Divine and Conquer

Dowsing has long been used to find water, but contemporary practitioners are also plumbing spiritual depths

Oct 11, 2000 at 4:00 am
The apple tree in Jack Bacus' backyard is just right for a divining rod. There is a fresh young limb with lots of spring in it, and Jack takes his little pruner and snips it right off. He uses the edge of his pruner to strip away the minor branches, and before long he has a nice, clean forked branch, the "Y rod." He is ready to look for water. Jack walks slowly around his 1-acre property in Wood River, Ill., elbows at his sides, holding the stick spread out before him, parallel to the earth. Then it happens. The stick dips down abruptly, vigorously, turning in his hands as if something were tugging on it. "This is it," utters Bacus, who, with his wavy white hair and silver beard, looks like a Greek fisherman but is in fact retired from Illinois Power. "There's water down there," he affirms. "I started to feel a slight pull just before I got to it, and once I stood directly over it, the stick went straight down."

True, it may not be the best test of Bacus' divining powers -- it is in his own backyard, after all, and he already knows there is water on the spot. But when he witched a well for Bill Redfern a couple of years back, he went in cold and he found water straightaway. "He used a peach fork," recalls Redfern, chief operator of the Wood River Water Plant, referring to the type of tree Bacus chose for his divining rod. Some dowsers swear by the willow; some prefer a bent-up coat hanger. Bacus likes the wood of fruit trees.

Redfern describes how Bacus traversed his property: Every time the rod dipped, Bacus would mark the spot with a stick. Eventually it became apparent that there were two underground streams. Bacus mapped them out and told Redfern to put his well where they intersected. "Then," Redfern continues, "he did something amazing. He uses a thread and a dime and a water glass to tell how deep the water is. After he witches the spot, he sets the glass on that spot and then hangs the dime, which has a hole drilled in it, down the glass, and it starts tinking the side of the glass. There's a 'tink' per foot, and whenever it stops, you count the tinks, and that's how deep the first water is. He did it three times in a row, and the dime tinked the same number each time. We did a test well on the spot where he had done that, and a little stream popped up beside the drilling hole exactly the number of feet he had told me. So, go figure. I've told this story many times -- and I'm around the water industry -- and I've never heard anybody say, 'Oh yeah, I saw a guy do that.' Jack's the only one I know of."

Bacus says he picked up dowsing, including the dime-and-water-glass trick, from an old-timer at a church camp in the hills outside San Diego. It was 1960, and he was 26. "I was fascinated by it," he recalls. "I said, 'Can you teach me?' He said to just give it a try. Well, I tried, and it took." Since then, he's dowsed maybe 20 wells, never for hire but always for fun, as a favor and because he can do it.

Janet Dunlap would have us cast aside the common image of dowsing, that of a Jack Bacus walking across an open field with a forked stick in his hands, searching for a spot on which to dig a well. Bacus' approach is a legitimate form of dowsing, she admits, but it's become such a cliché.

"You have to realize," says Dunlap, "that dowsing is a tool, a very fine tool to amplify intuitive information. So, being a tool, it is not strictly used to find water. That would be a very narrow interpretation of it. It can be used to gather information to search for anything -- missing persons, car keys, virtually any lost object."

Dunlap, a licensed clinical social worker in private practice, says she got involved with dowsing eight years ago, through a friend. "It helped me resolve some conflicts about a situation I was having," she says. Today she is co-chair of the Gateway Society of Dowsers and teaches classes on the subject. She uses an advanced form of dowsing on a level few old-time practitioners would likely comprehend. She dowses for "balance and well-being," using her craft, among other things, to ascertain proper vitamin dosages, to determine which professional seminars and workshops will be worth her time to take and to check for "noxious energy zones" in various environments -- definitely a far cry from finding water with a forked stick.

To understand Dunlap's form of dowsing, you have to leave the empirical world behind and enter the convoluted realm of Jungian psychology. Using such traditional dowsing instruments as the Y-rod, the L-rods or a pendulum-style bob on the end of a string, Dunlap begins by "asking for information." Of whom or what does she inquire? Here it gets a bit uncanny. "The simplest way I explain it to students," she says, is "you have three levels of consciousness: a conscious mind, a subconscious mind and a superconscious mind, which is your higher self or your spiritual self. When you ask a question with your conscious mind using an L-rod, for example, that question goes to your subconscious mind, which acts as a channel or a pipeline, if you will, to your superconsciousness."

