On being a water-witch for ‘All Hallows Ev’n'…and beyond

Posted by on 10.23.08 | 6 Comments
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As we come up on ‘All Hallows Ev’n', maybe I’ll dress as a water-witch and see if people can guess what I am. I’m thinking: willow twigs and crystal pendulums, over a flesh-colored body suit, of course.

Or maybe this is a better post for “Dia De Los Muertos” or at least All Souls Day. It’s definitely about spiritual ancestry. In any case, I’ve come by at least part of my weirdness by ancestral default.

My great-grandpa, Merritt ‘Met’ Rosenkrans was a water-witch, a dowser. I never met him as he died a few years before I was born, but my mother (he was her grandfather-in-law) was very close to him and told me lots of ‘Grandpa Met’ stories as a child.

One such story was that he wore cloves of garlic in a pouch around his neck all his life, saying that they kept him from getting sick. While my parents’ generation poo-pooed such ideas as old-fashioned or superstitious, it is now established in alternative healing circles that garlic has documented antibiotic and antifungal properties. The family legend goes that at the age of 94, Grandpa Met fell on ice and broke his hip and was forced by his family to go to the hospital for the first time in his long life. The hospital insisted that he remove his garlic pouch, he promptly got pneumonia and died.

In addition to being a traditional medicinalist, Grandpa Met had psychic gifts. My mother would send shivers down my eight year old spine as she told stories of his ability to know what was happening in places where his body was not located. He knew about accidents that had happened before they were discovered and actually told about accidents that were yet to happen and consequently did. He was once used by the police to help find a murder victim’s body that was eluding them.

So it comes as no surprise that Grandpa Met was a water-witch by trade. I have never given it much thought, but as I read in the New York Times the following article by Jesse McKinley about Phil Stine, a 77 year old dowser in California’s Central Valley, I began to think about the whole idea of dowsing.

What with the extreme changes in climate, and the fact that my father (Grandpa Met’s grandson) had moderate success as a dowser as a young man, maybe it’s a line of intuition that is hereditary and I could make my fame and fortune with latent skill and the artistry of listening to the parched land and to the hesitant and wary water.

One thing’s for certain: in a decade, water will not be a commodity. In fact, some say that water shortages will be more profound than energy shortages.

Although I’m writing this article a bit tongue in cheek, there’s a part of me that is serious: I wonder if the ability to find water came down through the genetic and ancestral lines to me?

Here’s the full New York Times article, dated October 8, 2008

On Parched Farms, Using Intuition to Find Water

Phil Stine walks a grid pattern with Frank Assazi in search of water with the aid of a Y-shaped willow stick on Mr. Assazi’s land in Merced, Calif.

WATERFORD, Calif. — Phil Stine is not crazy, or possessed, or even that special, he says. He has no idea how he does what he does. From most accounts, he does it very well.

“Phil finds the water,” said Frank Assali, an almond farmer and convert. “No doubt about it.”

Mr. Stine, you see, is a “water witch” one of a small band of believers for whom the ancient art of dowsing is alive and well.

Emphasis, of course, on well. Using nothing more than a Y-shaped willow stick, Mr. Stine has as his primary function determining where farmers should drill to slake their crops’ thirst, adding an element of the mystical to a business where the day-to-day can often be painfully plain.

Asked how he does it, Mr. Stine has a standard retort.

“I just tell people,” Mr. Stine said, “it’s the amount of lead” in your haunches.

Scientists pooh-pooh dowsers like Mr. Stine, saying their abilities are roughly on par with a roll of the dice. But witches have been much in demand of late in rural California, the nation’s biggest agricultural engine, struggling through its second year of drought.

The dry period has resulted in farm layoffs, restrictions on residential and agricultural water use, and hard times for all manner of ancillary businesses, like tractor dealerships and roadside diners.

“There is a domino effect to the point that a little clothing store goes out of business in a town, because the people living there move on,” said Doug Mosebar, the president of the California Farm Bureau.

The state estimates nearly $260 million in crop damages through August. The drought has been particularly hard on areas like the Central Valley, the state’s 400-mile-long farming basin, and in Southern California, where some avocado farmers have taken to stumping their trees, cutting them back to the base rather than watering them. Statewide, farmers have left nearly 80,000 acres fallow rather than struggle — and pay handsomely — to keep them irrigated.

The dry times have meant good business for people like Blake Hennings, a well-driller in the Central Valley city of Turlock, who says he has a lengthy waiting list and a yard full of worn-down drill bits. At a recent job he dug five test holes, all of which had been identified by a water witch like Mr. Stine.

“We only had one bad one,” said Mr. Hennings, whose brother Curtis also dabbles with the dowser. “How they do it is beyond me.”

How many rural witches are still around is an open question. Water witches have no trade unions — or covens. Few advertise, or dowse full time.

