The dying art of dowsing

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Pictured is Dowser, Doug Easter

by Meghan Wayland

Marcel Masse started dowsing when he was only five years old.  He’s now in his late seventies.

“I remember it very well,” the Craftsbury farmer said.  “I found a water pipe underground.  People used to get a big charge out of it, this little kid finding water, but my father was a very good dowser, and I followed in his footsteps.

“Maybe it’s in my blood, but everybody dowsed back then,” he said.

Fewer and fewer young people are taking up the art of dowsing, a centuries-old practice of using a tool — perhaps most iconically, the forked stick — to locate sources of water underground.

“Visualize a slingshot,” Mr. Masse said.  The branches of the fork are held in each hand with the palms upward.  The dowser slowly paces the land, waiting for the stick — which can be made from anything — apple wood, bamboo, even plastic — to rotate downward, pointing to water underfoot.

“That apple wood turns and goes when you’re on the source,” Mr. Masse said.  An apple branch is his preferred dowsing rod.  “Oh man, you can hear the wood crack in your hands,” he said.

Mr. Masse is well aware of the skepticism dowsing inspires in some people.  An easy talker, he didn’t have many words to describe the phenomenon himself.

“A lot of people think it’s voodoo but if it works, call it whatever the hell you want,” he said.

Dowsing has long been the subject of controversy and scientific scrutiny.  It hasn’t fared well.  Studies  — like one conducted by the Smithsonian Institute in 1928 — draw the same conclusion:  Dowsing is no better than chance at predicting a source of water.  According to science, you could stand in your yard and throw a rock and be just as likely to hit a gusher.

The explanation of “successful” water dowsing is that in many areas, underground water is so prevalent it would be hard to drill a well and not hit a vein.  Some groundwater exists almost everywhere.

Maybe, besides an aging dowsing population, a lack of empirical support is a reason dowsing is on the decline.

Lisa Lacross, president of the American Society of Dowsers in Danville, said, “Unfortunately, we’re losing a lot of our good dowsers.  We know they’re out there.”

Since assuming her post in 2011, the organization has tried to get young people interested and involved — including Ms. Lacross’ own daughter.  Efforts haven’t been very successful.

“It’s like if they can’t read it on their phone, it doesn’t exist,” Ms. Lacross said.

Mr. Masse agreed there has been a downturn in interest.  New people just aren’t picking up the practice.

“Dowsing is a dying art,” he said, but added that he and other dowsers are still hired in the Northeast Kingdom and around the world.  Mr. Masse said Newport Center called him just a few years back to help them find a productive well.

“You’re saving a person a lot of money if you can cut out 200 feet on a well,” he said.

While it costs per foot to drill, most dowsers say they work for free, and Mr. Masse is no exception.

“I don’t charge anyone,” he said.  “I feel what I have is a gift and I should assist people with it.”

Mr. Masse told a story of when he recently came to someone’s aid.

“This person bought this little farm in East Hardwick, 20 Jersey cows.  Back when they used to bury the wellhead underground.  It’s illegal now, but the guy who owned the land knew he had a well because it was registered at the town clerk.  People told him, get Marcel over, he’ll find it for you.  He calls me.

“I heard you find water.

“I said, I’ve been known to.

“Well, I really don’t believe in it.

“I said, then why the hell did you wake me up at 10 at night if you don’t believe in it?

“He told me he’d like me to make him a believer, and I said, that I think I can do.

“Come to find out, back in the day, they used to plant a tree on the wellhead so they’d know where it is.  Thought it would take me half a day to find the well.  Took me half a minute.  I said, it’s under your lilac bush.  I showed him right where it was.

“So he started digging.  He went down a little bit and he hit something.  It’s probably a rock, I said, hit it again, it’s not a rock, it sounds hollow, I think it’s your wellhead.  He hit it right on the nose.  He looked at me and said, Jesus Christ, what kind of person are you?  I’m no different than you are, sir.  I just have this thing about finding water.

“The only thing I really regret is that I didn’t keep a ledger of all wells I’ve found.  Thousands of them.  Fifty years of doing it, when I grab a stick, I’m at home.”

Mr. Masse said he has seen people pick up dowsing in an instant.

