The Water Dowser

There is a cabin on our farm. It rests on the banks of Limestone Creek where that sluggish, brown stream empties its silt-laden waters into Lake Blackshear. The cabin is shaded by large old water oak, beech, cypress, sycamore, and pine trees, all dripping with the curly grey tendrils of Spanish moss. Kingfishers chirr and ospreys cackle out across the water, while great crested flycatchers chatter from the trees. My Great-Grandfather built this cabin for my Great Grandmother in the 1950s because she loved to fish. This place would give her a place to gather with family and friends to do so.

               I grew up fishing here from the old worn dock that juts out into the water from in front of the cabin. From as far back as I can remember my grandparents and I fished away spring and summer evenings here long past dark when the white perch were biting. And it seems now that they always were.

               Though we usually fished from the dock, for a short time, Pop kept a john boat at the cabin. It was left upside down on the ground so that rain would not collect in it. Before we drug it to the water’s edge, Pop would lift the boat up and I would peer underneath to make sure no snakes had crawled under to escape the hot sun. A friend of mine joined us on one of these excursions and that day, as Pop lifted the boat, I yelled “snake”!  Pop dropped the boat and jumped back. For a few seconds, my friend and I laughed out loud and thought ourselves pretty funny. But, where I come from, snakes are no laughing matter and smart aleck kids are dispatched as quickly as any snake.

               Except when riled to anger by smart aleck kids, Pop was as easy-going a fellow as you could ever hope to meet. We spent a lot of time together. Occasionally we would work at odd jobs on the farm. One day he was trying to locate a water line at the cabin. Pop reached into the trunk of his 1978 yellow Ford LTD and handed me a shovel. He then produced two coat hangers. “What are you gonna do with those”, I asked. “We’re going to find that water line”, he replied.

               Civilizations have always followed water. The ancient cities—Aleppo, Damascus, Jericho, Athens, Quito, Cairo, Baghdad, and Rome—were located based on their proximity to water. And so it has always been. The advantages to this are many. Trade, commerce, transportation, defense. But, the most fundamental reason is that life itself requires water.

               As the world filled up with people and all the advantageous sites near streams and rivers were settled, people had to find more inventive ways to find clean water below ground. Finding underground water today can be relatively easy with scientific instrumentation and the mapping of aquifers. Thousands of years ago, locating cherished pockets of fresh water below ground was much more challenging. It involved a great deal of chance and as often occurs when human beings seek to understand something, a great deal of mysticism, magic, and superstition grew up around the process.

               Water dowsing refers to the practice of using a forked stick, rod, pendulum, or some other inanimate device to locate underground water. The traditional image we have of water dowsing involves an old man or woman holding a forked stick—usually from a willow, peach, or witch-hazel tree. One fork fork of the stick is held in each hand, palms up, with the bottom of the “Y” pointed skyward at a 45 degree angle while the old dowser wanders around over a piece of ground. As the dowser passes over the water source the stick points downward.

               Dowsers have been known to use keys, pliers, wire rods, strange elaborate boxes, and the wire coat hangers my grandfather used. Just as we see for everything from medicine to the natural world around us, anecdotal cases and random demonstrations seem convincing on the surface but like many other things we want to believe, dowsing has not held up to scientific examination. Scientists first began to debunk water dowsing in the late 1800’s. Most of these studies demonstrated that the twitching of the rod is the result of unconscious and sometimes conscious muscular activity. The dowsing tool is also known to amplify very slight movements of the hands.

               Despite all this, water dowsing can be found today in many rural areas , like those in which I grew up and live. Pop wasn’t one for magic and the occult certainly was against his Christian beliefs but he still had a childlike curiosity. As a result, there seemed to me to be an aura of good-natured mysticism about my grandfather.

               One of his brothers has told me that Pop once had a bird dog that could sniff out and point fish. There was some debate about this among the crowd of men that he gathered with at the time and he offered to let one of them take his dog out in their boat to fish. If you’ve ever been around bird dogs, you know they aren’t lap dogs. They’re not calm pets. They are lean-boned and sinewed balls of energy who bolt around like an electric current. So, I’m not sure exactly how this worked but the fellow took the dog out fishing in his boat and they say that, sure enough, that dog stood up in the bow of the boat, pointed, with his tail held high and straight and nose leaning forward. The man threw his line in the water and sure enough, he started hauling in fish. Even the old man’s dogs had some magic about them.

               The day we were searching for the water line I watched Pop bend those two wire coat hangers into the shape of an “L”. He held them by the short ends with the long end pointed straight out in front of him. He walked back and forth for several minutes across an area not far from where I had yelled “snake”. As he passed over one spot several times the wires kept turning inward and crossing. After this happened repeatedly he called me over and said “dig right here but be careful you don’t hit that water line”. I was skeptical but I dug anyway and about three feet down I was astonished to find the water line.

               Much of the explaining away of water dowsing lies with the fact that water is found so readily below ground in many places that it would be hard not to find water if you just kept digging. But, Pop and I weren’t looking for water necessarily. After all, we were 30 yards from the banks of an 8000 acre lake. There was water everywhere. We were looking for a water line.                Afterward, I grabbed the hangers to see for myself. I walked back and forth as Pop had, crossing the water line a few feet up from where I had dug. Sure enough, as I crossed it the wire hangers crossed as well. Perhaps this was a case of unconscious muscle activity on my part. Perhaps it was a case of wanting to believe something so much that I tricked myself into crossing those hangers. Now that I look back on it, Pop probably already had a pretty good idea where that water line was and I imagine he was just trying to entertain me all along. But, part of me still wants to believe in the wizardry demonstrated by a man who seemed magical to that twelve year old boy.

©2020 Lenny Wells

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