THE best books are about obsessions. The subject matter is largely irrelevant because the reader can identify with the enthusiasm of the author. Subjects as diverse as the history of typefaces, Edwardian ironmongery, or collecting sugar-cube wrappers become fascinating dimensions hitherto unknown, let alone explored. Obsessions unravelled by the obsessed are intriguing because we can detect telltale signs of ourselves in the text. We recognise traits. We are warmed by the eagerness of a fanatic. So when a man in Norway writes a passionate treatise on the art of chopping and stacking firewood, and we absorb the words he has carefully crafted, we smile because we think: that’s how I feel about renovating my 1967 air-cooled Volkswagen T2 split-screen campervan, or polishing my 1,679 hexagonal ink bottlers, or cataloguing my collection of Oor Wullie annuals. We are warmed, and we smile, because the author has sent us a signal: we are not alone. There are others out there with similar passions. And those passions run deep and ripple against distant shores. We have been rippled . . .
I downloaded Norwegian Wood, Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood the Norwegian Way, by Lars Mytting, on my Kindle after I read a review in The Guardian. There was a line that said: “Discussions on the vexed question of whether logs should be stacked with the bark facing up or down have marred many a christening and spoiled many a wedding when wood enthusiasts are among the guests.”
I thought: Christ, I’ve had discussions like that at weddings and christenings. Not about how to stack firewood, but certainly concerning the vexed questions on how to plant potatoes (trench, dibble or ridge); the advantages of single-rope-technique over electron ladders when potholing (that’s going back a bit, mind), gadgets to increase the mileage on a Series III short-wheelbase Land-Rover after you’ve installed free-wheeling hubs and overdrive (sold it in the end), and whether the quality of Hartley’s Beer deteriorates in thundery weather (don’t recall the outcome of that one).
So I sit on my stool, devouring Lars Mytting’s words about the calorific values of various types of wood and the development of the chainsaw industry, and I feel his ripples. I am warmed inside and a smile dances awkwardly across my face. Unlike Paul Simon, I am not an island – a lone fanatic. Lars Mytting has his firewood; I have my collection of British Rail holiday posters and seed packets for nine different varieties of cabbage.
Mytting’s book has arrived at an opportune moment because we need firewood for our stove. It actually gets cold here at nights. The snowline, at the moment, is just above Cañar, the village overlooking our home in Órgiva.
So I ring a Cornishman called Andy Bailey, who I met at a party in September and who deals in firewood, and the next day he arrives with a trailer loaded with 1.5 tonnes of olive wood – some slender branches as thin as a flamenco dancer’s wrist, some great gargoyle-shaped objects like blacksmith’s anvils. Did he chop this himself, I ask?
Andy shakes his head, then scatters yet more chips of unexpected knowledge. This olive wood comes from Jaén, north of Granada, he says. It’s been felled on ground that has not been irrigated – you can tell by its orange tint. Olive wood from irrigated ground is whiter. This will burn well.
More wood lore. More learning. More ripples.
I spend the following morning building the heap of firewood into a neat stack. Whether Lars Mytting would approve of my handiwork I know not, but I’m sure he would do the same thing if he was in my shoes. I feel pretty proud when one of the cats walks over the stack and not one single log tumbles out.
All I need now is a wedding or a christening so I can impart some timber lore. Actually, a funeral would be ideal. Did you know the Chinese make coffins from scented cypress, sugi and incense-cedar wood?