15 February, 2019

In 2017 my wife and I bought a dilapidated farmhouse in a picturesque Transylvanian village at the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. With no access to natural gas for heating and with winter temperatures often plummeting well below zero — firewood is an integral part of village life.

For weeks there had been talk of firewood: speculation about when the eight cubic metres of state-allocated wood would be ready for collection; hearsay of local Roma gypsies flogging it from the back of unofficial-looking trucks and carts; and whether the wood from the previous year would be dry enough to use in the current year. Firewood is one of the most important commodities to village life in Romania, owing to the fact that around three-quarters of villages in the country don’t have access to natural gas: around 3.5 million homes throughout the country are heated by firewood alone.

Without a good stack of firewood, winters could be deadly affairs. Hence why so much time and energy is dedicated to the sourcing, discussing, collecting, stacking and chopping of it. It is a never-ending task, that, to an Englishman born in 20th-century Britain, can seem like a monstrous, archaic hassle.

After all, this is not a fashion choice akin to the British middle-class ideal of owning a wood burner. This is part of a true rural Romania experience, far-removed from a choice lifestyle searching for a portion of ‘hygge’.

It was a Friday night when I got the call, my father-in-law had received news that in less than 12-hours, early in the morning, our annual state-allocated firewood would be ready for collection. If the lack of planning — but more the sheer abruptness of the event — didn’t irk me, the amount of work involved in collecting the huge pile of wood did. The following morning at 7am, my father-in-law fired up his old Massey Ferguson tractor, with its trailer rigged and ready — and we head off into to forest. I jump aboard, expecting, naively, that it will take a couple of hours. It wasn’t to be.

As we set off in the bitterly cold rain, we rumble passed a series of barren corn fields and overtake men and women — but mostly men — manoeuvring horses and carts on their own wood-gathering missions. Around four kilometres into the forest, we arrive at a large clearing. A small group of men huddle around an open fire to fend off the frigid weather as they liberally drink tuica, a strong homemade plum brandy. The forest ranger shouts over the din of tractors, gesticulating towards piles of chopped trees marked for locals like us; we manually haul part of our 16 cubic metres onto the back of the trailer. Tractors and mobile phones aside, it could be a scene from the middle-ages.

We spend a total of nine hours going back and forth from our barns to the forest and back to collect the wood. It is physically demanding work, that, even for a gym-goer can test the limits of endurance.

The never-ending quest for firewood is indiscriminate of the individual, it seldom ceases in its prominent position among local chatter, but it is not altogether an unpleasant endeavour.

The rhythmic cut of an axe through wood can be meditative as the logs pile up. Muscle fibres twitch, the body thoroughly warms regardless of the temperature, and it can leave one feeling competently primitive. Unlike in the West, this is no fashion, there are no ‘lumbersexuals’; this is merely life, unmechanised, where people to chop wood for survival like they have done for many centuries before. Walking into the local shop or bar with an axe, for example, raises no eyebrows.

In Romania, the axe is a tool to bridge the gap between felled trees and staying warm; the difference between having access to hot water or not; the fuel of the hearth where food is cooked and around which clothes are dried and stories are told.

We arrive back after a long day and wolf down a warm meal next to the wood burning stove. The new wood must dry for up to a year before it is burned as fuel. Despite the hard work, there is something rewarding about playing such a large role in one’s own fuel security. There are no instant switches here, just endless axes slamming down on chopping blocks in all seasons.

Come to think of it, it sounds a lot like the concept of ‘hygge’, except that, here — it’s just life.