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Katy Burns

Katy Burns: Norwegian wood! (Isn’t it good?)

Consider our national worry list these days.

Congress in gridlock and up against yet another self-inflicted financial crisis that will plunge the nation back into recession? Check.

Climate change catastrophes – from rising seas to roaring storms and devastating droughts – threatening to change life in these United States? Check.

An artistic and cultural future that looks increasingly crude and rude – in fact, downright disgusting? Check, check, check!

And in our hyper-connected world, we are assaulted by this parade of horribles 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

No wonder we’re all so cranky.

Now consider the Norwegians. Consider what they are obsessed with.

Firewood. Cutting, splitting, stacking and finally burning wood. Yes, Norwegian wood, so celebrated by John, Paul, George and Ringo. Firewood is apparently a national obsession in Norway, and likely a good one.

Because consider something else about the Norwegians. They are, as determined by the London-based Legatum Institute’s Prosperity Index, the happiest people in the world. Really! That was reported on Forbes.com, which is probably the best place to find a prosperity index.

This whole Norwegian firewood thing was reported by an equally unimpeachable source, The New York Times. Sure, some folks like to mutter darkly about the Times being the spiritual mothership of the dread Mainstream Media. But if it weren’t for the Times and its intrepid reporters, we wouldn’t know about the Pentagon Papers or, more recently, Norwegians and their devotion to firewood.

The intrepid reporter in this case is one Sarah Lyall, who went to Oslo to cover the story courtesy of a lavish travel allowance offered by The New York Times. Since the Concord Monitor does not offer me a lavish allowance (or indeed any travel allowance) I am dependent here on the reporting of Sarah Lyall.

And Sarah relayed, with considerable style, the story of the latest Norwegian sensation: National Firewood Night, a 12-hour TV show about, well, firewood. The getting and burning of firewood.

Now, again, I must note here that Norwegians are by actual scientific analysis the happiest people on the planet. As opposed to us morose Americans, who don’t even crack the top 10 countries. Which, I should say, is hardly surprising given all the horrors listed at the beginning

of this column.

Anyway, National Firewood Night was a based on the best-selling (in Norway) Solid Wood: All About Chopping, Drying and Stacking Wood – and the Soul of Wood-Burning by Lars Mytting.

The book itself was on the nation’s nonfiction best-seller list for a year, only slightly less popular than E.L. James’s blockbuster Fifty Shades Fanget was in that country. To bring it to the small screen, the producers filmed and filmed and filmed every aspect of firewood culture, eventually cutting down their footage to a lean, mean 12 hours.

The first four hours were devoted to the procuring of wood – the chopping, the splitting, the stacking. The rest of the time was dedicated to the burning. For eight hours, the camera was fixed on the action in a fireplace in a Bergen farmhouse. It had a fire. And it burned and it burned.

This wasn’t any lame endless looping of 10 minutes or so of a fire, played on countless television sets in the classic corny fireplace fire that captivates so many Americans around Christmas. This was an actual fire that extended over eight hours. The only human intervention was a hand that periodically added wood to the fire and every now and then toasted marshmallows or a few pieces of sausage. The fire flared, started dying down and then suddenly sparked and flared again.

Over the course of the show some 20 percent of the population tuned in.

Bark up? Bark down?

The most contentious part of the program was about the stacking. People in Norway have strong feelings about stacking – as, I suspect, do the dedicated wood burners in New Hampshire and elsewhere. God knows my husband and I do.

In Norway, the votes were about evenly split between stacking with bark up and stacking with bark down. Text messages poured into the network about it.

Less controversial was the burning. It seems that people loved it. Sarah Lyall unearthed a great comment on a newspaper website:

“I couldn’t go to bed because I was so excited. When will they add new logs? Just before I managed to tear myself away, they must have opened the flue a little, because just then the flames shot a little higher,” someone dubbing himself niesa36 wrote.

“I’m not being ironic,” he added. ‘For some reason this broadcast was very calming and very exciting at the same time.”

Oddly soothing

I don’t know about the exciting part, but I suspect the calming effect was real. While I wasn’t able to watch the actual eight hours of burning, I did manage to see some of the preliminary action – the cutting, the splitting, the stacking – thanks to my editor, the estimable Felice Belman. She unearthed an abridged version of the show – only two hours long! – and sent along a link, no doubt to atone for the fact that she wouldn’t give me a travel allowance to check this out in person.

The video was, in its way, oddly soothing, especially for those of us who don’t understand Norwegian and thus can simply enjoy the sound of the clearly cheerful chatter on the screen. Those people might have been unintelligible to me, but boy, were they happy! I found myself smiling along with the Norwegians.

I suggest that we in New Hampshire, a state and people also fairly familiar with the finer points of firewood and its getting, splitting, stacking and burning, should concentrate more on that than on the goings-on in Concord or in Washington.

Times readers seem to agree. As I write this, well over 300 readers have commented on the story. Most were also opinionated and impassioned about firewood.

Good for us! We might raise our own happiness index yet. Just ask the Beatles.

. . . Isn’t it good, Norwegian wood?

(Monitor columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)

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