Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Roots of Veblen's Passion for Woodchopping

This post is one of the ripples emanating out across the internet from a New York Times article yesterday describing a widely watched TV program in Norway about firewood. Eight hours of the program were devoted to firewood burning in a fireplace, with considerable Facebook input from viewers about exactly where the next log should be placed.

I had assumed that Oswald Veblen had inherited his passion for the outdoors, and woodchopping in particular, from his midwestern pioneer grandparents, but the Times article suggests that his Norwegian roots may have played a bigger role.

These photos, from the last decade of Veblen's life, after he and his wife Elizabeth had moved to the outskirts of town at the edge of Herrontown Woods on the northeast side of Princeton, show some European-influenced structures near their house--the hay barrack, dove cote and, mostly hidden in the background, a large circular rock wall reminiscent of sheepfolds found on the internet.

Hopefully, close inspection of a higher resolution version of the photo will reveal whether the wood sheltered under the hay barrack is stacked with the bark up or down. According to the Times article, Norwegians are in passionate disagreement--deeply split, if you will--about which orientation of bark is best.

Max Latterman, out standing in his wood pile, was the Veblens' loyal groundskeeper, and appears in this photo to be as enthusiastic a wood splitter as Oswald Veblen was reputed to be.

The Times article offers enticing tidbits about Norwegian firewood culture, and the link between firewood and character. Here are a couple quotes:

“You can tell a lot about a person from his firewood stack.”


"...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."

The mixing of symbolic and literal warmth brings to mind my neighbor, an elderly woman and painter who told of Elizabeth Veblen inviting her over for tea in front of the fire, and the still intact tradition of tea that the Veblens started at the Institute. A recent post at another blog of mine, rhapsodizing about the radiance of wood stoves, can be found at the following link.

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