Special to the Tribune-Star
My grandfather was a man of God. Many times I saw him, his right hand held high in the air at his Wednesday night “prayer meeting,” praising the Lord before weeping at the altar on his knees. And yet, he was a “dowser,” a “diviner,” a “witcher” who, as a favor, would grab a forked sassafras stick and find water for some poor unfortunate whose well had gone dry.
Hydrologists, geologists, theologians and skeptics, alike, have a hard time explaining dowsing. In an age of science and computer technology, a time in which we have solid knowledge of what lies beneath the few feet of dirt on which we trod, diviners still find steady work.
This spring, they may be out in full force, walking yards and pastures in search of a “vein” of water to tap less than a year after a drought of historic proportions hit the Midwest.
Mike Ruark, a man of science, has two degrees — one, a bachelor’s in general geology, and the other, a master’s in economic geology/petroleum — both from Purdue University. He says that in his line of work — that of a well driller — he’s seen some things that are hard to explain, but when it comes to “water witching,” he simply adds, “I have mixed feelings about even sharing what I think about it.”
The art of dowsing has been around for centuries. In fact, information I found from the U.S. Department of the Interior/Geological Survey suggests that cave paintings (that are 6,000-8,000 years old) found in northern Africa are “believed to show a water dowser at work.”
The tool of choice — once called a “divining rod” — was known to be used by the Scythians, Persians and Medes. The Greeks and Romans did not mention the use of any “magic” tool,” but by 1556, a detailed description of a diving rod was included in Johannes Agricola’s “De Re Metallica,” which outlined German methods for mining. Within just a few years, diving rods were introduced to the English, who at first used them to “locate mineral deposits,” but in time used them to find water.
The same article also mentions that dowsing or witching (reputedly called such because, as another source tells me, early dowsers used witch hazel twigs in the process) eventually began to be connected to witchcraft and sorcery. Two articles condemning the practice appeared in “The American Journal of Science” in both 1821 and 1826, and at least one website that I came across likened dowsing to phony faith healings, fortune telling, and Satan’s deception of man, quoting chapter and verse from the books of Leviticus and 2nd Corinthians. Yet, some dowsers, themselves, say that Moses dowsed for water as he “spoke to the rock,” as described in the Book of Numbers.
“Even people who believe in it, can’t really agree with how it is done,” Ruark says. The Parke County native doesn’t use a witcher, nor does he practice the art himself in his business. “I think any well driller has a very good chance of finding water in this area,” Ruark added. I usually try to drill wells in a way that saves my customers the most money.” As to dowsers, he adds, “I think it’s almost a subconscious thing; I don’t think the people who I have seen do it are faking it. I think they truly believe in it.”
Finding two dowsers who witch the same way can be difficult, too. Many do use the traditional forked stick, although some swear by certain woods, with peach and willow the most popular. Some diviners use grapevines. Most want something freshly cut, although some prefer to use the same device time after time. Many dowsers have been known to use keys, wire hangers, rods, pliers, crystals, and pendulums of all kinds. Mike told me that he sees diviners using L-shaped wires, even copper tubing. The court of divining opinion is out, too, as to whether the dowser’s hands need to be palm down or palm up.
The Geological Survey article was adamant that finding water may not be as difficult as it would appear. The quality and quantity of the water almost always poses a bigger problem, and from personal experience, that is undoubtedly true. I am on a municipal water line where I live, although water is in abundance in the hillside just behind my house. Because of a high sulfur content, that water isn’t usable.
Diviners also tend to believe that water runs in veins — small rivers that flow or spring up. Comments I read from one dowser suggested that although he can’t tell how deep the water he finds is, he can tell by the turn of his stick what direction it flows. Yet, according to the government’s material, groundwater rarely ever flows in veins at all, but rather fills “pores or cracks in underground rocks.”
“Well, it’s kind of like arguing someone’s religion or politics,” Ruark says about dowsing. “But, basically, if a customer believes in it, and shows a place to me to drill, I’m going to drill a well there,” he said.
I was raised in a household that hoarded water out of necessity. Despite years of sitting in the shallows of shared bath water, of rarely hosing down our flowers and grass or washing a car, and hearing the countless admonitions of my mother to always have the water “turned off tight,” our well eventually filled with sand and petered out. A few hot days before a well driller came to our house packing an enormous augur and a huge concrete casement, my grandfather walked our back yard, his forked divining stick sitting lightly in his down-turned hands. As if searching for an unaccounted for land mine or a lost wedding ring, he slowly paced through the grass, clad in his undershirt and wrinkled workpants, coming closer and closer with each pass toward the driveway that was just a few feet from our back door.
He eventually came to a stop 20 feet or so from a huge red oak that sat at the base of the hill near the house, and said, as he wiped the sweat off his forehead with his ever-present hanky, “You’ll get good water right here.”
A few days later, the driller did just that, so much water, in fact, at 12 feet or so, that by the time he was down 20 feet, he quit digging and said that the water was pouring into the well at 25 gallons a minute, and we’d have all we’d ever need. My mom began to plant roses after that.
I don’t know if what Grandpa Roy did that summer was real or sleight-of-hand or sorcery or pseudoscience. I saw the stick dip downward in his hands, yet watched it lay lifeless in my own, even when I stood on the sweet spot he’d found. For all I know, any competent well driller could have hit water there, or a hundred other places in our yard.
But for a kid who had grown up without the luxury of a sprinkler or the use of a hose, it was magic of the most divine kind.
Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or c/o the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. You can learn more about his writing and speaking by going to his website at www.mikelunsford.com. His new book, “A Windy Hill Almanac,” will be released this fall.