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Living wood

Stone pine can do it all: The smell is aromatic and relaxing, the colour is warm, and it can be transformed into myriad objects, from boxes to decorative apples.

The drive from Bolzano to Val Sarentino takes just a few minutes. A narrow path leads from the main road into the heart of the forest and just beyond, barely visible through the trees, sits Fritz’s turnery workshop. After knocking repeatedly, I enter the wood turnery. The fragrance of resin fills Fritz’s workshop where logs are stacked up and wood chips whirl through the air. The wood turner from Val Sarentino has been working with stone pine all his life. With precision movements, he shapes the wood on the lathe and just like that a new form is born. Stone pine is a soft wood, which is easy to work. However, to make a vase round and not oval, you must know the characteristics of the stone pine intimately. Wood turner Fritz Unterkalmsteiner is currently working on the lathe. When he sees me, he turns off the machine. He knocks on the object that is being created in the lathe. “This is stone pine”, he says.

In South Tyrol there are 372,000 hectares of forest, 22,000 hectares of which are composed of stone pine

The stone pine box

Fritz was twelve years old when he first held an stone pine box. Holding it, he was fascinated and decided to do an apprenticeship at the only turner in the valley. Since the teacher or an older apprentice usually occupied the lathe, he made his own. His eyes sparkle as he recounts the story: At 22, he opened his own workshop. By this time, I’ve been in the workshop for quite a while and yet I haven’t gotten used to the intense smell of wood. “Stone pine retains its intense smell for decades”, he explains. The reason: the wood is rich in substances that have a toxic effect on harmful fungi and bacteria.

Queen of the Alps

The stone pine is widespread in Val Sarentino. It grows between 1,500 and 1,800 meters above sea level, directly at the tree line. It defies the harsh climate of the high mountains like no other tree and can withstand frosts below minus 40° C. Because of the tree’s quiet strength, it has been dubbed the “Queen of the Alps”. “After about 300 years, these trees are felled and processed in the turnery”, explains Fritz, “but they can also grow to be 1,000 years old.”

A tree full of life

The logs, which are arranged neatly in front of the workshop, all look the same in my eyes. “This one has already dried, but those further toward the back have not”, explains Fritz, pointing to the tree trunk in front of us. “The trunks dry one centimetre on the right and one on the left each year. That’s why a ten-centimetre-thick trunk takes five years to dry.” If it’s worked too early, it cracks and warps. The timber is harvested by the light of the waning moon in winter, then it’s free from spiral graining, an internal twist of the trunk.

“I can’t cut down a tree every day. I have to have a plan”, says Fritz Unterkalmsteiner.

The wooden apple

I still can’t imagine how an apple is made from a log. Fritz heads outside, selects a tree trunk and cuts off a piece. In a just few minutes time, he will make a wooden apple out of it. I watch him turning on the lathe: His hand movements are precise and his features are concentrated. Wood chips whirl through the air once more.

What your grandparent’s generation already knew…

“… what our generation has already forgotten: stone pine has a soothing effect.” explains Fritz. This was demonstrated by a study performed by the University of Graz, which was carried out from 2005 to 2007. For some years now, interest in stone pine products has really been on the rise. I pick up a piece, feel the texture of the bark, and breathe it in. “The wood, resin and needles contain valuable aromas that contribute to general wellbeing. They help to ensure a restful sleep, slow down the heart rate and regulate the circulation,” explains Fritz. “Not to mention that the airways are cleansed and the soothing properties of the wood can also help with severe headaches.” He opens a box filled with stone pine chips and invites me to smell it. It’s a “sleep-well” box.

Fritz will make more than a few wooden apples this year, but this one is for me. He gifts me the apple and bids me goodbye. I feel good and relaxed and at home I will put the apple on the bedside table in anticipation of a restful night’s sleep.

In friendly collaboration with the storytelling platform “Stories from South Tyrol” of IDM Südtirol. www.storiesfromsouthtyrol.com