A deep subject

The water lines which supply the town didn’t come out this far when we built our house.  The obvious solution was to have a well dug, and keep our water tanks filled with well water.   To do this, we needed an expert who had experience with our stratified terrain, which was comprised of hard sandstone “chiangare*,” sandy soil patches, and, of course, sand.  Not the best material to collect and hold water.

Word was spread around town, and a man appeared who seemed to meet the prerequisites.  He was from Pisticci, (because when an expert is needed it is always better not  to go local)  and we were assured that he had ample experience,  and was responsible for numerous productive wells in our area.

We imagined that his first day on the job would bring heavy equipment, rumbling diesel motors, long  pipes and tangled cables,  all indecipherable to us.  We were amazed when,  punctually at 7 AM on the first morning,  there appeared a  three-wheeled Ape* truck holding just a man with a pick ax, a bucket, and a mission.

The only thing he lacked, to my mind, was a forked stick.  He assured us, as had the town whisperers, that he had never failed to find water.  But finding it, assuming that veins were plentiful and ubiquitous, was not the main problem when digging a well.  It was much more difficult to capture and not break through the falde*, which were tiny and easily destroyed  with one blow too many to the fragile sedimentary strata.  This was the main reason why  it was practically impossible to drill a decent well mechanically.  The drill couldn’t recognize, of course, a vein when it found it.  But a man could.

He produced a string from his pocket, and after a few minutes of contemplation and slow meandering steps around the area we had in mind for our well, staked the center of his circle and drew it in the dirt.  He then commenced the arduous task of picking  and shoveling out his meter-wide pit.  We watched, transfixed, as we soon lost sight of his ankles, his knees, his hips and torso.

The second day, he arrived accompanied by his son, a strapping twenty-something who helped his father to descend faster by hauling up the buckets and porting them away.  At lunchtime, after they had consumed the contents of their  small stainless steel buckets of wonderful delicacies brought from home, they set up a winch and pulley system over the deepening hole.  We could no longer see the man, but the buckets of soil and sand and rock came out fast and furiously, pulled up by his son hand-cranking the winch.  Peering down inside, we saw a  perfect cilindrical chamber had been created, the negative image of the growing pile of sand and rock which grew steadily at the corner of the yard.   It descended about twenty feet by day three, and began to cause us great concern as to the stability of its unsupported walls.

But our guys had a plan, and they brought forth two half-circle aluminum forms which would be employed, along with cement, to create the walls of the well.   As he burrowed further down, he placed these forms inside the cilinder and his son sent down buckets of cement which he had mixed in a small two-stroke diesel tumbler.  As each three-foot length of wall was created, he set to work picking away the ground underneath.  When enough earth was removed the rings would slide seamlessly down to the next level, and another cement fill was created.

Every time he came up out of the well, he would drop a pebble at the center.  This method, in the days before lasers, would indicate immediately if his vertical cylinder was perfectly symmetrical.  The eye is, after all,  always the best judge of space, and an artist’s eye especially.

Down and down, impossibly far down he went.  I experienced cold sweat peering down at him,  claustrophobia making my palms clammy, imagining myself in the damp half-dark tunnel.  He began to tell us that he was finding signs of water at about 30 feet, but the veins were too weak.  As soon as they were discovered, they bled out.  The missions was to descend to a point where three or more small rivulets would supply enough water to allow a submersible pump to be installed.

Looking down from above, seeing a vague outline of our man’s head at 75 feet, was eerily disturbing.  When he finally reached the depth he considered adequate, the final ring, slightly larger in diameter than the others, was installed.  There is no bottom to the well, just the natural sandstone layer.   With a strong spotlight, we could see three finger-sized streams of water as they entered the flat reflective circle of water.   It would supply only small amounts, but continuously pumped out and stored in tanks, this would be our drinking water.

Our well water was  full of calcium and had a rusty taste, but some of our friends came with bottles to collect what they assured us was superior to any treated water available in town.  We have since switched to “town” water and we do not miss the problems caused by calcium, nor do we miss the possibility that some small animal could easily fall into the shaft and end up a soupy flavoring in our drinking water.  But while it is closed and locked now, and mostly a visual addition to the yard with its wisteria vine growing above, we know that if we should ever need that water it will be there.  And every time I open the heavy iron cover to look down into 80 feet of perfectly round shaft, I think of one man and his pick and how he  demonstrated to us yet another  manifestation of a true work of art.

*chiangare:  flat sandstone formations formed by flowing water millions of years ago

*Ape:  Made by Piaggio, a three-wheeled motor scooter with a cab and hauling bed behind.  It is the vehicle of choice for those that have no drivers license, and they can be encountered crawling along the roadways stuffed to the gills with farmers, their wives,  produce and small livestock.

