Norway's firewood TV show ignites passions

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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, Friday night on prime time, 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?' " Mr. 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 Friday's 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," Ms. 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 Friday with the Yule log broadcast in the United States 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.

"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.

Where does Mr. Nissen-Lie stand on the important bark-in-the-woodpile question? "I like to have the bark facing down," he explained, in summary. "That's the way I learned from my grandfather, and I believe it's drier that way. But I respect that there are different ways to do it -- and basically, the most important thing is how much air you leave around the logs."

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