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Arts & Culture

A Search For Water

A water witch can use different tools for dowsing; some use branches or twigs while other prefer wires.
Renee Wilde
A water witch can use different tools for dowsing; some use branches or twigs while other prefer wires.

We notice things done by hand, they stand out. And this spring and summer we have been visiting people who work with their hands; we heard from a Thatcher and two arborists.  Today Community Voices producer Renee Wilde has another story of a person who uses their hands in an unusual way.

Do you know what a water witch is? Some say it's a myth; others don't know.  But if you guessed that a water witch is one of those sticks that you find water with, that’s pretty close. 

A water witch is a person who can find underground water sources. Traditionally this was done using a forked branch taken from a Witch Hazel tree. That’s how the term “witching” was coined for the act of divining for water, or dowsing. Today a variety of tools are used by modern water witches, including coat hangers, keys and pendulums. 

Although the practice hasn’t been scientifically proven, this method of locating water is practiced all over the world. There is even an American Society of Dowsers, whose motto is "Indago Felix", Latin for “the fruitful search”, which refers to the preference of some dowsers using twigs from peach trees for divination.

When I found out that my co-worker, Rick Burnside, was a water witch, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to conduct my own fruitful search. So on our lunch break we set out.

"I did not know I had this gift till I was about 6 or 7," Rick said.  "My dad was looking for field tiles to correct some drainage, and he was using two metal wires, and walking around the field and locating them. So I tried it and was able to do it also. That was about 45 years ago."

Not only can water witches locate underground sources, some can even tell how many feet down it is, how fast it’s flowing and which direction.

"Usually the wires cross when I have located water through a tile or a pipe. And then the wires will bounce the number of feet that the water is deep."

Credit Renee Wilde / WYSO
Rick Burnside searches for water in a local cemetery

We had been trying to go witching for two weeks, but a streak of rainy weather kept us inside. This morning it was sunny and beautiful, but by lunch time, the sky had turned dark grey and thunder rumbled in the distance. We took a chance anyway and headed across the street to a local cemetery to go dowsing, and to see first hand Rick’s claim that he can use his witching skills for more than finding water. 

"I’m a sexton in a local cemetery and an old gentleman came through one day while I was there working, and through our discussion he revealed that he was a water witch, and asked me if I had tested graves. Which I said no. So once I tried it, I was amazed myself."

We stood in the graveyard and Rick demonstrated this technique, explaining that the wires will turn one direction for a male and another for a female.  And it worked. As we made our way down a row of headstones, Rick’s wires would swing left when he walked on a male grave and to the right over a female.

"I’m not sure what it has to do with water. I think it has to do with magnetism," Rick said.

I really wanted to see him find water, but my demonstration was cut short when the skies open up and rain began to fall. 

As we walked back to work I asked him about the benefits of being a water witch recalling that I had once asked a water witch to find our septic system, which he did. 

"I could probably do that," Rick said.  "No one has asked me to do that. The local village asked me to find a water valve once that they couldn’t locate."

And he found that valve within an inch.

When I asked Rick whether he keeps water witching on the down low, he simply replied, "I don’t have business cards if that’s what you mean. [laughs]."

Maybe he should. According to internet sources, Water Witches are in high demand in California because of the drought, and the grape growers swear by it.

As we parted ways in the parking lot, Rick offered this final advice for would-be water witches.

"Just go out and try it. You might have the gift and not realize it."