Mr. Stine, for example, offers his services without charge, though he says he does accept thanks of another sort. “I got a bunch of gift certificates,” he said.

Dowsers have been part of lore for millenniums, and many on the farm today have no doubt they have special abilities. Richard Cotta, the chief executive of California Dairies, a Central Valley cooperative, said he vividly remembered the first time he saw a witch.

“I was 6 years old,” Mr. Cotta recalled. “A neighbor’s well had gone dry, and this old fellow came out and he witched it, quite a ways away from the other well. Doggone it, I’ll be darned if they didn’t get water. That made a believer out of me.”

So much of a believer, in fact, that Mr. Cotta recently walked away from a land deal because Mr. Stine said there was no water to be found. “He said he couldn’t find enough water to do what we wanted,” Mr. Cotta said.

Thomas Harter, a hydrologist at the University of California, Davis, who runs workshops with farmers looking to drill wells, said there was no scientific evidence that dowsers had special talent at finding water. They are, however, usually much cheaper than the various scientific tools, like electromagnetic imaging or seismic studies, that can help find aquifers.

“It’s worth a bottle of whiskey to have a guy come out,” Dr. Harter said.

But Dr. Harter also said men like Mr. Stine, who worked in the irrigation business for nearly half a century, could have an intuitive sense of where water was, simply by dint of knowing the territory.

In the Central Valley, which was once the bottom of a giant inland lake that water soaked into for eons, finding groundwater for domestic use is pretty easy, Dr. Harter said. But Mr. Stine’s efforts are reserved for agricultural wells, which need to produce much more water and sometimes can run 1,000 feet deep.

Mr. Stine is 77 and retired from a successful irrigation business here in Waterford, a town of about 7,000 on the banks of a slender section of the Tuolumne River, the same river from which he now cuts his willow branches.

What does he look for in a good dowsing rod?

“It’s got to have leaves on it, and it can’t really be bigger than your finger,” Mr. Stine said. “And you got to find one with a fork in it.”

He says he was taught his dark arts many years back by a fellow irrigator who used a metal coat hanger and a hard hat to dowse.

“He used a metal rod and wore a metal hat, and that thing would hit his head,” Mr. Stine said. “So he always wore that hat.”

The American Society of Dowsers, an organization based in Vermont, claims more than 3,000 members who use various tools — pendulums, L-shaped rods, bobbers — on all manner of mystery, finding minerals and lost objects, and even attaining “ancient wisdom,” according to the group’s Web site.

“Dowsing is a system that uses tools,” said George Weller, the society’s national president. “And the tools give you an answer.”

Mr. Stine, a plain-spoken Baptist, claims no connection with a higher power or otherworldly sensations when dowsing, merely a strong tugging in the hands. “You can feel it twist,” he said. “You can’t hang on to it. It will actually break in your hand.”

On an afternoon not long ago, Mr. Stine was summoned to a parched patch of earth outside Merced, Calif., owned by Mr. Assali and Mr. Cotta.

Mr. Stine’s process is simple: walk the eastern edge of the property with the willow held straight up. When it bends toward him, he marks the spot with a flag and keeps walking. If he gets two or three in quick succession, he is convinced there is a stream somewhere underfoot.

On Mr. Assali’s and Mr. Cotta’s land, Mr. Stine worked fast, practically speed-walking. And then, after about 150 feet, the willow bowed suddenly — inexplicably — toward Mr. Stine’s chest.

“There it goes,” he said, his hands straining against the stick.

“It’s got to have leaves on it, and it can’t really be bigger than your finger,” Mr. Stine said. “And you got to find one with a fork in it.”

And so it went, again and again as Mr. Stine moved along the property’s perimeter, planting perhaps 20 flags. Mr. Assali said he would start drilling on Mr. Stine’s recommendation as soon as he could.

A dowser, from an 18th century French book about superstitions.

From wikipedia:

Divining has been used for centuries to find water and other hidden objects.

Dowsing is a general term used to describe the art of discovering things that are hidden. It is also known as water witching. A water witch uses a forked stick or a rod to find water located underground. A pendulum can also be used for this purpose.

A forked twig is the instrument normally used to find underground water. Most practitioners of the art of dowsing use a stick taken from a willow tree for this purpose. The reason is simple: willows are thought to be attracted to water. They require a moist environment to grow properly. The theory is that there is some element in the twig that acts in conjunction with the diviner to find the underground water.

Albert Einstein on Divining

While skeptics argue that dowsing doesn’t work because it is impossible to measure its success in controlled conditions, Albert Einstein believed that dowsing was legitimate. He felt that the dowsing rod was a tool that could demonstrate the human body’s nervous system’s reaction to certain as-yet-unexplained factors.

Suprisingly, Albert was correct, for once (!) The universe is far more connected–including humans, willow twigs and parched soil– and complex than we can ever imagine. We ain’t got a clue…and it’s all a big-fat-damn-mystery!

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