*falde:  small tributary channels of water flowing deep below the ground

Underneath

Traces of the past and clues to the present are hidden just below the top layer of the soil.  The surface yields clues to recent events as well, and because of this, I am always looking for more, eyes to the ground.  I might have been a tracker, and I know if someone, or something, has passed by recently.  Wet trails in the dewy grass,  small paw prints,  a pile of warm feathers left by a fox.  A darker patch of soil.  Trash and treasure are  both hidden,  but  near, waiting for discovery.

One spring, as I marked out rows in the garden, my heavy hoe kept bouncing back up at me instead of sinking in the soil.  Strange.   I spied a pinkish smoothness, and hooked my hoe under it to pull it out.  A root?  It was a scary thing to find underground, and my thoughts sidled spider-like toward all things Mafia.   It was about three feet long and rubbery, fresh.  The dogs were suddenly attentive as the cow’s trachea came into the light of day.  How did it get there?   A canine trophy, carefully buried, to be enjoyed later.

I found a five-cent coin, dated 1885,  in my vegetable  garden.  It was  badly corroded and hardly legible.   The Lira was originally divided into cents, with one hundred of these comprising one Lira.   At the twilight of the currency, fifty-thousand Lire might  fill  half your car’s gas tank.    I thought of the poor farmer who lost it;   it must have been disheartening, so long ago.

A tractor pulling a large  plow scraped up some terracotta tiles;  roof tiles, larger and flatter than the curved kind used in recent centuries.   I know from my experience with excavations that where there are roof tiles,  there are often tombs.    In fact, Greek tombs were commonly made from  these.     The countryside where we live was divided into neat plots of land in 500 B.C., and people often buried their dead close to home if they weren’t grand enough, or near enough, to be included in the organized necropoles closer to the ancient town center.  Up the hill from this  area there is a large area of  rich  dark soil, and an extensive  jumble of broken pot shards.  It represents the farmhouse that belonged to the occupants of this parcel of land, and so it would follow that family burials would not be far away.   Around  the broken tomb  I found a beautiful and simply-painted lebes gamikos, as well as pieces, broken long ago, of other ceramic objects.    The pot is not nearly as old as my lithics are,  some of which  date back as far as twenty thousand years,  but it had been lying in its forgotten grave for five hundred years by the time Christ was born.  It is a sad fact that  the advent of mechanical farming has led to a swift and relentless  fragmentation of all antiquities which lie  in the uppermost layers of soil.  A large plow can reach as deep as five feet and damage or obliterate all it comes in contact with.  And there are also bulldozers, and a thing which is called a ripper, which describes its effect poetically.

River stones lie beside the roads, this having been the site of swiftly-moving water  millions of years previously.  All of the stones are rounded and smooth, but once in a while I will find one which has the shape of a cork from a wine bottle, larger at one end and narrowing in a pinched arc toward the other.  I imagine how it was shaped, trapped in an eddy of the stream, turning dizzily, rubbing continuously against its brethren which surround it on all sides.   Ground to a distinctive shape over years, these stones are an illustration of persistence, and movement, and transformation over time.

One Spring day as I was hacking out crab grass, I moved my wedding ring onto my smallest  finger, the better to grasp the handle of my hoe.   As I was throwing the weeds away I accidentally tossed my ring away as well.  Hours of searching produced no results, and within the week my husband and I went and picked out another one for me to wear.  Years later, again pulling weeds, I found it again, shining in the newly-turned earth.  Now I have two, should I ever need a spare.

This is the dwelling place of giant toads, some as big as broiler chickens.  They are reserved and single-minded, as they search for insects in damp places, and often hide in corners of the yard where weeds have grown tall.  We are careful when mowing the grass not to tip the machine up and lower it onto these weedy islands, as two have come to a tragic end in this manner.  One day I found a dead toad, poor soul, and I buried it in  a secret corner of the compost pile.  A year later I  gathered its bones and bleached them white.  I keep them for use in my art, and fondly  remember their original owner.

Following the sheep paths which criss-cross the edge of our  fosso,  there are bits and pieces of ceramics and glass, rusted iron agglomerations and bones.  You must watch your step close to the edge because you can fall twenty feet to the stream bed below if you are careless.  Along this edge I spied a small crusted object, a glint of blue and yellow paint.  Pocketed, carried home and washed, I found  I had two joined pieces of a century-old puzzle,  pieces from a vase which had been broken a hundred years ago.  Mended carefully with strips of lead, these were threaded through small holes in both sides of the break,  metal laces in a ceramic shoe.   It must have been a favorite, and the loss of it must have seemed unacceptable to its owner, such a long time ago.

My shelves have space, openings available to display new finds.   I often wonder what random bits of our lives,  hundreds of years hence, will be carried home and treasured by our descendants in their wanderings.

“untitled,”    wood, paper, bone, shell, Mylar, beeswax, oil, brass   11 x 7 x 2 inches,  2009

(above)  ”Sotto San Costantino Albanese,”  oil on canvas,  14 x 14 inches, 2004