“My mind is never so pleasantly empty as when I’m chopping wood.”
— Arne Fjeld, quoted in ‘Norwegian Wood’
When I moved into Innisfree, there was a cast-iron beast brooding in the center of the cabin. I was both terrified and intrigued by it. I’ve lived in numerous houses with fireplaces. Never one with a wood stove.
The seller explained in detail how to operate the stove, where to get wood, which chimney sweep to use. I glazed over, a tad overwhelmed. My only real experience with wood stoves was the Jam Hut in Missoula, Montana, where a few chucks of wood allowed us to listen to music and hang out late into the night no matter how cold it was outside.
But this was different. This was my stove. And I had no idea how to operate it. So I did what any geek would do: I started Googling. I found a lot of great sources on YouTube, including Life In Farmland, which has a lot of great info.
But nothing quite matches a book I found on Amazon with the unlikely title of Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood The Scandinavian Way by Lars Mytting.
I was incredulous as I read the gushing reviews. It’s about wood. And stoves. And Scandinavia. How the hell could this be worth the time it would take to read? But still, something about it intrigued me, and after letting it sit in my cart for several weeks I finally pulled the trigger.
When it arrived, I started reading. And didn’t stop until I was done. It’s incredibly engaging and interesting, even though it does dive deep into the weeds at times. I picked up a lot of great info and even if I didn’t have a wood stove or fireplace, I still would have found the book delightful.
“Eg grev ned min eld sent om kveld. Naar dagen er slut, Gud gje min eld alder sloka ut.” (I damp down my fire, late at night, when day is done. God grant that my fire never go out.)
The quote above is a fire prayer from the Norwegian Middle Ages. One of the cool tidbits I picked up in Norwegian Wood. There are a lot of gems in here. For instance:
“A minor point worth noting is that local green energy is not a contentious issue on the large political stage. Countries that depend wholly on oil, coal, and other forms of fossil fuel guard their resources carefully. But no one has ever gone to war over a firewood forest, and no species of seabird has ever been drenched in oil because a trailer load of firewood ended up in a ditch. A woodpile might not stop a war from breaking out, but simple, local sources of energy are not the stuff of violent conflict.”
And this wise observation, part of a warning about exercising caution when wielding a chainsaw:
Wood won’t warm much when bits of your body are lying in a container outside the emergency room of your hospital.
There are great photos of wood piles throughout Scandinavia. I never realized they could be a form of self-expression, to the point where Mytting dedicates a page to explaining how a man’s woodpile can be the window to his soul.
The elephant in the room, of course, is pollution. I remember living in Albuquerque, where frequent “no-burn” days were declared in an effort to stop the city from strangling in a smog-filled bowl between the Sandia Mountains and the volcanoes on the West Mesa.
I’ve come to equate wood fires with pollution and carbon dioxide. But that’s not necessarily the case. As Mytting explains, trees will release the same amount of carbon whether they’re decomposing on the forest floor or in your wood stove. And with modern stoves, very little particulate pollution is released into the atmosphere, especially if you know how to manage the fire.
So I’ve learned to love my wood stove. Mytting’s homage got me moving. I dragged in seasoned ash from the woodpile, loaded the stove, and lit it. Once I started seeing it as a complex grill, with multiple ways to manipulate airflow and maintain a steady burn, I started geeking out.
For the past few weeks, I’ve heated Innisfree with nothing but wood. And we’ve gone through several sunrises that dawned in the upper teens. The heat from it is amazing. And as commanded in Norwegian Wood, I’ve learned to operate my stove so no smoke can be seen emerging from the chimney. Just heatwave ripples through icy air …
The cabin also is amazing. The southern exposure is nothing but forest, so in the summer, when the sun is punishing, oak, maple, birch, and beech leaves protect Innisfree from the heat. I think I ran the AC only two or three times this past summer. Now that winter-fall is here, the leaves are dropping (though my oaks cling stubbornly to theirs) and the sun streams through the windows in the back room, creating passive heat and complementing the warmth of the woodstove.