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The fight to save an Italian forest prized by Stradivari
Hari Sreenivasan: Perhaps no instruments are more prized than those crafted by Antonio Stradivari. Only 650 Stradivarius violins, cellos and other stringed instruments are estimated to have survived. But while the famed violin maker has been dead for nearly 300 years, the forest where he sourced his lumber is still alive and producing tonewood for the ages. Special correspondent Christopher Livesay and videographer Alessandro Pavone brings us the story.
Christopher Livesay: It's rare to play an unfinished cello. But that's exactly what Maddalena Waldner is doing, to show us the very special wood of her instrument, made right here in the Italian Alps, in a place called the Fiemme Valley, prized over the centuries for its exceptional lumber. But before it sounded like this, this cello sounded more like this.
This spruce is ripe for becoming an instrument, says Marcello Mazzucchi, the former director of the local forest service. It's no accident that we're in the same corner of the Alps where famed Renaissance luthiers Stradivari, Guarneri, and Amati handpicked the trees that would become some of the world's finest instruments. Thanks to a serendipitous combination of the altitude and climate, these have come to be called Il Bosco Che Suona, the Musical Woods.
Marcello Mazzucchi: This is a super tree. I'd say there's a beautiful violin inside just waiting to come out. You're in there, aren't you?
Christopher Livesay: Mazzucchi says he often talks to the trees. More than just a retired forest ranger, he's acquired an uncanny knack for spotting timber that's ideal for instruments. In these parts, many call him The Tree Whisperer.
Marcello Mazzucchi: It's a beautiful nickname, isn't it? The trees talk if you sit and listen to them. Sometimes I even hug them. Look carefully and they'll tell you their life story.
Christopher Livesay: He weaves from trunk to trunk, crossing flawed candidates off his list.
Christopher Livesay: These trees? How are they?
Marcello Mazzucchi: This one is too curved, and has too many branches.
Christopher Livesay: Until he settles on a tree that once would have been worthy of a Stradivarius.
Marcello Mazzucchi: This is a nice one.
Christopher Livesay: This is a good one?
Marcello Mazzucchi: This is a nice one.
Christopher Livesay: Why is this a good one?
Marcello Mazzucchi: Even though it's not that big, It shoots up perfectly straight. It's very cylindrical, no branches at the bottom. If you ask me, there's a violin trapped inside. It's about three centuries old. That means Stradivari was here when it was a sapling.
Christopher Livesay: To test its quality, Mazzucchi takes out a manual drill and twists it like a corkscrew through the bark. Mazzucchi listens carefully and pulls out a core sample.
Christopher Livesay: So good news? Buone notizie?
Marcello Mazzucchi: Excellent news! Look at the rings. Every ring takes one year to grow. Because nature takes its time to do things well, without rushing.
Christopher Livesay: After Mazzucchi has chosen the wood, he volunteers that information - free of charge - to a lumberjack, who then chops down trees like this one and carts them to a lumberyard, right here in the Fiemme Valley, where the spruce is milled into sections. Wood retailers then select the highest-quality lumber and cut it into blocks that are sold to instrument makers the world over, as well as locals like Cecilia Piazzi.
Cecilia Piazzi: It's magnificent wood. We use it for making the table, that's the beautiful part on the front of a violin or cello, with the sound holes on the surface. First I roughen the wood. It needs to be like a drum skin, so that it moves and vibrates when played. The wood from this forest is perfect for that, strong, yet flexible.
Christopher Livesay: It takes months to complete a single instrument, which can cost over $10,000 - a bargain when you consider a Stradivarius that came from the same forest can go for over $10 million. It's an industry that's been driving the local economy since the Renaissance. But this past fall, tragedy struck: a storm with winds topping 120 miles per hour crashed through these woods. Piera Ciresa is the co-owner of one of the main wood retailers in the Valley.
Piera Ciresa: Our business took a big hit. It wiped out our wood supply for the next four years. Now we're doing everything we can to stockpile. I've never seen anything like it.
Christopher Livesay: Locals say it came crashing down like a hurricane and flattened roughly one million trees in this unprecedented calamity. But now, thanks to the surprising collaboration of forest rangers, and instrument makers, these Musical Woods of Stradivarius are sprouting anew.
Marcello Mazzucchi: It was a horrible disaster. But all isn't lost. Just think: This one pine cone has 200 seeds inside.
Christopher Livesay: Forest workers are now rushing to collect the fallen trees. If they pick them up before the summer heat, they can still be used to make instruments. And the cleanup also means more space and light for new growth.
Marcello Mazzucchi: Beautiful music is born of three artists. The first one is nature that gives us this magical wood. Then the instrument maker, who awakens the music. Then the musician who sets it free.
WOSU Public Media in Columbus, Ohio, is committed to sharing the stories of its creative community through its Emmy Award-winning program "Broad & High."