Thursday, January 26, 2017

about firewood



Heavily promoted in Waterstones this past Christmas. It seems there's a market for Scandinavian lifestyle books over here. The Beatles reference is unique to Robert Ferguson's English translation. In Norway, the novelist Lars Mytting's book about firewood (original title: Hel Ved) became a best-seller. Heating your house with wood through the winter remains a fact of life for most rural Scandinavians, though many now get their logs delivered, and the stoves need less wood: they are smaller, cleaner and more efficient than they used to be, and the homes are better insulated.

But this translation must have been aimed principally at the USA and Canada. In Great Britain hardly anyone has their own woodland, nor do we have the severe winters that necessitated the annual cycle of chopping, splitting, stacking and drying your own wood. It's an occupation, above all, for men, especially those approaching or into their retirement years.

It's a mostly practical book, but the occupation is simple and has never really required a manual. It's also a lyrical coffee-table book: a meditation on the life Nordic people lead or used to lead. The solid binding and thick paper have a fetishistic aspect, at least that's how I feel about the English publication. Here are some of the beautifully illustrated pages, all from quite near the beginning.

The book has a nostalgic aspect for me. When my family had a summer cottage in Sweden, we chopped a relatively small but not insubstantial amount of wood each year. As we only lived there in the summer, we didn't need to worry about the winters. We burned the wood in our ancient kitchen stove, which was used for cooking, boiling water, and heating the cottage on cold and  rainy days. So each year I spent a day or two sawing and splitting the previous year's wood, then cutting down new trees and stacking  the 2-meter logs to season. It wouldn't be an adequate way of drying wood for winter use, and I suppose a lot of our firewood didn't burn very hot, but for our needs it was fine.




The first page. A fine poem by the lumberjack-poet Hans Børli (1918 - 1989), and a picture showing the usefulness of birch-bark for roofing the stack.

There follows a Foreword by the novelist Roy Jacobsen, who I've encountered before via his excellent novel The Burnt-out Town of Miracles. But this Foreword is tonally a bit out of kilter with the book that follows: it's mysteriously tetchy. The Grey (or Speckled) Alder, which Jacobsen dismisses as burning no better than balsa-wood, is said by Mytting to "burn well and provide a good return of heat per hectare".




Birch-trees, and a quotation from the Elder Edda. Then...

It was the difference between being frozen and being warm. The difference between ore and iron, between raw meat and steak. In winter it was the difference between life and death. That is what wood meant to the first Norwegians. Gathering fuel was one of the most crucial of all tasks, and the calculation was simplicity itself: a little, and you would freeze. Too little, and you would die. 
The Scandinavian climate, which created the absolute need for winter fuel, also created the solution: blanket forests of trees with a naturally upright habit, ideal for logging.

Mytting discusses the environmental credentials of heating with wood. His argument is that the carbon released by burning would be released anyway when the wood decays, as eventually it must. In fact Scandinavian forestry is a net asset in the climate change stakes, since younger trees absorb more carbon than older ones. So long as the vast areas of forest are maintained at their present extent (as there's every reason to expect they will be), I think this argument holds good.





Gränsfors axe. The axe has more mystique than any other tool connected with firewood, although (or possibly because) it's now rarely used to split  the industrial quantities of wood needed to heat a Scandinavian home for a whole winter. Homesteaders who still prepare their own firewood will probably have bought themselves a hydraulic splitter. But they'll have their axes, too.




Newly cut wood. For maximum burning quality, it should not be left long on the ground. Cutting in early spring is normal; frozen wood dries better. But it's a much-debated topic.







Norwegian jacket


[Image source: http://www.kagge.no/?tmpl=butikk&a=product_inline&&b_kid=1044807&b_id=987945]


Translations: Swedish, English, Finnish, German


[Image source: http://vaktbikkja.medialaben.no/artikkel/41985362]


Note the Swedish title. "Ved" means wood, of course. But specifically it means wood as fuel: firewood. For wood as a substance in other contexts (e.g. the wood in a living tree, in timber or in furniture), the word used is "Trä". This is related to, but not identical with, the word for a tree: "Träd".









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