As a city-dweller with a devout hatred of the cold, the idea of spending time outdoors felling trees and chopping logs does not appeal. Nor did a book about it, until I heard about Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way. It's a surprise best-seller which, apparently, has the power to turn even the most feeble of us into axe-wielding lumberjacks.
Halfway through the poem which opens the book, I'm struck by a gentle lyrical beauty:
"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." (Hans Børli)
I can imagine myself in a dense Norwegian forest of pine and Douglas firs, pregnant with the smell of verdant needles and the possibility of preparing wood to see one through the winter…
Clearly, I fall neatly into the category the author Lars Mytting identifies as the "armchair wood chopper". "The book is a magic carpet that transports readers to different places," he explains. "One can delve into the dream of the self-sufficient reality of the cold north, and life in a cabin heated by energy from wood. It's a very basic dream of human survival."
Mytting can be confident of this now, after the runaway success of his book in Norway, where it sold in excess of 300,000 copies and was on the best-seller lists for more than a year after its 2011 publication. It has been translated into 10 languages and is now in our shops ready for Christmas – even here in the UK it's been reprinted four times in one month and has sold more than 20,000 copies.
This is very unusual for such a niche and practical book. For as much as Mytting captures the romance of the great outdoors, the nobility of the honest graft of wood chopping, and our close relationship with trees, it is also a step-by-step guide to preparing your wood store. There is advice on which axe and chainsaw to buy, in-depth consideration of the qualities of different woods, chopping methods, and information on stoves and fire-building.
Mytting, 47, worked as a journalist and non-fiction editor before turning to writing. His editors wanted a folkloric presentation of wood chopping, a cheeky sideways dig at old Norwegians, he explains. "But I didn't quite agree. I wanted to write a book that my neighbour Ottar would read."
We meet Ottar at the beginning of the book. He is a likeable, stoic neighbour in the small town of Elverum in south-eastern 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 -30C 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.
"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 woodburning stove."
So why do we care over here? By comparison the UK is neither wild nor cold. But we do have lots of trees. Robert Penn, author of The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees, delves into our intimate relationship with wood in his new book, by finding out how many different things can be made from an ash tree. Ash, posits Penn, is the tree with the most varied use in human history. As well as giving us firewood and physical objects, it also brings the pleasure of making things by hand.
Like Norwegian Wood, this book is bound for great things, and has already been chosen as BBC Radio 4's Book of the Week over Christmas.
What's more, we have a passion for wood-burning stoves. Technological advances mean that we have access to stoves in which you can burn solid fuels even in small urban properties, and stove installations increased by 40 per cent in the five years to 2014 – to around 200,000 per year. Interested parties such as the Stove Industry Alliance draw attention to the fact that wood, when sourced and burned properly, is an affordable, renewable fuel.
You're unlikely to recoup the cost of fitting a fancy stove from the savings on your heating bill, but a "feature fireplace" can reportedly add as much as five per cent to the value of your home.
While Mytting remains surprised at the roaring success of his book, he believes we harbour something of an instinctive affection for flames: "Fire is mankind's oldest energy," he points out. "It must have left a love of fire inside the human genes."
But he admits that our current love for firewood is a truly modern indulgence. "In the old days I don't think there was any romance in it at all. It was a very, very hard way of surviving. It's a paradox really because the luxury and the mindfulness where we can embrace the moment and have this wonderful time in front of the chopping block was completely absent in those days. Without a chainsaw, with only muscle and an axe, they needed two to four, perhaps even six times more firewood than we do today, because it was their only source of energy."
With this stark reality of wood-chopping back in perspective, I'll happily remain the armchair enthusiast.
'Norwegian Wood' by Lars Mytting (£20, MacLehose) and 'The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees' by Robert Penn (£16.99, Particular Books) are out now
Norwegian Wood has unearthed some unusual habits among wood choppers…
My woodpile's bigger than your woodpile
"It's a very common thing among older Norwegian men to create this enormous monument of firewood that outlives them, and also a very nice heritage that they leave behind," says Mytting.
It's not only size that matters, creating a "sculptural stack" is another widespread activity, and local papers run competitions to find the best. Retired engineer Ole Kristian Kjelling is famous in Norway for his woodpile portraits of Queen Sonja and King Harald V, Norway's current monarchs, and the 18th-century composer Rossini.
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".
The first four-hour slot was a celebration of all things firewood, starting with Mytting building and lighting a fire. The next two parts broadcast a log fire; the only activity is when wood is added to the flames, and an interlude where a camera operator toasts a sausage.
- More about:
- Lars Mytting
- Norwegian Wood
- Robert Penn
- Douglas firs
- Stove Industry Alliance
- Queen Sonja