on the stock market. It won’t rust. It won’t sue for divorce. It just stands there and does one thing: it waits for winter. An investment account reminding you of all the hard work you’ve put into it.”
There is plenty of intriguing advice about ways to move logs using nature, types of wood and how they burn with a different sound and flame, the type of axes available, and the pros and cons of each, and tips, lots of tips, such as the old Norwegian habit of smearing the ends of chopped logs with snow: the morning sun melts it, and so at night it freezes, stretching the fibers apart so that it splits with the first blow of your axe.
And there are stories about people and their woodpiles. My favorite is John Svensson, a chainsaw salesman and survivor of torture during World War II, who was so mad that a government delegation didn’t allow him to demonstrate his chainsaw, he chopped five trees to stop them from getting away. Then when he was criticized by a local newspaper, he showed up and cut the editor’s desk in two, eventually returning to apologize and offer to replace the desk.
There is lots of folklore, too. In Scandinavia, it is said you can tell a lot about a person from their stacks of wood, and women looking for a potential husband would always investigate how he stacked his wood. Mytting mentions an old statute from 1687 that forbade anyone passing between a pregnant woman and the fire because her child would be born with a squint.
In 2013, prompted by the success of Mytting’s book, Norway’s public-service broadcaster NRK ran 12 hours of programming on wood, in three parts, as part of its experiments in “slow television.”
Norwegian Wood is a terrific idea for a gift for anyone who loves the outdoors—whether or not they chop wood—or who just likes to read about all things Scandinavian.
This article first appeared on the Ingebretsen’s blog, Nov. 11, 2019, and was reprinted with permission. We regret to share that its author, Mary Hirsch, died in 2020.
If you are interested in purchasing a copy of Norwegian Wood, it is available to order online from Ingebretsen’s Nordic Marketplace (www.ingebretsens.com/norwegian-wood) and other major booksellers.
Mary Hirsch was a top-notch legal secretary, comedian, and passionate writer. She wrote for numerous publications, including Minnesota Monthly, MPLS/St. Paul Magazine, and Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion. She died suddenly in 2020 and is missed for her distintive and contagious laugh.
This article originally appeared in the May 21, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.