Behind our house the land rises quickly into the Sierra de Peñas Blancas, an east-to-west ridge of exposed rocky outcrops. Clambering up there during the height of summer would be, at best, uncomfortable – there’s no shade at all – but with the onset of more autumnal weather I decide to take a short hike up the stony track that winds through the gorse and scrub to reacquaint myself with the rugged landscape up there.
It’s hard to imagine how anybody could make any use of this wilderness, but some hardy souls eke out a living of sorts, grazing sheep or goats. The occasional square sign denoting a particular tract as coto deportivo de caza (hunting land) serves to remind me that anybody else I run into up here may well be armed. I congratulate myself on having worn a bright colour.
On first moving here, some six years or so ago, I was at first puzzled by a knee-high ring of mud-jointed stones half hidden by weeds at the furthest extreme of our newly-acquired property. The explanation lies a little way along this mountain track. Faced with the rugged conditions up in the mountains, each pastor, or shepherd, would construct a rough shelter to give him some rude home comforts (or at least a roof) while up there tending to his animals. While most of these shelters have met the same fate as the example I have at home, many others are still in use, including the one that now appears beyond the dry stone wall that borders the camino.
A sudden “Ay, buenas tardes, Felipe” makes me start a little. The round stone refuge beside the mountain track belongs to our neighbour D, a middle-aged pastor whose sheep can just be heard higher up the slope by the hollow clank of their bells. The shape of the shelter should come as no surprise, as everything about D has a certain stocky roundness to it; the pork pie hat, the round face with ever-present smile, and the slightly rotund, though not unfit, bearing. His elderly Range Rover is perched at a precarious-looking angle among the bracken on the uphill side of the track. D is doing something industrious with a pocket knife and a roll of twine, while his faithful and flabby mastín looks on approvingly.
I greet him and offer some jokey congratulation on his having chosen a British car for this harsh terrain. He explains that he bought it new, now nearly thirty years ago. It must have been quite an event in the village back then, a new and imported vehicle like this, I comment. “I had some good fortune” he says enigmatically, with a twinkle of the eye. I wait for more, but the twinkle is all I’m going to get.
A fading poster in the car’s rear window promotes his other role within the local community; D is, as well as a shepherd, a zahorí, or water diviner. In most of the developed world, technology has erased this activity from the social scene, or at least reduced it to some form of sideshow curiosity. Here in rural Spain, though, the role still carries some credibility, and it’s quite usual to see a zahorí present when the big drilling rigs arrive at somebody’s farm or finca to sink a new sondeo.
The trick, he explains to me, is to find the place where two underground currents converge. That, apparently, is the place to drill your well. D is proud to show off the tools of his trade; two L-shaped copper rods that are held out forwards, and change their direction, he claims, depending on the directions of subterranean fracture lines; a pendulum on a fine chain; sharpened lengths of olive wood whose purpose he enthusiastically explains without my managing to grasp it.
“Being a zahorí is not something you can learn,” he explains, “it’s in you or it isn’t. It’s in the blood – my father was a zahorí, I inherited the skill from him.” He goes on to relate how he and his fellows do not officially charge for this work, but that it’s customary for the grateful owner of a productive new borehole to recompense them with a little cash handout.
As a one-time scientist and all-time skeptic I want to challenge all of this – the wholly anecdotal or empirical evidence, the lack of a proper experimental control, the entire pseudo-science vibe of his so-called radiestesia. But I’m somehow beyond that. D is not trying to convince me of anything – that my life choices are going to destroy the world, that I need to find a path to salvation, that technology is the root of some unseen evil, or that I need to cultivate an invisible friend. Frankly, he doesn’t care whether I believe this crap or not. He’s happy with what he does, and he has enough convinced clients to keep the tradition alive and make enough for a few extra copas every now and again. Maybe, in the end, that’s the skill that he inherited so successfully from his father.
I could challenge him with this, I suppose, but I know I wouldn’t receive any useful sort of answer. Just his usual smile and that twinkle of the eye.