Firewood lights up Norwegian TV

Sarah Lyall / New York Times News Service /

OSLO, Norway — The TV program, on the topic of firewood, consisted mostly of people in parkas chatting and chopping in the woods and then eight hours of a fire burning in a fireplace. Yet no sooner had it begun, on prime time on Friday night, than the angry responses came pouring in.

“We received about 60 text messages from people complaining about the stacking in the program,” said Lars Mytting, whose best-selling book “Solid Wood: All About Chopping, Drying and Stacking Wood — and the Soul of Wood-Burning” inspired the broadcast. “Fifty percent complained that the bark was facing up, and the rest complained that the bark was facing down.” He explained, “One thing that really divides Norway is bark.”

One thing that does not divide Norway, apparently, is its love of discussing Norwegian wood. Nearly 1 million people, or 20 percent of the population, tuned in at some point to the program, which aired on the state broadcaster, NRK.

In a country where 1.2 million households have fireplaces or wood stoves, said Rune Moeklebust, NRK’s head of programs in the west coast city of Bergen, the subject naturally lends itself to television.

“My first thought was, ‘Well, why not make a TV series about firewood?’” Moeklebust said in an interview. “And that eventually cut down to a 12-hour show, with four hours of ordinary produced television, and then eight hours of showing a fireplace live.”

There is no question that it is a popular topic. “Solid Wood” spent more than a year on the nonfiction best-seller list in Norway. Sales so far have exceeded 150,000 copies — the equivalent, as a percentage of the population, to 9.5 million in the United States — not far below the figures for E.L. James’ Norwegian version of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” proof that thrills come in many forms.

“National Firewood Night,” as the program was called, opened with the host, Rebecca Nedregotten Strand, promising to “try to get to the core of Norwegian firewood culture — because firewood is the foundation of our lives.”

Various people discussed its historical and personal significance. “We’ll be sawing, we’ll be splitting, we’ll be stacking and we’ll be burning,” Nedregotten Strand said.

But the real excitement came when the action moved, four hours later, to a fireplace in a Bergen farmhouse.

It would be very foolish to confuse Norway’s eight-hour fireplace extravaganza with the yule log broadcast in the U.S. at Christmas. While the yule log fire plays on a constant repeating loop, the fire on “National Firewood Night” burned all night long, in suspensefully unscripted configurations. Fresh wood was added through the hours by an NRK photographer named Ingrid Tangstad Hatlevoll, aided by viewers who sent advice via Facebook on where exactly to place it.

For most of the time, the only sound came from the fire. Hatlevoli’s face never appeared on screen, but occasionally her hands could be seen putting logs in the fireplace, or cooking sausages and marshmallows on sticks.

“I couldn’t go to bed because I was so excited,” a viewer called niesa36 said on the Dagbladet newspaper website. “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.

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

To be fair, the program was not universally acclaimed. On Twitter, a viewer named Andre Ulveseter said: “Went to throw a log on the fire, got mixed up, and smashed it right into the TV.”

But Derek Miller, an expatriate American and author of the novel “Norwegian by Night,” said the broadcast appealed to Norwegians’ nostalgia for a simpler time as well as demonstrating the importance of firewood in their lives. “The sense of creating warmth, both symbolically and literally, to share conversation, to share food, to share silence, is essential to the Norwegian identity,” he said in an interview.

“Solid Wood,” the title of Mytting’s book, has a double meaning in Norwegian, signifying also a person with a strong, dependable character. Its publication appears to have given older Norwegian men, a traditionally taciturn group, permission to reveal their deepest thoughts while seemingly discussing firewood. In this way they are akin to passionate fishermen roused from monosyllabic interludes by topics like which fly to use and how to really understand what a trout is thinking.

“What I’ve learned is that you should not ask a Norwegian what he likes about firewood, but how he does it — because that’s the way he reveals himself,” said Mytting. “You can tell a lot about a person from his firewood stack.”

The book has proved particularly popular as a gift for hard-to-shop-for men.

“People buy it for their dads, their uncles — ‘I don’t know what to get him, but he has always liked wood,’” said William Jerde, a clerk at the Tanum bookstore in downtown Oslo.

Tobias Sederholm, a clerk in a different store, said that one customer came in after Christmas having received copies from seven different family members.