The information she seeks then channels back down through the subconscious, which controls involuntary muscle response such as the minute movements of the wrist. Says Dunlap, "You can't see it with your naked eye, but that involuntary muscle response is enough to set up a very subtle vibration, which then moves the tool." She has already mentally programmed the dowsing tool, "setting up a contract with the subconscious mind as to what those movements mean." A back-and-forth motion from the pendulum, for instance, could be a yes. In this way, if you lost your car key, you could ask the dowsing device a series of yes-or-no questions: Is it in the kitchen? The garage? And so on. Or you could have the device indicate the direction in which the lost article is located and then simply follow your nose to it.

Dunlap says she has used dowsing in her clinical practice, in which she specializes in psychotherapy, but only if a client has an understanding of dowsing and is open to its uses. "I might use it as a tool to be helpful to them in some way. If they were trying to make a decision about something and we had talked about that, I might then ask the question, 'What course of action would be for their highest good?'" She also uses dowsing as a psychic might consult the tarot deck, to screen clients: "If someone calls me, before I return the call I would ask whether I'm supposed to work with this person and if I can be of help to them." Dowsing's uses are, in fact, limitless, claims Dunlap, even to the point of divining future events. "Some people even use it to know when to hold stock or sell stock," she says. "A lot of people use it to evaluate health."

One of them is Roy Wodell, another member of the Gateway Society of Dowsers. The St. Louis-based consulting engineer with Caterpillar in Joliet, Ill., says he came into dowsing "from a personal health crisis. I had late-onset diabetes, and a fellow that I work with here was doing dowsing, working on treating his wife for multiple sclerosis. I asked him if he had something for diabetes." Using a pendulum held over a circular chart like a protractor -- "It had numbers up to 360," Wodell says -- the co-worker began "measuring" all the major organs in his body for their level of function.

"He expressed these measurements as a percentage," says Wodell, 61, "and he came up with some homeopathic remedies that would treat the various low-functioning organs. It took about two-and-a-half years, but I got off the insulin, and the diabetes is now under control." He keeps it under control, he says, by "monitoring the performance level of my own organs through dowsing and then following up with a combination of natural remedies, controlled diet and exercise."

Wodell further believes that everybody is capable of dowsing: "I believe if you think you can, why, you can. I think the energies and the abilities are there for anyone."

The Gateway Society of Dowsers was chartered in April 1999. The group of 12- 16 members meets at the St. Louis County Library headquarters on Lindbergh Boulevard, from noon-3 p.m. on the second Saturday of every month. Those interested may attend as many as three meetings as a guest, but to belong you must also be a member of the Vermont-based American Society of Dowsers, which costs $35 a year for a single person. It is somewhat ironic that the Dowsing Society does scores of interesting things with the tools of the trade -- everything except the time-honored dowsing practice of looking for groundwater. Dunlap is reluctant to name even one member who lists water divination as his or her chief interest. Conversely, multitudes of dowsers out in the boondocks are blithely unaware that there exists a society just for them and that they could be using dowsing to balance their chakras instead of walking about with a peach-tree branch, clamoring, "Dig here, dig here!"

"That's beyond my education," says Guy Zumwalt, 84, when informed of the wonders these New Age dowsers are performing. "I don't know nothin' about that. stuff," he says by phone from his Silex, Mo., home. "All I know, you get you a limb or a forked stick -- don't get no great big one -- about 6-7 inches, and just hold on. It'll start pullin' if there's water there. You can't keep it from going down."

Now retired for many years, when he was practicing, Zumwalt was on the Rolodex of St. Charles Drilling -- under "D," presumably. Although there is no official category for dowsers in the Yellow Pages, it is not unusual for drilling companies and construction outfits who deal with buried lines to have dowser dabblers in their own ranks or to have access through word-of-mouth to known dowsers. Gary DeWitt is a project manager with St. Charles Drilling, and he's seen some dowsing, or witching, in his 26 years in the water industry. "You'll see that done even today," he says, "people using those techniques to locate pipelines and underground buried cables and that sort of thing. I've seen it done many times in the field, and they are in fact able to locate buried pipelines and utilities. Now, they may not be able to identify whether it's a sewer line or an electrical cable or a phone line, but they know there's something there."

DeWitt says the L-rod is the most common device he's seen used: "Imagine, if you would, two rods 18 inches long with a 90-degree bend at the end, about 3 inches or so, and they hold them loosely, like a pistol grip, in each hand. They walk slowly across the ground with those rods pointed forward, and when they cross a buried utility, the rods will on their own rotate in their hands and become parallel with the cable or whatever it is that they came upon. Not only are they able to identify they're standing over a line, but they can determine at what angle that line is running because the rods do end up parallel with the lines."

