We first came across Lars Mytting during a trip to Scotland. His book, Norwegian Wood (Hel Ved), was front and center in every bookstore in every town. Born in Fåvang, Norway, Mytting became a critically acclaimed novelist after quitting his job in the city and moving to the chilly eastern Norwegian valley of Østerdalen to become a full-time author. However, it was Norwegian Wood, a work of nonfiction, that made him a household name around the world. What started out as a project meant to offer tips (on how to chop wood, prepare it, and use it for heating) quickly evolved into a lyrical work—part guidebook and part meditation—tracing the cultural history of firewood in Norway, the many aspects of axes, saws, and chainsaws, and featuring the wisdom of those relying on firewood in the country’s coldest areas (along with researchers and wood enthusiasts). Earlier this month, we had the pleasure of talking to one of our favorite fireside writers about the “wood bug” in all of us.
Project Woodchips: Your book, Hel Ved, translates literally into "solid wood," an expression that has a double meaning in Norwegian signifying also a person with a strong, dependable character—which is certainly true of the people you profile in the book. In your research, how did their different characters reveal themselves to you through the conversations you had about their personal methods for chopping, stacking, and drying wood?
Lars Mytting: One of the first things I learned is that it is hopeless to ask a Norwegian lumberjack, especially the males, what they feel about the work they are doing. Most people have very little vocabulary for it—they experience a sense of mental comfort in doing proper work, but they usually do not like to describe it. So, the true answer came when we discussed the work itself—their methods, their tools.
One very common personality is the meticulous type, who loves the work because they can make logs of the same size (we call these folks “millimeter-men”), split and arranged according to tree type or size, and admire the stacks. The are usually extremely nice—often soft-spoken and good listeners—but they do not like to discuss methods other than their own. On the other hand, you have the quite busy fellow, the pragmatic type, who needs loads and loads of firewood, and enjoys using heavy tools and clever DIY production lines. These folks are usually louder and wear work clothes all day, and are open minded to all improvements. In between these you will find all sorts of variants—the artist who uses the firewood as a grown man’s Lego, and the scientist who measures humidity loss using digital scales and Excel sheets. So it all represents their stage in life, but most of all their personality.
PW: The world over there seems to be this nostalgia to return to a simpler way of doing things; where hard work pays off and you can see the fruits of your labor—in a raging fire; in a firewood stack. What advice do you have for a person who's been bitten by the "wood bug" and is interested in going back to basics and learning proper technique? How do they get started?
LM: Go along with a experienced friend—if none such are at hand, then read the book and start with manual tools and, and this is important, small trees. Not bigger than 3 times your own height. Always put safety first. Just a bow saw and axe in the beginning, so you can get a feeling for the weight and impact of trees. Wind is dangerous—observe how much a large tree will swing from side to side even in a light breeze. If it's one direction, it's fine—if it's both it's usually a disaster, and the tree shifts between them in seconds.
Also be creative in sourcing a woodlot. The variation of management is enormous of course, and depends on where you live. But very often, the firewood collector is a very welcome supplement to any forest or tree management. From there on, it is a matter of mastering the techniques—and a good thing is, if you can, to always split and stack immediately. Do not work until you are dead tired and leave lots of logs on the ground. They will rot quicker than many believe, and there is a bigger satisfaction in the work if you can get a number of split and stacked logs ready the first day.
PW: The American lumberjack is credited with having played a huge role in building the U.S. as we know it today, yet their legacy is so mixed up with legend (Paul Bunyan) that much has been lost to history. Given how central wood and fire remain to the average Norwegian, how have you seen its history evolve?
