Tuesday, August 18, 2015

NORWEGIAN WOOD :: Lars Mytting

I am an admitted wood nerd. I'm sure it comes mostly from my father, who always had a wood-related project going in the garage. We worked on various ventures together over the years, starting from when I was quite young and he set his Shopcraft up as a lathe in the driveway so any kid in the neighborhood who wanted to could make a super cool (ahem) candlestick for their mother for Christmas (you're welcome, moms of Malcolm Avenue!)

So it was with great anticipation I cracked the electronic cover of Lars Mytting's Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking, and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way. The book is part how-to and part historical revisiting of our (most specifically Scandinavians) relationship to wood and fire. It was all pretty interesting, particularly the historical portions, until I hit the tool section and got to this little ditty about buying a chain saw:

So this is not something to be bought at the garden center on a Saturday morning, with your children’s fingers sticky from ice cream, your wife impatient to get on with the rest of her day, and the parking meter about to expire. Like a man’s choice of hunting rifle, car, and sound system, the selection of a chain saw is something to linger over.

What the actual what? As a woman who has bought and used chain saws (and other various tools, and done her own woodworking, and installed her own wood and tile floors, and need I continue, Mr. Mytting?), this stuck in my craw more than just a little bit. The image of the "impatient wife" is lazy and outdated, but it was the categorization of a desire to purchase a car, rifle, or sound system as a "man's choice" that really torqued my shorts; as if no woman would ever understand such a thing, or have the means, desire, knowledge, or ability to do it her own damn self.

Trying to give Mr. Mytting the benefit of the doubt, I assumed (fair is fair, right?) he must be approximately 102-years-old. Turns out he's younger than I am. Rather than conclude he's just that ass-backwards-thinking, I wrote these lines off as an attempt (however lame - and the right answer here is 'very') at humor. Then I ran across all of the following passages shortly thereafter:

First make sure that a skilled man with two stroke oil under his fingernails has checked the chain brake, the sprocket, the clutch, and the other critical components.

Because even if she somehow managed to be skilled enough in the first place, no woman would get her nails dirty, right?

The job can be done by the average mechanically minded man in the course of a single evening with good-enough light.

I'm guessing by this he infers a woman isn't even as capable as the "average mechanically-minded man?" Is it just that 'person' or 'individual' require more typing than 'man'?

Any able-bodied person should be capable...

Ooh, maybe here is where we fit in?

Chain saws use lubricated fuel, but it is quite acceptable for even a macho man to use alkylate fuel.

Oops, perhaps not. Unfortunately, I damaged my macho card a few weeks ago when I was changing a drill bit.

Categorical recommendations are difficult, and the ax one man swears by might make another man curse.

Ax man swear. Ax man curse. Oogh.

The splitting wedge is a joker you can play for those long or extra-thick logs, or if an extra display of manhood is called for...

Like when you have to win over that impatient wife of yours, I suppose. After she's cleaned up those sticky kids, natch, and is ready to bask in the glow of your testosterone-laden self.

Many enjoy the workout this kind of 'analogue' cutting provides (mainly, we might as well admit, ex-military types and gym teachers)...

I suppose it could be argued Mytting is being inclusive here, as we all know women can be and are ex-military and gym teachers, but based on the rest of these quotes I wouldn't even put Monopoly! money on it.

Out come the axes and the log splitters and soon the whole countryside is abuzz with the sounds of the saws of retirees who feel like useful citizens again.

Because lordy knows there's no other way those prehistoric freeloaders can be useful citizens. I'm not sure what women retirees do, other than watch their still-manly men be useful.

Chopping firewood with an ax is one of the most primitive jobs left for a modern man to do...

And on and on and on and bleh. One or a couple of these passages might be something to simply pass over with an eyeroll. But when bombarded with them one after the other, they felt quite pointed. Just to make sure I was not overreacting (contrary to current evidence, it generally takes quite a bit to get me riled up), I showed these quotes to a friend, presented without comment or context. This is the gold I got back:

JHC, WTF are you reading?? Was it written by Ron Swanson?​

Which, actually, made things better. Because if I pretended the book was written by Ron F'n Swanson, I could just sit back and enjoy the mirth. But it's not Ron Swanson, it's real writing by a real author who I believe is trying to share some pertinent and interesting information. So why would he present it in this manner?

