A non-haunted story on water-witching

dowsingThe entire Mid-Atlantic region is in a terrible drought right now, although we got a few showers this weekend. It was most strange to visit Central Texas a week ago and see the fields a deep, rich green, while Maryland looks parched and dry.

Anyway, when a weather story rolls on and on like this, newspapers almost always start searching for feature stories that have a dry-weather hook to them. Which leads us to a wonderful feature story in The Washington Post the other day by reporter Delphine Schrank that ran with the headline “A Psychic Path to Water?”

The story was, to cut to the chase, about “dowsers” or “water witches” who believe that they can find water by, well, here is the top of the story:

On a sloping patch of withered grass at his Clarke County, Va., farm one recent afternoon, William Cross did what any seasoned farmer touched with the gift will do in search of a spot to dig a well. With his leathery hands, he gripped the handles of two L-shaped copper rods, held them parallel, tucked his elbows into his ribs, puffed out his chest, marched a few paces back and forth and silently bid the earth to reveal its watery secrets.

Within seconds, the rods appeared to respond, flung across each other by what Cross described as the hand of an invisible force.

“There they go!” said the 82-year-old grandfather and former book publisher — and part-time water witch.

Also known as dowsers, most water witches say they are born with a capacity to locate underground water by channeling its energy, or electromagnetism, or something loopy and twitchy of that kind that has yet to be named by science, through a pair of metal rods, a forked twig, a coat hanger, a pendulum or, in rare cases, acutely alert fingers.

This raises all kinds of questions, beginning with the obvious one: Does it work? But the minute I saw this story, I thought to myself, “Is the Post going to ask the other obvious question?”

One of things GetReligion does is look for what we call “ghosts,” which is when a mainstream news organization covers a story that has an obvious religion angle in it, but simply fails to “get it.”

So I assumed that this would be another “haunted” story. But I was wrong.

As it turned out, Schrank found the ghost and included a short passage in the story that let the reader know that it’s hard to raise supernatural questions without wandering into the field of religion. Here is what that looks like, in print:

Some people decry dowsing as the handiwork of the devil; some laud it as a gift from God. Others, in the name of rational skepticism, just call it bunk. Yet the tradition endures in the fringes of Washington. If you’re going to spend a small fortune poking holes in your back yard to find water, the thinking goes, you might as well try poking a spot marked — often free of charge — by a water witch.

And later we read:

The use of twigs and rods dates to biblical times, dowsers say. Over the centuries, practitioners uttered incantations to empower rods with divine grace to seek water and other hidden substances, from precious metals to lost cats to bad vibes. Lore has it that the term “water witch” derives not from a description of a person but rather from the witch hazel branches preferred by Anglo-Scottish immigrants.

And that’s that. Obvious question answered. Good job!

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

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  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    This seems to have been a common practice in Wisconsin as well. I remember seeing a picture of my grandfather with a “water witch” looking for water. I ws unaware the prctice still existed anywhere!

  • http://www.msu.edu/~chasech5 Christopher W. Chase

    I thought the Post did an excellent article. Its just as important to connect religion to people’s everyday concerns such as economics, weather, politics, medicine, and other areas as it is to discuss “religious institutionalism” as such. West of the 100th meridian, the dominant cultural factor in U.S. development has been the relative scarcity of water. Water resource allocation drives at the heart of almost all concerns in the Western U.S., and folk religious practices such as these that are still quite common serve local needs of many isolated, rural, and blended Amerindian/Latino ethnicities. Not to mention the fact that as Jon Butler discusses in his book on Early American Religion, the prevalence of folk practices and folk occultism was quite prevalent–”water witching” just being another form of ‘element-oriented’ magic in the early U.S. and in ancient Biblical times.

  • http://www.thetimehascome.wordpress.com James

    I grew up in West Texas and used “divining rods” many times. My grandfather kept them behind the seat in his pickup. They do work, it has to do with magnetic fields, there is no “magic” to it.

  • George

    I read an interesting book on the history and practice of dowsing long ago, “Water Witching U.S.A.,” and it’s still in print:


    The conclusion from the controlled experiments described in the text was that the success of dowsing was no better than chance–though practitioners sincerely believed in their abilities.

  • Sally

    Rod Dreher has an interesting blog entry on dowsing…seems his family has been doing it for a while to locate underground pipes and his father also used dowsing to locate unmarked graves. http://blog.beliefnet.com/crunchycon/2007/07/dowsing-for-the-dead.html

  • Mask

    Coarsegold, California people pay good money for “witching.” I paid $165 for a loaction, but when the well driller hit crumbley quarts, the drill started to bounce and vere to the side. But I have learned with many well experiences that if you move, you might miss the important fissure and get only minor water, or none at all. I had been standing on a spot about 20 feet away, and felt a funny feeling in my feet. I decided to go with my instinct. I told the driller to drill there, that he would go down about 400 feet to find water. He went down 429 feet through solid granite, broke through, and hit a tremendous well. I then took up “devining” and learned how to do it right; and brought in many bigger wells never missing one. If I defined it, I would say it is a combination of our body’s connection to the earth from when we came, to our spiritual nature in believing, especially that God is All-Powerful. Actually, anyone can “witch.” You just have to learn how.