Water Witchery: Is It Hocus-Pocus or Science?

Can following metal or wooden sticks really help locating water?. (Photo: Grandpa/Shutterstock)

Last year on my trip to Hocking Hills, Ohio, our media group was treated to a night tour of Hocking Hills State Park led by a truly gifted storyteller and tour guide. While we were visiting Ash Cave, known to be an ancient burial ground, the tour guide handed us divining rods and told us to walk around with them. When the rods began to move on their own and crisscross over each other, he told us chances were we were standing on top of a burial spot.

Was it spooky? Sort of. It was dark, we were in the woods, and the rods really were moving without our intervention — but they weren't being moved by long-deceased spirits. Once we were all sufficiently in awe of the moving rods, the tour guide asked us put the them on top of each others' heads, and we found that they crisscrossed over the bodies of living people, too. We were told it was the electromagnetic energy from our bodies that made the rods move, and the tour guide explained that buried bones, even though they were interred long ago, still gave off that same energy.

Although I was convinced I was doing nothing to move the divining rods in my hand that night and found the tour guide's explanation plausible, science isn't convinced. A common scientific explanation for the seeming movement of divining rods without user intervention is that the user is moving them subconsciously. Ideomotor movements, "muscle movements caused by subconscious mental activity," can make something in your hands move, even though it looks and feels involuntary, according to New Scientist. These are the same type of movements that make the planchette (the heart-shaped piece of wood) move on the ouija board, say scientists.

I'm not convinced either way, but when I heard a story on NPR about using water witches to find water for drought-stricken California vineyards and farms, I listened with an open mind.

Modern-day 'dowsing' in California

Water witches are people who say they have the gift of finding water by using divining or dowsing rods and intuition.

Dowsing is to search for something in a "manner beyond the scope and power of the standard human physical senses of sight, sound, touch, etc." according to Raymond C. Wiley, one of the founders of the American Society of Dowsers (ASD). The search is usually aided by a "forked stick, a pendulum bob on a string, L-shaped metal rods or a wooden or metal wand." In fact, ASD says there is a "huge wall painting of a dowser, holding a forked branch in his hand searching for water, surrounded by a group of admiring tribesmen" on a prehistoric mural on cave walls dating back 8,000 years.

And the tradition is going strong. In fact, one member of the famous California wine family, Marc Mondavi, considers himself to be not just a wine maker but also a water witch. He discovered his gift for finding water when he was a teenager, but he knows science doesn't buy it, he told local public radio station KALW in San Francisco:

“Scientists all want facts. Well, there’s no facts to this. There’s no science that’s proven that I have or don’t have an energy,” Mondavi says.

Here are some facts, though, at least according Gonzalo Salinas, the owner of a California drilling company who NPR interviewed. Sometimes a "geologist or someone with different instrumentation" will identify a well, but when his company goes to drill, it's dry. When that happens, sometimes "a witchery will come over and pick another site and it turns out to be a well."

He also says about 50 percent of the farmers in the region use a water witcher, "if they have the space or an area where there could be multiple drilling sites." He believes that on a scale of 1 to 10, water witching is about a seven. A water witcher's services are also much cheaper that a geologist's, ranging from about $500 to $1,000.

But, when a witcher says there's water, that's just the start; it costs tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars to drill, so hiring a witcher can be risky. If a witcher didn't have a consistently good record, no one would hire him. Mondavi's record is constantly good. Not only can he locate where water is, he can determine how deep it is and the volume of flow. Many people hire him to find water, and it works. The water is often within several feet of the depth he predicted and close to the flow he predicted, according to Mutineer Magazine.

You can see Mondavi work his supernatural skills in this video below, in which he says that he's more than 95 percent successful when he uses his water witching talents.

Hocus-pocus or science? Or something else?

Some scientists don't specifically say dowsing is "hocus-pocus," instead saying the movement of the rods is caused by subconscious mental memory. But they also can't say that water witchery and other types of divination are scientifically valid.

Maybe science can't prove dowsing's validity, but farmers in California find Mondavi and others like him to be accurate enough to risk hundreds of thousands of dollars to drill where they suggest.

I'm keeping an open mind. I'm willing to believe there's something supernatural going on here, something that science can't prove (yet), and something really fascinating.