The old-timers would say it's the mysterious hand of God. The new suburbanites might use a modern analogy and liken it to moving a cursor on an underground computer screen that only special people can see.
Either way, folks in this tiny Frederick County town are hoping the forked cherry branch, gripped in the gnarled hands of the 77-year-old farmer in the "Kickin' Bass" cap, has guided him to the thing they all sorely need in the current drought: water.
"I'll be really tickled if the drillers find it," said Dennis Flook, one of the handful of people in the region who practice the centuries-old folk tradition of dowsing--using a forked stick or other implement to guide them to groundwater.
No one is quite sure how it works, and scientists say there's no evidence that it does work, but science apparently has failed Myersville. Hard up for water, like many other rain-starved towns in this hilly, hard-scrabble part of the Mid-Atlantic, Myersville recently spent about $20,000 on the services of a geologist and an engineer.
"And I've got nothing to show for it but three dry holes," complained Mayor Billy Eckstine, speaking last week from one of the two gas stations he operates in town.
So now Myersville is giving up on modern methods and turning to the ancient art of dowsing. Eckstine called upon Flook and another Myersville man, Larry Doub, to dowse the town some new wells. And in a week or two, once Eckstine gets the go-ahead from state officials, he plans to bring in drillers and see what's under the spot that Flook's cherry rod liked so much.
"These boys are good local people; I figured I might as well give 'em a try. They can't do any worse than the experts," Eckstine said.
Flook makes no guarantees but allows as how he's got a pretty good batting average: "I've done about 20 of these jobs, and I only missed twice," he said.
Flook's neighbor, Jennifer Brandenburg, confirms that "he came up and did it for us, and he hit water--there was a lot of water there."
But unfortunately, said Brandenburg, administrator of a brokerage firm in Hagerstown, the spot Flook had them drill was too close to the road and the family had to sink a well elsewhere on the property.
Dowsers (and their mainstream colleagues, the well drillers) are doing a brisk business these days as exurban developers and rural homeowners struggle with a drought that the National Weather Service is calling the region's second-worst in 70 years.
"When was the last time I dowsed? This morning! It's a busy time," said Fred McIntosh, an 81-year-old Loudoun County resident and former Air Force pilot who estimates he has pointed drillers to about 430 spots and found good water at most of them.
McIntosh, who uses a map, a pendulum technique and a plastic Y-rod, has developers crowing about his work.
"It seems a little like hocus-pocus and voodoo, but he's helped us with 50 or 60 houses I know of. . . . His success rate's been 95 to 98 percent," said Greg Harrison, who works for his family's development company, W.G. Harrison of Leesburg. "And it's not easy to find water here."
Charles Shephard, environmental health manager for the Rappahannock-Rapidan Health District of Fauquier County, said he has been criticized for speaking too highly of the dowsers' abilities, so he has learned to tone it down.
"They're right. It eludes strict science, but I hate to say there's nothing to it," he said. "I have seen it succeed."
Some well drillers have, too, and they now include divining rods among the tools of their trade. William C. Hilton, of Darnestown in Montgomery County, learned the art from his father, who started the family well-drilling business in 1910.
"I'll do it if [the client] asks, or if I've come up with a lot of dry holes," said Hilton, who keeps an L-shaped dowser, made from a wire coat hanger, on his truck.
Myersville is not the first area municipality to solicit a dowser's service. Take chronically water-starved Poolesville, where people know the gallons-per-day output of each town well, the way hard-core Orioles fans keep track of each pitcher's ERA. Everyone here knows that the best producer, Well No. 6, was found by the former mayor--with a dowsing stick.
"They still have the old peach rod he used--it's framed and hanging in Town Hall," points out Poolesville water gadfly, Conrad Potemra.
Frustrated with Myersville's water problems, Mayor Eckstine took Flook and Doub up to Ashley Hills recently, one of several new housing developments that have sent the farm town's population soaring from about 400 to 1,300 in the past eight years. The developer drilled two wells there, Eckstine said, and one of them "just up and quit two years ago."
Myersville never has been exactly overflowing with water. Perched over a mound of dense basalt, it gets its water from a hodgepodge of sources--groundwater from six wells, surface water from Catoctin Creek, even spring water drawn from the mountains in pipes laid by the old Works Progress Administration in the 1930s.
Lately, the creek is a trickle, and well levels have dropped so low that the town banned outside watering. When similar restrictions were imposed two years ago, Town Councilman Robert Lowry said "people were tattling on each other. It got pretty ugly."
Flook said it wasn't too hard to come up with the spot where he has advised the town to drill. His trusty cherry wand--a purplish-black forked stick about 20 inches long and with the girth of a fat pencil--is never ambiguous.
"That thing just pulls my arms down when I hit water," the retired farmer said. "I know it, 'cause I can't hold the stick up. Sometimes, I'm gripping so tight the bark snaps off."
Doub, who uses two L-shaped metal rods, came up with the same spot as Flook--a common area, where the Ashley Hills Homeowners Association has been nurturing a green space with gazebos and small trees.
Flook demonstrated his technique recently on his front lawn, grabbing each side of the Y-shaped stick, locking his elbows at his sides and thrusting the point up at a 90-degree angle. The minute he got to the town water line that runs past his house, it swung down. A reporter attempting to duplicate the divining feat had no success. Is there some special mental focus or visualization needed?
"I don't think about a thing," said Flook, who learned the technique from others in the area who had the gift. "Not everybody can do it."
There is, of course, a formal dowsing organization, complete with an Internet site where novices can learn about dowsers through the ages (Moses, the Egyptians), buy assorted divining devices (brass L-rods, wooden pendulums) and ponder why it works (Flook holds with the gift-from-God theory.).
"There's a bit of tension between the old-timers and the New Agers," said Gloria LaBorie, of the Vermont-based American Society of Dowsers.
But water finders of all sorts share a love of the lore--how dowsers have found unexploded land mines, how some say the rod's got to be green, so there's water in it, how others say it must be cut under a full moon, or that it works best if the dowser wears golf spikes.
Flook's been a bit overwhelmed by all the attention since the mayor spoke about his dowsing at a town meeting recently. Fortunately, his wife, Mary Elizabeth Flook, is always on hand to keep him down to earth.
"Don't forget, they haven't done the drilling, Daddy," she said. "You may be made a liar yet!"
CAPTION: Dowsers Dennis Flook, foreground, and Larry Doub, of Myersville, were hired by their mayor after an attempt by a geologist and an engineer to find water in the rain-starved area was unsuccessful.