PREFACE: THE OLD MAN AND THE WOOD
I can still conjure up vividly the day when I realized that a wood fire is about so much more than just heat. It wasn’t a cold winter’s day. In fact, it was late April. I had put the summer tires on my Volvo weeks earlier, and scraped my skis clean of last year’s wax, and I was all ready for the Easter holidays.
We had moved out here to the little town of Elverum, in southeastern Norway, just before Christmas. With the help of a block heater for the car and a couple of fan heaters in the house, we had made it through the last half of a not particularly arduous winter for the Østerdal region. A couple of retirees lived in the house next door: decent people of the generation born before the Second World War, hardworking and cheerful. Ottar, the man of the house, had trouble with his lungs and hadn’t ventured outdoors much that winter.
On that particular spring day, with a gentle breeze blowing across the fields and water from the winter’s thaw glinting brown in the ditches, nothing was further from my mind than thoughts of the winter now behind us. A tractor pulling a trailer stopped outside and backed into the neighbors’ driveway. Revved up the engine, tilted the trailer—and dumped an enormous pile of birch logs in front of the house.
Wood should always be bought in April or May. Unseasoned wood. That way the drying process can be properly controlled, the price is lower, and you can get hold of as much of it as you need.
Enormous? The load was gigantic. You could feel the ground tremble as the logs came thudding down.
Ottar appeared in his doorway, wheezing. He looked tired and unwell. This was a man whose most extensive outing since last November had been the walk down the path to his mailbox by the fence and back up again.
He stood there, studying the birch logs. Then he changed from his house slippers into outdoor shoes, closed the inside door behind him, and headed over toward the pile, navigating his way carefully around the muddy puddles. He bent down and picked up a couple of logs, weighing them in his hands, and began chatting to the farmer, who had by now turned off the engine.
Firewood now? I thought. When what everybody else is looking forward to is that first glass of beer out on the veranda?
Sure enough. Now was the time. I learned that later from Ottar. Wood should always be bought in April or May. Unseasoned wood. That way the drying process can be properly controlled, the price is lower, and you can get hold of as much of it as you need.
I stood watching from my kitchen window as the tractor left, and Ottar began to shift the wood.
He began to stack it.
In the beginning each log seemed to exhaust him and he rested frequently, wheezing and panting for breath. I went over and we exchanged a few words. Thanks anyway, but no, he didn’t need help. “Good wood this year,” he volunteered. “Feel this one. Or this one. Beautiful white bark. Evenly cut, they’ve used a well-sharpened chain saw, you can tell from the way the chip here is square. I don’t use a saw myself anymore. I’m too old. This has been neatly chopped too. You don’t always get that now, not now that everybody’s using a wood processor. Anyway, I must get on.”
And Ottar went back to work, and I went back inside. Not long afterward I took a drive around the area and I noticed how buying wood in the spring was something that everybody here seemed to do. Especially in front of the older looking houses: always a woodpile. Stocking up, like buying your ammunition in preparation for the elk-hunting season. Or canned food before you set off on a polar expedition.
A week went by and Ottar’s pile of wood wasn’t looking any smaller. Not until another week passed did I notice the top of the pile was slightly flatter now. And wasn’t there a change in him too? Didn’t he seem to have a bit more of a spring in his step?
We began talking. He didn’t really have that much to say about what he was doing. Words weren’t necessary. For a man who had suffered his way through a long winter, struggling against age and ill health, a man who had once been able-bodied and up to the challenge of any physical labor, here at last was a job where things made sense again. Once more he was able to enjoy the feeling of doing something meaningful, and the sense of calm security that comes to the man who knows he is well prepared, he is early, he has time on his side.
I never tried to get Ottar to talk about his feeling for wood. I preferred to watch him in action, peacefully getting on with the job.
I never tried to get Ottar to talk about his feeling for wood. I preferred to watch him in action, peacefully getting on with the job. It was basically so simple and straightforward and yet, in the way he did it, there was also something almost noble about it.
Just once, he mentioned something that was not strictly practical: “The scent is the best thing of all,” he said. “The scent of fresh birch. Hans Børli—my favorite poet—wrote a poem about the scent.”
Ottar spent a month on his woodpile. Stopping now and then, but never for too long, to savor the smell, and the smell of sap from the smattering of spruce logs that came with the load. Until one day there was nothing left but the twigs, chippings, and bark, which he gathered up for use as kindling.
I’ve never seen a man change quite the way he did. Old age and infirmity were still there, but with this sudden flowering of spirit and energy he was able to keep them in their place. He started taking short walks, he stood more erect. One day he even powered up a bright yellow lawn tractor and cut the grass.
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. And although he’d put away his chain saw for good now, he still 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 woodburning stove. In much the same way, I suppose, that no one gets tired of carrying bars of gold, he knew that what he held in his hands was his insurance against the cold to come.
That’s how this book was born. In my rear-wheel-drive Volvo 240, my quest took me to some of the coldest places in Norway to visit the burners and choppers of wood. I have stopped at crossroads to listen for the buzz of a chain saw or—best of all—the faint creaking sounds of an old man at work with a bow saw. Made my careful approach and tried to bring the conversation around to the subject of wood.
The factual material in this book represents the distilled wisdom of my encounters with people who are passionate about wood, enthusiasts as well as professional researchers. I have benefited greatly from my conversations with experts in the fields of combustion and silviculture. And, not least, from the series of research reports published annually under the modest title Proceedings of the Norwegian Forest and Landscape Institute.
Along the way I’ve tried out most of the techniques I’ve been introduced to. I’ve dried finely chopped oak in our kitchen oven, struggled to build a beehive woodpile, miscalculated the trajectory of a felled pine. And I’ve been on a quest to discover the soul of the wood fire. But wood people don’t always like to put their passion into words. This is something you have to discover for yourself, in the tall, elegantly shaped woodpiles, in the fresh layer of caulk applied to an old black woodburning stove, in an open woodshed with its long wall angled south (don’t worry, all will be explained later). Thus much of this book is concerned with method, because it is about feelings that are communicated through method. On publication it attracted a surprisingly large readership throughout Scandinavia, selling in excess of two hundred thousand copies in Norway and Sweden alone. Firewood enthusiasts from all parts of the world wrote to share their own experiences, and the most useful and important of these have been included in this new edition. For the English-language edition, an appendix has been added listing TK.
I hope the concentration on method will also make this a useful book, because if it omitted all mention of tree felling, soapstone stoves, how to sharpen chain saws, and different ways of stacking wood, it would amount to little more than a scholarly treatise on the subject for people who neither chop nor stack nor burn wood themselves.
Wood isn’t something much thought about or talked about in Norwegian public life, at least not until the larger connections are made to the goal of a society based on bioenergy. Yet wood will always resonate at some deep level inside me and my compatriots, because our relationship to fire is so ancient, so palpable, and so universal.
That’s why this book is dedicated to you, Ottar. You remembered something the rest of us keep forgetting: that winter comes around each year.
Elverum, -24ºF (-31ºC)