National Geographic : 2006 Feb
greater population density than the Netherlands. But the sentimental stereotypes are hard to give up, and people almost instinctively blot out the lumber mills, construction cranes, and pow er lines. Andreas Goetz, executive director of the International Commission for the Protection of the Alps, recognizes this. "A lot of people come to the Alps looking for the old man with the beard, content with himself, smoking a pipe," he told me, a little ironically, in his solar-heated house in Switzerland. "We produce our choco late and cheese and are happy all day long." The old man is nowhere to be found. In an other era Hans Gisler might have grown into the part. Instead this young Swiss sculptor left his farm in the remote mountain hamlet of Riemen stalden five years ago to seek his fortune in the prosperous small town of Altdorf, ten miles away down the valley, where he makes his living out of wood, metal, and his own talent. Altdorf has a lot to offer: legend (it was where William Tell shot the apple off his son's head), industry (Merck pharmaceuticals), and a steady tourist business that attracts thousands of vis itors a year. A number of them buy gallery pieces from local artists who, like Gisler, draw 104 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC . FEBRUARY 2006 inspiration from the Alps overlooking Altdorf blinding mountain bulwarks that seem to have been hacked out of the firmament with axes. When I met him, Hans was preparing to carve a sculpture from the 23-foot-high trunk of a century-old sequoia, which the city had recently cut down because its spreading roots were threatening nearby houses. We stood on a hill side overlooking the town, where he had placed this gigantic piece of raw material. "I moved to Altdorf to be closer to my cus tomers," he explained, "but I couldn't live with out the high country." If he had been born 50 years earlier, he would almost certainly have had to remain on the family farm, satisfying his artistic drive by producing utensils, souvenirs, perhaps the occasional crucifix. Today, the pros perity that tourism has brought to the Alps has given him a chance to pursue his talent and make real money, rather than merely survive at the subsistence level his ancestors had to accept. But it doesn't mean he's become a city boy in one stroke. He goes back to help his brothers when he can, especially at hay-cutting time. The sound of the scythe, he said, is "music to my body and soul."