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 is 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 mission 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