The other day I took Renato the rabdomante (water diviner) to visit clients beyond Castiglione del Lago who desperately want to start planting but who have no water supply of their own (watering with mains water is, sensibly, strictly against the rules). Renato had been at work, in the garden of our friends where I went to pick him up. But he wasn’t there: he’d had to go home to replace his working hat with his Sunday-best one.
I can’t remember when Renato found our water for us. “Dig 25 metres and you’ll find a vein, but ignore it,” he said. “The vein you want is at 85-86 metres. There’s lots of water there.” We did what we were told, bashing through rock past the weak 25m-vein and there it was, water at 86m. I should ask Renato what year that was. I’m sure he’ll remember, though he was ancient even then: his memory is better than mine.
I told him there had never been a moment when our water seemed to be diminishing. “Of course not,” he said, in his deadpan way. “That vein will never dry up.” Let’s hope he’s right there too.
All the way there, and all the way back – 45 minutes each way – he regaled me with tales of rabdomanzia, of people who believe and people who don’t, of people who pay up, and people who scoff and refuse to pay for his services but then proceed to dig where he said, and to find water. One of his recent finds was for ECB President Mario Draghi: 120m they had to go down to find a good vein.
Renato seemed quite disturbed to have discovered that he feels the same energy from people’s hearts that he feels from water. He said this was a ‘recent’ discovery, though that means any time between now and when he began divining in about 1960. Several times, he told me, he hasn’t been able to concentrate on the water because he has felt something going wrong with someone’s heart. “You’d better get that checked, I told him,” he said to me, about someone that he seemed to think I should know (I didn’t). “A month later he was dead.”
To find water, Renato criss-crosses the land with his old fob watch. It’s a magnificent object – a Turkish railways important-personage watch, complete with rather heroic rushing-train-plus-star-and-crescent-moon relief, which should be in a museum. Where he feels it pulling and swinging, that’s where the water is. He’s a comical sight: tiny, as dapper as a true contadino can ever be, absolutely focussed on his watch hand. When he allows me to hold the watch, nothing happens. When he rests his hand on top of mine, it swings, but it feels like it’s him who’s swinging it.
“Of course it does,” he says, ever matter-of-fact. “But it isn’t. I couldn’t stop it swinging if I tried.”
Renato found the water, at a place where two veins cross. We put an umbrella stand and some big stones to mark where the well should be dug. But he seemed rather worried, and insisted they get a geologist in. Not to determine where, but how much and whether it’s worth it. “It’s a funny area around here. Sometimes it lies. Sometimes there’s not nearly as much water as it feels like there is.”
Before I could manoeuvre him back into the car, Renato did an alarmingly frank critique of my clients’ house: one chimney too low, eaves too narrow… The clients, however, agreed. “I was a builder,” Renato said, as if that justified anything he had to say on the matter.
He clearly built his own house, where he insisted I stop on the way home. It’s the last house in the CdP satellite of Canale. Canale is ugly; Renato’s house is one of the ugliest. But around the back, is another world – another century. The rest of the undistinguished (to be kind) palazzetti disappear from view and you’re in a lush, horticultural valley, full of tomato plants far taller than Renato and bean stalks and olives and vines and vast plastic basins bulging with large-leaf basil and inexplicable bits of equipment in all shades of faded plastic piled here and there.
Beneath his house, Renato has replicated the age-old tunnels and cellars that disappear beneath so many buildings in CdP itself. He has disconnected the electricity in there because the whole thing floods from time to time. To locate the cobweb-covered bottle of his cherry liqueur that he wants to give me, he uses a wind-up torch. “Open it in the sink or outside, and stand clear when you do: the top might explode,” he warns. I have yet to try.
And all the time, he’s describing his life in terms which any contadino from any era would have done. Cheese today? He can’t stand it: it just goes yellow. When he and his wife used to make it, they never used rennet, but the chokes of their own artichokes, soaked in oil overnight, then placed in a muslin bag – wonderful white cheese that never went hard or off. His immense tomatoes? Manure from his sheep and many many litres of water poured every second day into the hole he has dug on the up-slope above each plant (he looks pleased when I tell him that’s the method I use for my roses). Supermarket meat? He wouldn’t touch it, especially chicken which simply is not chicken; he slaughtered one of his pigs early in the spring, and for the time being is living on that and the occasional fat rabbit, fed exclusively on his own barley.
He’s full of tricks and hints, ancient lore which pre-dates and supersedes any organic faddishness we adhere to today. And he’s full of stories about the days before the end of mezzadria (share-cropping – which went on around here until 1974 he claims), when abject poverty drove so many of them – including Renato – to the north to seek work in industry.
He makes me want to sit with him, for months, recording. There are so few Renatos left. And when he goes, so will all he represents and all he knows. What an immense heritage to allow to slip away.
As I drove down the lane this afternoon (after a visit to Margheriti) it suddenly struck me that something was very strange. I stopped the car. Where one of my new Rosa chinensis mutabilis should have been, there was a hole. A very neat hole it was, with no damage done to any of the plants around, as if someone had come along with a little spade and tidily removed the plant.
Had someone made their way all the way down to us in order to steal a rose which, let’s face it, was less than happy in the place I had planted it? The thought made me very uncomfortable – the kind of victim-feeling that theft brings on in people like me who can’t really understand why anyone would do such a thing.
It preyed on my mind as I pottered around the garden, cut another section of the poor half-dead lawn, tried to aim pretty pointless hose-jets at the hard barren ground. But then other things occurred to me. A whole end section of the lavander on the house side of the chicken house was completely crushed: it’s so old and heavy that it does flop forward there, but not to this extent. Something rather large had clearly been lying on it.
I went back to the rose bed. There were deep, trotter-shaped holes here and there – quite dainty ones, in that nothing had been disturbed, but definitely prints. And the soil around the quince tree was all topsy-turny, as if something had been snuffling about there. Could the missing rose have been yanked out by a boar looking for some cool damp spot to cool off his hot snout? It began to look more likely. But where was the rose? A boar wouldn’t have eaten a rose.
I don’t know. It’s still a niggling, troubling mystery.