Source: Yahoo News
Rejected by scientists, dowsing is an ancient tradition that’s dying hard in the Central Valley’s parched fields
By Holly Bailey 6 hours ago
Tassey is what is known as a “water witch,” or a dowser — someone who uses little more than intuition and a rod or a stick to locate underground sources of water. It’s an ancient art that dates back at least to the 1500s — though some dowsers have argued the origins are even earlier, pointing to what they say is Biblical evidence of Moses using a rod to summon water. In California, farmers have been “witching the land” for decades — though the practitioners of this obscure ritual have never been as high profile or as in demand as during the last year.
Across the Central Valley, churches are admonishing their parishioners to pray for rain. Native American tribal leaders have been called in to say blessings on the land in hopes that water will come. But perhaps nothing is more unorthodox or popular than the water witches — even though the practice has been scorned by scientists and government officials who say there’s no evidence that water divining, as it is also known, actually works. They’ve dismissed the dowsers’ occasional success as the equivalent of a fortunate roll of the dice — nothing but pure, simple luck. But as the drought is expected to only get worse in coming months, it’s a gamble that many California farmers seem increasingly willing to take.
State officials recommend that farmers who are planning to dig should hire a hydrogeologist to survey their land to find a spot for a productive well. But the first call many farmers make is to a water witch — who charges a fraction of the price and, some insist, is often just as accurate.
On this Wednesday, Tassey was charging the Wollenmans just $100 — his usual fee — to look for water in one of their orange groves. They’d been working with him for years — and before that, they’d used another witch to help them find water, just as their parents had when they first came here in the 1940s as one of the first citrus growers in Lindsay.
The severity of the latest drought has raised the ante even higher. With landowners across the valley desperate to tap into water, it costs thousands of dollars just to get on a waitlist for drilling that is often several months long. Desperate farmers have little margin for error. If they drill a hole and find nothing, it’s money that’s gone, and they are back on the waitlist again. They are betting on witches to help them find the magic mark.
As Tassey paced down the line of trees, the farmers followed quietly. After a moment, Tommy Wollenman, who is also a general manager at LoBue Citrus, a grower and distributor in town, tried to lighten the mood. “Ommmm,” he jokingly began to chant. A few feet away, the metal rod in Tassey’s hands suddenly began to move feverishly up and down. Wollenman paused. “That’s amazing,” he said.
No one knows how many water witches there are. They don’t exactly advertise in the phone book or the newspaper. There is an organization — the American Society of Dowsers, which has hundreds of members scattered across local chapters throughout the country. But many water witches like Tassey seem to work on their own. The U.S. Geological Survey, which issued a brochure discrediting the practice of dowsers, estimates there may be thousands roaming the nation’s agricultural lands in search of water — though the agency admits even it isn’t sure.
In the book, Adam Trask hires Samuel Hamilton to find water on land he hopes to transform into his own personal Eden. When Trask asks Hamilton how his divining stick works, the fictional witch confesses that he’s not really sure and suggests it’s perhaps his own instinct, not an instrument, driving the magic. “Maybe I know where the water is, feel it in my skin,” Hamilton explains.
“It’s an energy of some sort. ... Like how some people can run a Ouija board. You either have it or you don’t. You can’t learn how to get it, but if you do have it, you have to learn how to use it,” he said. “It took me years to get my confidence. ... At first, you are a bit leery of telling someone they are going to have to go dig a $50,000 hole. What if nothing is there? But over time, I learned to trust.”
Pausing, Mondavi can’t help but smile. “I’m good,” he says, a sly grin on his face. “I’m not afraid to blow my own horn. I’m good at this.”
Scientists roll their eyes at the phenomenon. Graham Fogg, a hydrologist at the University of California, Davis, called it “folklore” and said there is no scientific proof that dowsers have any special skill at finding water. The reason dowsers often appear successful, he argued, is because “groundwater is ubiquitous.” Anybody with a basic knowledge of an aquifer is likely to be able to tap into something.
The vibrating or movement of the diving rods or sticks, scientists argue, is nothing more than show.
In spite of the skepticism, some high-profile figures seem unwilling to miss a chance at finding water. Last year, at the suggestion of a cousin, California Gov. Jerry Brown had a pair of water witches go over land he owns in Williams, Calif., about an hour north of Sacramento, where he plans to build a home and settle when he retires. A spokesman for the governor confirmed Brown had used dowsers, but he declined to say if they found water.
“The farmers here have been good to me all these years, to all of us here,” Tassey says. “Now it’s my turn.”