21 January 2018

One evening last week there was the most extraordinary sunset, which passed through dramatic shades of apricot with strange whispy white fronds dropping from dense rolls of cloud, to the kind of intense bruise colours backlit with burnished bronze that you might, if you’re lucky, find over the sea (Positano does a nice line in them for example) but not in our landlocked neck of the woods.

I was down in the valley, rushing to get too many things done in some rare outbreaks of local unsightliness, snapping with my inadequate old phone camera, quite transfixed each time I stepped out of the car and gaped at the sunset’s progression. When the spectacle reached its climax, I was in the carpark of our local Lidl. There I stood, marvelling. (Not a sentence you can often write about Lidl or its carpark.)

The woman climbing back into the car next door was impressed in quite a different way: “I don’t like it,” she said to her husband. “It’s scary. Something bad’s going to happen: an earthquake or something. It’s just not natural.”

Which is odd because you can’t get much more natural than a technicolor country sunset. But in this case it was just a little too out of the ordinary: rather than accepting nature’s surprises as a marvellous gift, there’s a very arcane tendency in country parts to see them as an evil omen.


In a garden project just outside CdP I’m working with a friend – an engineer of many years’ experience with whom I agree about most things but not about rabdomanti (water diviners): he doesn’t trust mine, and mine doesn’t trust his. When you think about it, it’s a very odd thing for intelligent, rational people (I’m referring to him, of course… I do my best) to disagree about.

Mine (Renato) took his fob watch for a walk around the property a couple of months ago and laid sticks down on the ground, way below the house, on the level beneath the swimming pool. More than 70 metres deep, he said.

“He never fails to get things wrong,” was my engineer-friend’s disdainful response. I sprang to Renato’s defence: since he found the (touch wood) unquenchable source on our property he has done the same for several of my clients.

But some weeks later, the engineer’s diviner, Giancarlo, had his say too. I wasn’t there to witness the spectacle. He knocked his picket into the middle of what must have once been a football pitch or a tennis court: there are high chain-wire fences on two sides, and vague plans on the owner’s part to created some kind of labyrinth in there. Not an ideal spot.

And so, we took the only path that could possibly occur to intelligent, rational people: we got a third rabdomante – Marco – in.

Now, as I’ve probably said before, I don’t particularly want to believe in anything as medieval and hocus-pocusy as water divining. There’s always a part of me that clings to the kind of arguments posited in this recent article in the Guardian. But bunk or not, I’ve seen water surge up from the very spot and the very depth that rabdomanti have pinpointed. What can I say? They are, I suppose, just lucky guesses. And long may they continue.

The third diviner was not told what his two colleagues had found. Nor does he know them: if the two diviners in our small town are at daggers drawn, they’re unlikely to look favourably on some upstart-interloper from the other side of Lake Trasimeno. Marco began his to-ing and fro-ing, back and forth along the terraces of olive trees.

“There’s a strong vein coming down here,” he said at one point. “Some of it veers off over there near those pomegranates, but most comes down here.” He stuck a stick in the ground where he stood, and indicated that the vein continued down towards the terrace below the pool. Then he set off, head down, back up the slope. “I’m intrigued,” he said. “I want to find where this vein comes from.”

With his whole attention on his bit of bent rebar, he started off up the hill, back towards the house and the garden where we’re working. He hadn’t been there before. He knew nothing about the works going on. He had his head down, not looking more than a step or two in front of him. I followed him as he scrambled, up until the moment when he almost tripped over the old well which is now being turned into a water tank.

“What’s this?” he said.
“A well,” I said. “But it has no water in it.”

If it doesn’t, he reckoned, it was only because the water level had sunk. But the water definitely hadn’t gone away. It was right there – just deeper down that it had once been. For some reason, the fact that his rebar had led him to that very spot filled me with joy.

To be fair to the second water diviner, I insisted that Marco sweep the property from the other side too. I had removed the stake from the middle of the tennis court, but left a mark in the dirt that only I would have been able to identify among the many other scuffs. With the heel of his shoe, diviner N°3 drew a line across the court to show where he could feel water flowing: it went straight through the point where Giancarlo had put his stake, and continued down the hill, right to a spot below the pool where it intersected with the first vein – precisely where my rabdomante had said right from the start. And that, eventually, is where the well will be sunk and – if all goes to plan – a ‘lucky guess’ will put another dent in my skepticism.


A couple of nights ago, C told us, her refugee-boat-spotting team on Lesvos had called to say that a dinghy had been sighted heading across from Turkey, but so rough was the sea that the search and rescue boat wasn’t given permission to put out. With two colleagues, she hopped in a car and drove along in the coast in the direction the boat seemed to be heading.

Their valiant rescue efforts ground to an ignominious halt when they got the car stuck on a sandy beach. But while they were trying to dig/push the vehicle out, the dinghy washed up right there beside them with 30-odd people on board. Food and emergency blankets were distributed from the marooned car. Then rather than behave like everybody’s idea of hapless refugees, one group of the new arrivals seemed more concerned with helping to extract the car than with their own predicament. They dug and pushed but nothing doing though: it was stuck fast.

“You seem very calm about this situation,” one jolly Iranian complimented C. At which she pointed out to him that for someone who had just risked his life crossing the Aegean in a leaky dinghy he seemed pretty calm too. He laughed long and loud, she said.

 

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About Gardens, Food & Umbria

I am a garden designer, working throughout central Italy. I have lived in Italy for over 30 years – for many years in Rome but now in the wilds of Umbria where I have fixed up one wreck of a house, am working on another, and tinker endlessly with two and a half hectares of land, some of which is my garden.
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