By Delphine Schrank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 27, 2007
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.
More than half of Loudoun County and the western two-thirds of Prince William County rely on private well water, according to environmental health officials. So do many parts of Frederick County and elsewhere in rural Maryland.
In summers past, rural residents sometimes summoned a dowser to seek water when wells dried up or droughts hit. A dry spell this summer has led Maryland and Virginia to seek drought relief for farmers and could prod more homeowners to turn to dowsers to find productive wells. But well drillers today who work in Washington's suburbs and beyond are often uneasy with the practice.
"You're going to get me in trouble," Bob Leazer, of Leazer Brothers Drilling and Pump Co., based in Remington in Fauquier County, responded when asked if he employs dowsers to locate the wells his company drills in 13 Virginia counties. "I've seen a lot of people that used dowsers, and I've seen 'em hit and I've seen 'em miss. And I can't say if it works."
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.
David Shirley, 47, of Stephenson-based Shirley Well Drilling, is a third-generation dowser. His father preferred fresh limbs cut from a cherry or willow tree, but Shirley uses brass rods to pinpoint and drill where he believes underground streams cross -- a prime location for a multigallon-per-minute well. He will dowse only if clients permit, but nearly all do, said his wife, Jackie.
Detractors say there's no hard proof that the method works.
The National Ground Water Association has published a brochure titled "Before You Hire a Water Witch" and declares itself "strongly opposed" to the practice. Experiments have shown that the odds of finding water through dowsing are no better than random attempts and that rods lack special powers, said Cliff Treyens, the association's public awareness director.
"If I could hire a dowser to find 200-gallons-a-minute wells, I would fire all my PhD scientists," added Jamie Emery of Emery and Garrett Groundwater Inc. in New Hampshire. His company, which works on Northern Virginia projects, uses satellite imagery and seismic and geophysical tools to find potential well sites. But those methods can cost tens of thousands of dollars for a study in a small subdivision, out of the price range of many homeowners. Several dowsers who were interviewed said they work for free or charge a nominal fee.
Hydrogeologists say there is a strong chance of hitting groundwater wherever one digs. Dowsers and their supporters say that misses the point.
"You know there's water down there, but you want to hit it within short order, and you don't want to hit haphazardly," said Peter Holden, a Purcellville farmer who is a liaison to the Virginia Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts. He said dowsers found him plentiful supplies on three properties.
Dowsers said they sometimes do a better, quicker job than the engineers. Talbot "Toby" Warren, 62, of Fauquier County said he discovered a 350-gallon-a-minute source years ago for the Hill School in Middleburg after a hydrogeologist failed. "The pressure blew out of the ground like an oil gush," he said.
Warren, a retired teacher whose work is recommended by Upperville-based Valley Drilling Corp., was asked a few days ago to help find a new residential well in Loudoun after the old one dried up. Recently, he demonstrated his methods in his back yard.
Surface puddles, he said, have no effect on his fresh-cut willow twig, but water flowing through underground pipes create an irresistible tension that pulled it down. When the pull is particularly strong, he said, the twig cracks.
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.
Dowsers themselves debate how to define their practice, said Arvid Johnson, operations manager of the 3,000-member American Society of Dowsers, based in Vermont. But they agree on the need for a clear mind and sharp focus.
"It's kind of like a hammer is to a carpenter. The hammer doesn't build the house; the carpenter does. The rod doesn't find water; the dowser does," said dowser Tom Stewart, 61, of North Carolina, who recently retired as a teacher and started an online business selling his homemade rods.
Stewart, who ships three or four rods a week, said the Internet has exposed dowsing to new demographics. He recently shipped rods to a client in Malaysia and another in Turkey who expressed interest in finding gold. Alternative health practitioners are among his clients.
John Fincham Jr., 72, of Winchester has a penchant for his pendulum, an amethyst quartz stone hanging from a fine chain. By spinning clockwise for yes or counterclockwise for no, the pendulum channels a magnetism of sorts to answer questions that transcend matter, Fincham said. On Cross's property in Clarke County's Berryville one recent day, the pendulum oscillated sharply as Fincham posed questions about water depth and flow.
Cross had called Fincham, who learned the art of dowsing at a school in Arkansas, for a second opinion about where to drill a new well.
"Relax. Don't try to grip 'em. Elbows by your sides," said Fincham, coaching his friend with the 18-inch rods.
But until Cross finds $2,000 to get a driller and permits, the presence of water at this spot would remain, rather like his knack with rods, an enigma.