Roger Cox: Making fire the rustic, Norwegian way

Roger Cox. Picture: Neil Hanna
Roger Cox. Picture: Neil Hanna
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IT should come as no surprise to learn that the Norwegians take their fire-making very seriously – it can, after all, get a bit parky up there near the Arctic Circle.

What may come as a surprise, however, is that one of the most successful books to come out of Norway in recent years is Lars Mytting’s Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way, which is a practical guide that does more-or-less what it says on the cover. First published in 2011, the book has sold over 300,000 copies in Norway and Sweden, and it now looks set to achieve similar success in the milder climes of the British Isles. At time of writing, six reprints have been ordered and some 30,000 copies have been sold to trade. A fortnight ago that number was just 17,000, so clearly it’s set to grace Christmas stockings up and down the land.

If you’re lucky enough to find yourself unwrapping a copy of Mytting’s book on Christmas morning (and I’d suggest that if you’re male, aged between 35 and 85 and in possession of wood-burning stove of some kind, the odds of this are particularly high) then you’re in for a treat. Norwegian Wood isn’t just an instruction manual – it’s a magic portal into a whole new world of painstaking pyro-preparation. Ever wanted to know whether you’d be better off with a splitting axe as opposed to a regular axe? Or what kind of wood makes the best chopping block? Ever wondered about the pros and cons of different kinds of wood pile – how, say, the round stack measures up to the cord stack? Chances are you won’t have given these things much thought before now, but Mytting’s enthusiasm is so infectious that once you’ve read his book you may find yourself pondering such matters with surprising frequency.

Part of Mytting’s genius is the way he taps into primal roots of fire-making – “something that connects us through the ages to the gatherers we are all descended from.” He’s very good, too, on the restorative properties of the simple act of chopping wood. He dedicates his book to his elderly neighbour Ottar, who, every spring, emerges from his home looking pale and wan, takes delivery of huge pile of logs, and then slowly but surely starts chopping them into firewood, gradually regaining his health and his joie de vivre in the process.

Given the amount of expert instruction I’ve had over the years, I should really be some sort of fire-making guru by now, but that’s not really how it’s panned out. Back in 2006, writing a story on ecotourism in northern Ontario for the travel pages of this newspaper, I ended up going on a camping trip along the mighty Moose River with a member of the Moose Cree First Nation called Clarence Trapper. Like the Norwegians, the Moose Cree are pretty hot on fire; Clarence particularly so, and it was thanks to his patient tuition that I first figured out how to use an axe without injuring myself. If I remember correctly, his earliest and most significant intervention was: “Not like that – you’ll chop your leg off!” A few years later, I was on the receiving end of a crash-course in extreme fire-making from bushcraft expert Neil Foote, who had me trying to start a fire using a bow drill in 60mph winds and torrential rain in the middle of the Lairig Ghru. After what seemed like about half an hour of rapid back and forth, I managed a few pitiful puffs of smoke; once Neil took over, though, we had a roaring blaze going in about five minutes, over which we cooked delicious mountain hare.

I may not have shown much aptitude for fire-making in the past, then, but having read Mytting’s book I’ve decided that perhaps it’s not too late for me to get good at it. Or at least adequate. After a couple of years of worrying that our two small boys might not be compatible with the wood-burning stove in the living room, my wife and I have decided that, as of this winter, they can just about be trusted not to try cooking Lego in it. So one sunny November morning, inspired by Lars, I said: “I, er, thought I might go outside and chop some wood.” My wife gave me a look that very clearly said “why don’t you just go to the 24 hour garage and buy some?” But, perhaps sensing my primal urge to reconnect with my firewood-gathering ancestors, she simply said “OK”. So there I was, five minutes later, standing out in the garden, axe in hand, smashing innocent lumps of wood to smithereens. And it felt good. Next: building a wood pile. Cord stack, probably. I can hardly wait. n

• Norwegian Wood is published by MacLehose Press, £20