In the good old days (when things were not so bad) high tech was old school that required both skill and faith. Practitioners with both qualities keep the craft alive.
“If you do not believe it works, it won’t work for you,” the Dowser told me.
I met The Dowser at a memorial picnic where he reminisced of earlier days in the Beartooth Mountains. In those times (as today) dowsers were divided into two camps: those who think dowsing’s usefulness is confined to locating water and those who find dowsing handy in locating almost anything that comes to mind.
Catholic use of dowsing reminded the old Dowser of grizzly bears.
“You can use those dowsing wands to find grizzlies,” he said. He held the instruments in front of his chest, and we watched them swing in tandem to the left. A smile lit his face.
“If the wands point one way in a search for grizzlies, I go the other way,” he said.
The Old Dowser was born in a time and place where effectiveness of dowsing was hardly doubted. In the 1920s, Uncle Sam targeted the patch of Ozarks where he was born as a site for a new defense plant. The installation would, of course, need ample water. Old Dowser (then a young dowser), begged a chance to locate that source.
“I went to my mother,” he recalls. “She cut a 10-inch forked butternut switch and instructed me in how to use it. She told me how to hold the dowsing wand and to picture a large pool of water.” The Dowser dowsed the area until the stick was nearly snatched from his hands by its force.
The contractors drilled, hit water, lots of water, and rejoiced.
“The commander was delighted, but he told my mother the Army could not pay me. It was illegal to work a kid as young as I was.”
In the end, the dowser was paid with the gift of a brand new Schwinn bicycle. The bike was tangible proof that the dowser could earn a living with the magic of beechnut switches.
He admired it daily, touched it often, but never rode it. “Not once,” he said. Years later a flash flood washed it into the crawl space beneath the family’s house. The crawl space proved to be the Schwinn’s last resting place.
The Old Dowser, along with a number of his friends, belongs to both the state and local dowsing associations, Big Sky and Rimrock Dowsers, respectively.
He asked that his name not be used in this column because dowsing has caused him trouble in the past. Though a religious and “playful” man, he has been accused of Satanism and witchcraft. For this reason he never refers to dowsing as “water witching.”
He offers the following anecdote. “I was lecturing at a school when a girl lost a contact and someone called for my help.” He found the girl hovering over a patch of carpet where the lens had fallen. Above this spot, he formed a square with his dowsing rods. He told the girl where to look and she soon found the lost contact.
She squealed and ran off. She told other girls. She told her teacher and she told a priest. Someone, somewhere along the way, decided the recovery of the lost contact was an act of witchcraft.
The Old Dowser was told not to exercise his talent again. A half century later he still encounters those afraid of the abilities he shares with other dowsers.
Living by a code that evolved over a lifetime of practice, the Old Dowser recalls turning down an offer to perform for money.
“A woman thought her husband was cheating on her. She offered me $100 to track him,” he said. “I refused.”