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Illustration by Aaron Gelston

You might have seen a TV show or a movie where a character is searching for an underground water source with a Y-shaped stick. The individual walks along slowly, waiting for the stick to pull them toward a suitable place to dig a well. These shows are usually set in the 1800s or earlier, suggesting that the method is a lost relic of traditional folk superstition.

Surprisingly, the method still has adherents who practice it today; what’s more, many well-drilling companies still use it as a way to locate underground streams. The practice is known as “dowsing” or, more colorfully, “water witching.” It’s a fairly simple idea: a wide variety of materials or objects can be located by divination, either through the body’s innate ability to sense magnetic or static energy, or through spiritual communication with the Earth’s unseen and unknowable forces, depending on who you ask.

The process is straightforward: the “dowser” gently holds an inanimate device, such as a Y-shaped stick, two metal rods, or a pendulum, and walks along, letting the device pull the dowser like a magnet toward the object or material he or she is seeking. Some dowsers don’t use an instrument, opting for their bare hand instead. Whether or not it works is up for debate, and although it’s generally discredited by science, a plethora of anecdotal evidence has many convinced of its effectiveness.

The earliest mentions of the process in the historical record date back to 16th century Europe, where German miners are described as using it to search for precious metals, and it is thought that the practice spread from there. Dowsing pops up in some pretty unexpected places throughout history: it was used by some United States Marines during the Vietnam War in attempts to locate underground enemy bunkers, and as recently as 1986 by the Norwegian Army to locate survivors of an avalanche.

Hewitt Fredebaugh of Fredebaugh Well Drilling, a well-digging company that has been operating in Northeast Ohio for five generations, says they’ve employed a number of dowsers throughout the company’s history. “One of our drillers still does it,” he says, adding that oftentimes customers will specifically ask for a dowser to search for a well location. In contrast, some people refuse to let anyone dowse on their property for religious reasons, calling it witchcraft.

Indeed, the practice has been decried as sacreligious by many Christians throughout history, earning it the ‘water-witching’ moniker in the American vernacular. In fact, the earliest known historical reference to dowsing is by the 16th century church reformer Martin Luther, who included it on a list of blasphemous acts in 1518.

Although Fredebaugh has dowsed for water himself, many times with success, he’s still sort of skeptical about the process. “A lot of people scoff at it,” he says, admitting, “It’s not a very scientific operation.” He says his father would explain that dowsing was possible because some people could detect electric charges created by moving water, but he added that he wasn’t totally convinced of this explanation.

Now semi-retired, Fredebaugh has been a professional well-driller his entire life and has a deep knowledge of regional geology, which he thinks contributes to the method’s success. Regardless, personal experience with the process has convinced him that “there’s something to it,” and that he wishes that he knew why some people can do dowse and some can’t.

Jim Davis, a Richfield native who hosts the monthly Ohio Buckeye Dowsers meeting at his farm, has a more mystical explanation for the practice, which he discovered while living on a Seneca reservation in upstate New York. “Dowsing is essentially a trick by your spirit on your body,” he explains. “We’re listening to what spirit has to say to us.”

Davis describes dowsing as the spirit communicating with the unseen forces of the Earth. The technique, according to him, is a broader application of ancient pagan spirituality that has been largely lost in modern society. He says that in addition to finding physical objects, you can answer any yes or no question with dowsing. “What we’re doing is relearning and practicing a very, very ancient skill that was known by all original peoples,” he explains. “It’s an art and a skill that you have to practice.”

When asked how he responds to skeptics, Davis responds simply. “I don’t,” he says. “I don’t care. It doesn’t matter to me whether they believe or not. I can show them not what I believe, but what I know works.”

If you’re curious to see a demonstration of dowsing, the Ohio Buckeye Dowsers monthly meeting is open to all. Whether or not there’s any truth to it is up for you to decide.

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