Here’s one for the file on ‘interesting cultural practices from around the world.’ A recent Norwegian television program about firewood was so popular, 20% of the country tuned in to watch it at some point. To put that into perspective, the 2008 and 2012 presidential debates brought in around the same percentage of American viewers, while the Rose Bowl and World Series each only brought in about 5% of the US population.
As Sarah Lyall reports in the NY Times, firewood is a big deal in Norway. The TV program was based on a best-selling book about firewood; apparently it’s a subject that allows men to open up about their feelings without threatening their stoic masculinity. Because nothing says ‘manly’ like chopping firewood, right?
However, this isn’t what stands out about the program. After all, we have entire networks devoted to shows about lobster fishing and the lumber industry. No, the surprising thing is that 2/3 of the program wasn’t even scripted TV:
“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.”
Ahem. Eight hours of showing a fireplace live. This is apparently what makes for suspenseful television in the frozen fjords of Norway.
Of course, my first thought was that this provided some kind of passive, background entertainment like a yule log–we recently discovered, to my fiancé’s delight, that our Roku included a few yule log channels during the holiday season. I had never actually encountered a yule log before this, but I can understand the appeal of having a visual ‘fire’ to go along with christmas tunes while you’re doing other chores around the house. However, Lyall reports that this isn’t your grandparents’ yule log:
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.
So there you have it. The combination of very ancient technology–wood-burning stoves–and more recent forms of communication–broadcast television–have merged to provide Norwegians with a comforting simulacrum of tradition, no matter where they now live or how they heat their homes.
This article reminded me of the oft-quoted and possibly apocryphal anecdote about how the Inuit supposedly have hundreds of words for what we anglophones simply call ‘snow.’ In anthropology classes, we use this as a handy example of a focal vocabulary, meaning a set of terms and definitions that certain groups of people come to share by way of mutual interest and participation in certain activities. Other examples include occupational terms–e.g., listen to an episode of any medical drama and you’ll hear the characters throwing around terms (“He’s flat lining! Give me 20 CCs of plasma, stat!”) that normally you would only understand after medical school (or watching a lot of medical dramas). Online gamers have extensive focal vocabularies, often employing a lot of acronyms to quickly and efficiently inform teammates about battle tactics (“That noob is ninja‘ing all the BOP gear” or “Stack your HOTs on the tank once she aggros those adds“). Incidentally, one of my very favorite wikipedia articles is the talk page behind the entry for Pwn. It pretty clearly demonstrates the level of investment that people are willing to make in debating the meaning and tracing the etymology of language that outsiders would probably find trivial.
Anyway, the popularity of a TV show that basically consisted of eight uninterrupted hours of logs burning makes me wonder if Norwegians have a focal vocabulary for firewood and related things–axes, chopping, etc. The article delves into the intense public debate among viewers over whether firewood should be stacked with the bark facing up or down (why not to the side? Or facing south?). Like focal vocabularies, the existence of such controversies—and again, the sheer willingness of folks to watch eight hours of burning wood—suggests that this is a domain of experience that Norwegians find particularly meaningful. If any Norwegians (or experts in the anthropology of Norwegian firewood) happen by, please share your thoughts on the subject.