But witching for water, says DeWitt, requires a faith he's not ready to invest. "I've always been a real skeptic about the idea of dowsing for water, because here in Missouri we can drill a well anyplace and pretty much get water -- it may not be potable or enough to sustain a household, but there'll be water. When we go to drill, we get a kick out of these guys who come out and say, 'You've got to drill here. My grandfather witched a well on this spot.' In the past, those particular gentlemen would do that, and, yeah, they were successful at finding water, but the argument could certainly be made that they could have been off 100 feet from the main water vein and still have found water."

What is the verdict on dowsing? Shall we believe that unseen forces cause the rods to move in the hands of those who are somehow gifted with the ability to sense physiological changes in the earth? Many assign this practice to the nebulous category of psychic phenomenon. They maintain it is more an art than a science, the art of searching, and to deny that it occurs is to exhibit a closed mind.

Charles Carmejeanne addressed the issue quite elegantly. In a letter penned in 1913, the president of the Northwest France Regional Society of Architects wrote to Henri Mager, expert dowser: "This method of proceeding ... is opposed by two classes of detractors: the first being those in whose hands the dowsing rod remains motionless; the second, scientists, who unable to plausibly explain the phenomenon, find it easier either to negate it simply ... by attributing it to charlatanry on the part of the of the operator or to include it among acts of simple suggestion."

What do practitioners and observers believe is happening as the dowsing rod moves of its own accord? Guy Zumwalt, who has dowsed sporadically for 30 years or more, is as mystified -- and as unconcerned -- by it as he can be. "I'm not sure why it happens," he says. "Probably electricity or something in your body." To Janet Dunlap, it's the result of an involuntary muscle response stemming from a higher consciousness. Roy Wodell says, "It's a reaction that energizes your muscles, and the rods are like a pencil in your hand, just reading out what you're sensing and feeling." Jack Bacus freely admits that he doesn't know how it works or why it works: "The only thing I know is that it does work. It's just one of those things, not something learned -- either you have it or you don't. But if you ever experience it, you'll know it's not just a myth. That rod will pull so hard it'll strip the bark off in your hands."

"There is no explanation, says Gary DeWitt. "I've been in the water business since 1974, and I've seen this done many times over the years, and the people that do it can't explain it scientifically. They just say things like, 'I have the gift.' It's kind of a folky thing, you know."

In the 1970s, Dr. Jan Merta, a Czech-born physiologist, believed that the movement of the dowsing device was directly connected to muscle contraction in the arms or hands of the dowser. With his subject's wrist muscle wired to a device called an accelerometer, he conducted a series of experiments designed to answer the question: Which comes first, the movement of the dowsing rod or the muscle contraction? Merta's scientific finding was that the dowsing rod moves a split second after the muscle contraction -- although, interestingly, in a biofeedback-type explanation, he suggests that this reaction is a result of the operator's picking up "a signal" that stimulates the movement. Back to the idea of the unseen force.

Dowsing has an ancient history; cave pictographs in Libya estimated to be 8,000 years old depict an individual divining with a forked stick. And though it has been accepted for long periods as standard practice (16th-century German miners used dowsing to a high degree and were even recruited by Queen Elizabeth I to divine for tin in Cornwall), in other times it was certainly anomalous, fueling superstition. "Despite the regular use of rods in mining," writes Richard Webster, author of Dowsing for Beginners, "up until the end of the 17th century dowsers were constantly at risk of being charged with witchcraft."

Even today, the jury is out. The scientific community, challenged to explain the successes of dowsing, would rather show contempt for it. In 1966, the U.S. Geological Survey published a report, Water Witching, in which they asserted that "as far as scientists are concerned, the subject is wholly discredited." Yet during the Vietnam War, U.S. Marines were professionally instructed to dowse for the existence of subterranean structures such as Viet Cong tunnels and booby-traps known as pungi pits. The controversy trickles down to the local level. Says Tim Kelly of Brotcke Engineering in Fenton: "The Illinois State Water Survey claims dowsing doesn't work, yet there's people all over Illinois and Missouri who witch water."

In the end, maybe it's not so important to know why dowsing devices seemingly work for some and not for others. Whatever the causality, the applications of dowsing are just as pragmatic for Roy Wodell, trying to get his diabetes under control, as they are for Jack Bacus, looking to start a well for his neighbor. And maybe the key to all knowledge is only acquired by the open-minded.