“So, I Lit a Fire”

Norwegian Wood Is Nordic Cool


NRK National Firewood Night Screenshot

Screenshot from NRK’s “National Firewood Night” on February 16.

Every man looks at his wood-pile with a kind of affection.
~ Henry David Thoreau

A week ago, the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, NRK (Norsk rikskringkasting), experienced another triumph for their signature “slow television” style of reality TV with Nasjonal vednatt (National Firewood Night): a 12-hour broadcast dedicated to firewood.

Norwegian WoodpileYou can see the whole broadcast dedicated to Norwegian wood – from Nasjonal vedkveld (National Firewood Evening) through Nasjonal vedmorgen (National Firewood Morning) – online. But be prepared: while the first four hours involve examination (and playing) of saws, exploration of stacking methods, and wanderings in the forest, the remaining eight hours comprise a log fire burning.

There is, of course, the occasional sausage or marshmallow.

Norway clearly has a both a knack and a passion for fuel. The largest oil producer and exporter in Western Europe, it is also the world’s second largest natural gas exporter. And just last month, the combustion of a truckload of brunostthe nationally beloved, ubiquitous brown cheese – closed the northern Brattli tunnel while the cheese burned for five days, which raised curiosity as to its potential usefulness as a fuel source.

Brunost - Brown CheeseFire experts had a go at setting more brunost ablaze but found that, actually, it doesn’t catch until 300° C and needs considerable assistance from propane.

Yet, while oil and natural gas support Norway’s current economic well-being, and brunost contributes to the nation’s gastronomic contentment, it is Norwegian wood that holds the top spot for cultural significance. At least 20% of the population of Norway tuned in to watch some or all of Nasjonal vednatt. For Americans to grasp this degree of popularity, we may consider that the 2013 Super Bowl drew roughly 33% of the U.S. population’s attention; and at their peak (which has long passed), the TV shows Grey’s Anatomy and CSI drew about 20%.

So, proportionally, the national viewership of Norway found a night’s detailed examination of firewood only marginally less interesting than the national viewership of the United States finds men’s posteriors in stretch pants pointed skyward, while the NRK broadcast was on a par with our passion for grossly misbehaving medical professionals and such routine Vegas deaths as scuba divers lodged in trees.

Clean-Burning StoveAnd this, without a power outage, $3.5 million-per-30-second advertising fees, $15 million salaries, or hair flipping by Beyoncé.

Distanced as it is from such mundane reality as we experience, some Americans find the Scandinavian fascination with cutting, stacking, and burning firewood to be, well, a little weird. But we understand wealth – an area in which Norway surpasses us, being the fourth richest nation in the world per capita – and we understand ratings – which Norway keeps racking up with minute-by-minute broadcasts of boats, trains, and now fireplaces.

A competitive-minded nation, we struggle to access this “Nordic cool” that is clearly on the rise.

Hence, the New York Timesarticle on Nasjonal vednatt was one of the most emailed stories the past week (not least by me); and the current “Nordic Cool” design festival in Washington, D.C. – a town where Congress apparently envisions “The Sequester” as our national answer to slow television – has drawn a lot of curiosity. Even comedian Stephen Colbert, after some initial jibes, took a Garrison Keilloresque stab at interpreting the Nasjonal vednatt phenomenon – though he ultimately shed more light on a dominant segment of U.S. culture that can be summed up as impatient, readily bored, and dependent on emotional, self-referential explanations.

Conventional Wood StoveNone of these U.S. cultural characteristics stands a chance at penetrating Norwegian wood as Nordic cool. For that, you might do better to turn to our peculiar idea of “reality” – for as Finnish design curator Jukka Savolainen described the phenomenon to National Public Radio, “It’s also a little about oddness.”

It’s just not quite the U.S. media’s style of oddness.

Norwegians have some difficulty articulating firewood’s significance to the culture. It’s bound up in routines of daily life, dwelling spaces, climate, a still widely rural culture, and centuries of common practice. Not least, it’s intimately connected with the very small percentage of Norwegian homes that have central heating. Electricity (supplied by Norway’s abundant hydropower) constitutes the dominant heating source in homes, often in the form of panel heaters that warm spaces on a room-by-room basis. But fully 80% of households have other heating sources – mostly, wood stoves.

To convenience-minded Americans used to fidgeting with their thermostats on a near-constant basis, the first encounter with the cast-iron wood stove – whether an older, conventional model or the newer, clean-burning type – is something of a culture shock. I imagine the oil bill from a U.S. household would provide a similar shock to a Norwegian (and probably a little gratification, since we almost certainly paid them for some of it). Yet the absence of central heating does not equate with cold homes.

Firewood Stack - BarnIndeed, the Scandinavian cultural emphasis on koselighet, a hospitality-laden “coziness,” runs against sticking your guests in meat lockers and boosts the atmospheric value of fireplaces and stoves in the Nordic household. “Hearth and home” really do go together in a land where the sun starts descending quite rapidly at the end of August.

Thus, around the end of summer, non-urban Norwegians start attending seriously to the woodpile. Historically, the volume of the pile had a lot to say about your family’s survival over four to five months of ice and snow. And other aspects of the pile may yet have tales to tell about the type of person who constructs it, as Lars Mytting, author of the best-selling book Hel ved (Solid Wood) – the inspiration for Nasjonal vednatt – told Aftenposten in 2011:

One can read the man from the woodpile. … Give a hundred children Legos, you get a hundred different results. Give a hundred people firewood, in the same way you’ll get a hundred different stacks. They say something about who you are.

Heddal Bygdetun Museum FireplaceMytting found a similar method of diagnosis in a New England magazine from the late 1800s, which suggested that women could ascertain what they were up against in marriage partners by the state of their woodpiles. A high stack, for instance, spoke of big ambitions – but the woman should watch out for its sturdiness. A small amount of wood might suggest a “hand-to-mouth” existence. A messy, haphazard pile could well reveal similar characteristics in the man, just as a highly even stack could indicate a degree of fussiness and perfectionism.

And then, as the New York Times article pointed out, there is the “bark up/bark down” storage debate, which rivals kitchen disputes over butter or margarine, whether or not bourbon should be added to that pecan pie, and whether it’s heresy to substitute Egg Beaters for eggs in quiche. (I’ve been through all of them, and these are fighting points, believe me.) These contests from family and community contexts form the real access route into the popularity of firewood in Norwegian culture.

It’s not about the ratings, nor about explaining one’s parental relationships through mutual logging experiences. It’s about connecting within the community and celebrating a national character that many Norwegians hail as “solid wood”: sturdy, dependable, reliable.

As Savolainen says of “Nordic cool”:

We are living in the virtual world and in the real world at the same time. People need simplicity, … and the Nordic way of life is maybe a little bit simpler.

Musical geniuses they may have been, but John Lennon and Paul McCartney barely scratched the surface when they composed “Norwegian Wood.”