The water diviner

The Tuscan Times: tales from the Maremma

Elisa Scarton
May 28, 2016 - 17:35

In a part of Tuscany where old wives’ tales are canon, don’t be surprised to meet a modern-day water diviner.

 

Michele Franchi is not a nature guide. He’s a shy, five-foot-seven septuagenarian who patrols the town with a stick.

Small Tuscan towns like mine are made up of a web of interwoven stories. To truly understand a story someone is telling you, you have to know the history of its characters, their parents and their parents’ parents. That’s how I came to meet the water diviner.

 

My father was a water diviner. I learnt what I know from him and I used it to provide for my family.

Someone told me about a hidden hermitage in the forests outside my adopted home, Manciano. I wanted to find it, but since the Girl Scouts never really took off in Australia, I didn’t have the necessary Great Outdoor skills. I mentioned it to my husband, who mentioned it to a childhood friend, who mentioned it to his father. And so our story begins.

 

Michele Franchi is not a nature guide. He’s a shy, five-foot-seven septuagenarian who patrols the town with a stick. You’ll find him in the main piazza every morning at six impeccably dressed in a hat and vest, watching and occasionally gossiping.

 

Before he walked into the retirement of an atypical Tuscan gentleman, Franchi, as everyone calls him, walked around the countryside looking for water. He’s a fifth-generation water diviner. A title that has nothing to do with that very misleading Russell Crowe film.

 

Water divining is, by technical definition, a pseudoscience that is no more reliable at finding water than an average person poking holes in the ground with their shoe. I doubt anyone has related this theory to Franchi. He didn’t become a water diviner because he was born with a magic that can be traced back to the first Renaissance diviners.

 

“My father was a water diviner,” he says. “I learnt what I know from him and I used it to provide for my family.”

 

It all sounds perfectly ridiculous, but Franchi’s father is said to be the very man who helped the Ciacci family find the source of the Saturnia hot springs, now the area’s biggest tourist attraction. And Franchi himself helped my father-in-law find water for his well in the backyard. If you knew how tightfisted and skeptical my suocero was, you’d be hard pressed to decide which was the bigger accolade.

 

Since Franchi is no longer in the water-finding game, I couldn’t convince him to do much more than humour me. He took us to that hermitage. He didn’t divine it. He just knows the landscape around Manciano better than most and has a soft spot for my husband, who used to discuss the performance of the league’s best soccer plays with all the seriousness of a bookie and the telltale lisp of a chubby three-year-old sitting in his parent’s bakery.

 

As we walked along the overgrown path towards the hermitage and my husband mercilessly whacked every plant in sight to scare away the non-existent cobras, Franchi explained that water divining is about being conscious of the world around you. “The landscape can tell you so much. The vibrancy of the leaves. The grasslands. The movement of the water coursing around you.”

 

“A lot of people think I walk around waving my stick. I don’t. I study the landscape in maps and in person. I work out where the closest water source is and figure out where it might haven tunneled underground.”

 

An inside source (my husband) tells me the process is less spiritual. Franchi taps the ground with his stick. The resulting tremors course through his body telling him not only if there’s water, but how deep it is. It’s what I imagine the offspring of a submarine and a bat would do.

 

But Franchi wouldn’t go into details. No demonstration. No words to definitively silence the doubt. I don’t think he particularly cares whether I believe him or not. He used his skills to feed and clothe his son and care for his wife. He is not dogged by stories of failures and unhappy customers. From all reports, he seems to have found water every single time. And his son, a happy-go-lucky agronomist, has absolutely no interest in continuing the family business.

 

Which leaves me standing on the banks of the Fiora River, the grey riverbed under my feet and dry until next winter’s rain, a copse of oaks to my right and my husband whining about snakes to my left.

 

The hermitage was breathtaking, but I’m entirely unsatisfied. When it comes to something as divine as water divining, I wanted to report back with otherworldly proof. Instead I’m left with nothing more than a good story.

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