I can't answer that. I can't even say what the author's real thoughts are on who can and should be felling trees and splitting logs in his region of the world. For whatever reason, the book, at least this portion of it, reads in a very exclusionary way. The only purpose it served from my perspective was to alienate me from the book, which put a bit of a wrench in the works as far as my learning something new about the subjects Mytting appears to love.

And that's a damn shame. If wood cutting, chopping, stacking, and drying activities are such a part of the Norwegian lore, you would think the goal would be to encourage any and everyone to participate in order to keep that tradition strong. Unless the tradition is that only men should be cutting and stacking wood. Perhaps I'm running up against a cultural difference?

While part of that answer can be found within Norwegian Wood itself, I did a little digging. What I found is that women in Norway are "crane operators, carpenters, nurses, police and doctors – anything they want to be." It also appears that while Norwegian men do tend to do more of the traditionally male tasks around the house (shoveling snow, chopping wood, mowing the law, doing carpentry, and hunting, for example), Norwegian men appreciate strength in women.

So this appears to cut both ways and I'm opening a can of worms by even broaching the subject. But even assuming this is something of a cultural difference, it's the manner of communicating that difference I take issue with. If Scandinavian men are generally the woodcutters, fine and dandy, but the attitude expressed in parts of Norwegian Wood does a disservice to the subject matter and to the real fact that Scandinavian women can do and be anything they want to be. The differences shouldn't be made into a joke, or used for the purpose of propping up macho culture.

In fact, Mytting himself includes stories of women woodworkers. Anne-Berit Tuft is a union leader in Oslo, who, as Mytting tells it, took a break from tense work negotiations to clear her mind and expend some pent-up energy by chopping wood. Liv Kristen is the partner in her relationship who takes care of the chopping and stacking of wood. Mytting obviously notes, and to some small extent even celebrates, the fact that women do this work as well. So why all the "manitude" in the tool section?

Strangely, that section seemed to be where this attitude really exhibited itself. The rest of the book wasn't nearly as belittling and was, for the most part, gender neutral. It almost felt as if two different people wrote the book. One who wanted to share the historical significance and present day impact, import, and techniques of chopping and stacking wood, and one who is a bit of an asshat.

I finished the book, but the author lost credibility with me fairly early on. Which is a shame, because the book includes great information on various woods and their burn rates, coppicing (using stumps for regrowth), environmental issues, stacking (discussing different methods that were quite fascinating and often simply astounding), drying, stoves, and other wood and chopping-related topics. There are also some great and often amazing photographs along the way.

I wish I could have loved it, but I was too far afield by that point. A little change in how certain information was relayed or, if indeed a cultural divide exists, how that distinction was handled (i.e., with a bit more maturity and the recognition that even modern Scandinavian women partake in the activities discussed, as evidenced even in the author's own stories) would have gone a long way.

STREET SENSE: I was really looking forward to this one and was sorely disappointed. Maybe I'm not the target audience, but if not, why the hell not? If you're a woodworker or fan of wood, this book will likely be up your alley. There are some great facts and tips for wood choppers, stackers, and burners alike. The tone changes throughout, from storytelling to product tips and recommendations to technical facts and advice. If it's non-fiction written like fiction you're after, this isn't the book for you, but if you're a student of the craft or want to learn about it, there are good things here to be mined.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  "The end." Kidding, now I'm just being snarky. I'm sure there was one, but to be honest, I ended up not even wanting to take the time to look through the good bits I highlighted to find it.

COVER NERD SAYS: I like this cover quite a bit, it's what initially drew me to the book. I like the colors, the font, the image. It presents somewhat like a textbook, but some of the writing presented that way as well (which is not a negative thing, there were some technical aspects to the book that required straightforward, technical writing). I'm not disappointed in the outside of this work at all.

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About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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