Trail Dust: Water dowsing is nothing to shake a stick at

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Locating underground water by use of a forked stick is a practice that has been known and used for centuries. Indeed, a European scholar named Georgius Agrocola published a treatise on the subject as early as 1530.

The process is referred to variously as dowsing, witching or divining. People who practice it are called dowsers or water witches.

When I was a boy growing up in a rural area east of Dallas, everyone in our neighborhood dowsed for water as a matter of course. When we needed a new well, my father went into the peach orchard and cut a green stick in the shape of a Y.

With each hand he grasped a branch of the Y firmly and holding the point level, parallel to the ground, he walked around our pasture. At one spot, the fork seemed to twist in his hand and aim downward.

He passed the peach branch to each member of the family in turn and we all got the same result. The fork seemed to have a mind of its own; the pull was unmistakable. We drilled and got water at 30 feet.

Years passed before I discovered that water dowsing was considered superstitious nonsense by most people. I was even more surprised to learn that those who believed in it thought that dowsing was a special and mysterious gift limited to a few.

The truth is, the stick will perform for practically everybody, skeptic and non-skeptic alike. Often I’ve placed a dowsing fork in a scoffer’s hands and watched the amazement spread across his face as the branches twisted in his hands.

Like aspirin, dowsing works whether you believe in it or not.

Some persons do seem to be more sensitive to dowsing than others, and a few of them become specialists locating wells for a fee. A good dowser is usually able to predict at what depth you will strike water.

An elderly gentleman who lived a few miles from me charged $50. I’ve heard of famous dowsers operating on the eastern plains of New Mexico who got more.

Attempts to explain dowsing in scientific terms have made little headway. One book says the forked stick “operates on the principle of opposed atoms in the path of the earth’s magnetic field radiating their own field pattern traceable with the stick under pressure.”

I’ll leave it to others to explain what that means and to say whether there is anything to it.

After years of searching, I have been unable to run up any reference that would show the Hispanic settlers of colonial New Mexico had knowledge of dowsing. Most of their domestic water was dipped from streams or irrigation ditches. Occasionally, they had dug wells in valleys where the water table was shallow.

In 1880 when the railroad reached Albuquerque, Anglos, who founded New Town, two miles east of the old plaza, dug wells in their backyards. They had no need for dowsing either, because water could be found just two or three feet below the surface.

In a shallow hole, they inserted a wooden barrel with the bottom knocked out to serve as casing. Water seeped in and provided a plentiful source for an entire family.

I suspect that dowsing was introduced in New Mexico by Anglo emigrants from the East who took up farms on the plains and in the Pecos and Rio Grande valleys during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But the practice was not widespread,, and today there are many residents who have never heard of it.

No guarantees go with dowsing, and my words here should not necessarily be taken as a recommendation. But if you are planning a well, you might as well select a spot that dowsing shows to be a good one.

Drillers usually can’t help you anyway since many of them will proclaim that water is found everywhere, at some depth. But I have seen too many dry holes bored in New Mexico to believe that.

So, until something better comes along, I will stick with the age-old dowsing method. And besides, it’s a lot of fun. Try it some time if you get the chance.

Now in semi-retirement, author Marc Simmons wrote a weekly history column for more than 35 years. The New Mexican is publishing reprints from among the more than 1,800 columns he produced during his career.