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The Cracker Barrel: 'Norwegian Wood'

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Two months ago, for her birthday, my wife received a lovely gift from a dear friend.

The gift, a book, is titled "Norwegian Wood" and subtitled "Chopping, Stacking, and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way."

"I suppose you'd like to read it," said my wife, handing it toward me. "Go ahead. I'll read it when you're done."

Thus it was I learned all sorts of interesting things.

For starters, I learned the book was written by a Norwegian author and journalist named Lars Mytting, and that it's become a runaway best-seller all over Europe. A blurb on the back cover of the book explains its popularity this way: "Norwegian Wood is the definitive handbook on the basics of this renewable energy source, imparting valuable lessons from a rustic, self-sufficient, and simple way of life."

Having heated our home primarily with wood for the past 40-some years, during which time I've cut, split and handled thousands of pieces of oak and birch and popple along with fewer numbers of pine, I didn't find the chapters on tools and cutting protocol too compelling. But when the focus turned to other details, I found myself fascinated.

For example, firewood consumption in Norway, Sweden and Finland is on average 660, 750 and 860 pounds per capita, respectively. Even in oil-rich Norway, 25 percent of the energy used to heat private homes comes from wood. If the pieces of wood burned there were stacked side-by-side in a six-and-a-half-foot-high pile, they would create a woodpile 4,474 miles long!

Given the enormous amount of wood available in the Scandinavian countries, it is no accident that they've been leaders in the development of clean-burning stoves with minimal pollution. But in Norway, the prevalence of wood-burning has to do with the Norwegian government insisting that every house over a certain size is required by law to have an alternative source of heating, which in practice means a wood stove.

If the gas, fuel oil or electrical power supply should give out, there is no better remedy at hand than a good supply of firewood to heat the house, boil the water or cook the meals.

In an era such as ours that finds more and more people working behind a computer at a desk, the chance to shift gears by working outside and getting good exercise has also added to the growing appeal of heating with wood.

As the author puts it, "Physical work creates a kind of spiritual peace. Once a log is split it stays split. The frustrations of the day disappear into the wood, and from there into the stove. One of firewood's most attractive qualities is that it burns up and disappears."

A growing number of men in Norway have come to focus more of their energy on the task of processing firewood. Seen as a way of being a provider, men in their 30s and 40s spend increasing amounts of their time on into retirement putting up wood, and men over the age of 60 are said to enter the "wood age." As Mytting points out, working with wood can be a godsend when the ability to do more complex work begins to decline.

Another aspect of putting up wood can be its benefit for women, especially those looking to marry. According to Mytting, in all of Scandinavia, it is common wisdom that you can tell a lot about a person from his woodpile.

For example, an upright and solid pile: Upright and solid man. Low pile: cautious man, could be shy or weak. Tall pile: Big ambitions, but watch out for sagging and collapse. Flamboyant pile, widely visible: Extroverted, but possibly a bluffer. No woodpile: no husband.

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