LM: We still see—and I believe in the US too—a great legacy to the firewood traditions of the past because without it, neither Norway or the US west would have been populated. However, this can be a drawback, because a lot of old advice is sound, but some advice is a result of worst-case scenario thinking. In Norway we have an expression called “wartime winter” and many gear their stoves and wood type for this all the time. Typical for the US firewood enthusiasts that I have met, is that many people favor extremely heavy wood types, hickory for example, and big logs if possible, because these give a lot of energy to the degree that any other firewood is poor or useless. While it is great to honor a tradition, and it was necessary in the old days of small, drafty log houses, the reality is that in a modern, well-insulated house, one may be just as well-served with a modern, small, efficient stove and smaller logs of lighter wood, because the heat output fits this house better—and it is much easier to have the stove going constantly with an absolutely minimum of pollution. So here in Norway we have seen a great shift towards smaller, cleaner stove units. And the use of bioenergy—where firewood is by far the simplest and easiest resource—is regarded as a natural component in the energy structure.
PW: It's hard to have a conversation about wood without talking about the environment. In your book, you point out that many Norwegians believe that the environment is better served by "using firewood rather than spending money on complex strategies aimed at reducing a trivial amount of electricity." It's a compelling argument given that wood is the simplest form of bioenergy we have. As silviculture practices are in place around the world, how do you see the debate evolving over time?
LM: It would be very naïve to think that firewood could replace the massive energy sources needed for urban areas. However, it is a truly excellent supplement to other energies. In Norway, it is a well-established fact that in really cold periods, people start using their firewood stoves. It is a quite simple mechanism, and it saves us from having the massive energy grids needed to supply electric power in the coldest peaks of the year, which usually counts for less than 30 days in the whole year. I see a huge potential for using more advanced systems both in ways of firewood supply and use. One of the latter is the use of boilers—huge stoves connected to circulating water. With this, you can heat a much larger variety of building structures, such as a unit that's four stories high and that houses several families, sharing the same energy and hot water source. The added benefit is of course that such a contained community can obtain firewood from sources nearby, that perhaps is tended by them selves.
PW: There's a heated debate about the proper way of stacking logs—with the bark facing up or down. A proposed rule of thumb is bark down, inland and bark up, along the coast—but this is certainly not the end of it. In your book, you include stacks that range from sculptures to woodsheds. So what's the verdict—how are you stacking your wood these days?
LM: Well, I have tried both ways, but I find myself a bark down-man. My instinct tells me that it dries better that way, even if I have written a book that clearly documents that it makes no difference at all! So for me it is a matter of instinct really, what I always have done. There are practical reasons for the various practices of course, good reasons too, but too lengthy to get into here.
PW: Let's talk about axes. Some of the world's finest axes are still being made in Scandinavia (Hultafors, Øyo, Gränsfors, and Wetterlings). What sets Scandinavian axes apart and why do you think so many craft axe makers have been able to thrive there while storied brands like Kelly and Keen Kutter have all but disappeared?
LM: The magic thing about an axes—which is just iron and wood—is that they still have different personalities. And the most individuality comes from an artisan maker. It is not only a difference in appearance, but also in balance. The difference is remarkable. I have some handmade axes that swing like magic samurai swords, where others—also handmade, but cheap—handle really clumsy. So suddenly you are connected to another person—the maker of the axe. This is a far different experience than using a cheap, poor tool that may look like an axe, but it is just something long with a sharp edge at the end. That said, some production line axes like Fiskars are brilliant, but their designs are the results of superb engineering and minute observations of applied ergonomics, as well as hours on hours of use.
My best axe is made by a Swedish woman actually.
PW: If you could give the coming generation one bit of advice based on your personal experience researching and writing Hel Ved, what would it be?
LM: At all sites of major cities around the world, at first there was a campfire. There is no bigger debt in mankind’s history than our debt to trees— and they still are brilliant collectors of solar energy. Firewood is mankind’s oldest energy, and it will be with us for as long as we need. So we should not regard the woods as something irrelevant or museal. Cultivate the forests and put them to use.
Want to get to know wood a little (or a lot) better? Pick up Norwegian Wood, and then pick up an axe and head into the woods.