“In Stowe, I went dowsing for two doctors, a couple, come to find out the lady could find water just as well as I could.  She found what I found.  Her husband said to her, that’s because you knew where it was.  You watched, he said, so I had her go in the house.  I found another vein.  She came out, and she found it.”

Dowsing is the most supernatural thing this reporter has ever heard from a no-frills Vermonter.  It’s a bold claim to divine not only the site of a vein of water underground, but also its direction, volume, and depth.  It’s not something you expect from a wool-clad farmer who kicks the goats back from a bucket of grain every morning.

Unlike almost all the others I spoke with, Mr. Masse thinks the talent is rare.

“Not everybody can do it — that I can tell you,” he said.  “People say it’s a gift.  I don’t feel anymore gifted than the next person.  If you have a faith in yourself, you know you’re going to find water.  You gotta have confidence.”

Of the dowsers I interviewed, no one could explain how dowsing works.  Most didn’t really bother to try, either.

“Some people it just comes natural,” Ms. Lacross said.  “I don’t know how, but I don’t question it.  I don’t question it because I’ve seen it.

“The younger generation knows it as metaphysical,” she said.  “A sixth sense.  Intuition is a form of dowsing.  Kids actually pick it up easier because they’re more open minded.  Some adults they close their minds to new things.  If you have the belief dowsing doesn’t work, it won’t work for you.”

Ms. Lacross said she’s also seen people really want to be dowsers and don’t develop the ability no matter how much they practice.

“I have seen people who believe in dowsing and really want to learn and it doesn’t work for them,” she said.  “I don’t know why.”

“I have no idea why it works, they have no idea why it works, but I can tell you that it works,” said Doug Easter, a dowser from East Burke.  Mr. Easter has been dowsing since the seventies.

“I wouldn’t even guess,” he said.  “They can speculate all they want.  I don’t care, but I can tell you right off, one thing is, if you don’t believe in it then don’t bother trying it because it won’t work.

“You have to be real specific about what you’re looking for and what you’re asking for,” Mr. Easter said.  “If you’re walking around supposedly looking for water but are thinking about dinner, it won’t work for you.”

Former president of the American Dowsers Society, Montreal farmer George Weller said he thinks the answer might have something to do with quantum physics.  A physicist himself, Mr. Weller said, “Sometimes some people can use a wormhole to go from here now to then there.  Take a shortcut. And that wormhole doesn’t always exist, it only exists sometimes, and only some people can sometimes access it.”

He added that, with dowsing, you can’t hope it will work.  Hope is too weak.

“You have to know,” he said.  “You have to be certain of it.”

Mr. Masse couldn’t be bothered with an explanation.

“I don’t care how they explain it,” he said.  “If it works, it works.”

The thing is, dowsing did work for this reporter.  Turns out, I can dowse.

I met Doug Easter a few weeks ago to watch him dowse, first hand, but I intended to also see if I was any good at it.

Mr. Easter pointed me in a direction and told me to walk slowly, almost heel to toe, asking quietly to myself again and again to be shown the nearest well.  So I did.  And within 25 steps, the piece of plastic tubing in my hands — the thing I could pick up at any hardware store — started turning upward just feet from the parking lot.  That’s not common.  The rod usually points downward, but Mr. Easter assured me it sometimes happens backwards for people.

Mr. Easter retraced my steps to prove my work.  It checked out.  His rod dipped toward the ground when he stood over the spot where I, too, had supposedly found water.  Mr. Easter and I were even able to land on the same results without watching what the other was doing.  I would look away, he would find a source, and I would come after him, landing on the same site.

We did this a few more times, finding three veins of water in about 20 minutes.  While Mr. Easter could ask yes and no questions to divine the depth, direction of flow, and gallons per minute, I couldn’t register any response for my questions.

Mr. Easter assured me it would take practice.

Nevertheless, if confidence is the secret to dowsing, I was pretty confident.  I’m not exactly sure why.  I used to see ghosts as a kid, so I thought whatever veil exists that between hard science and mysticism, or data and magic, maybe I’d be able to be on both sides of it.  It was a hunch.  There’s not always evidence, but you can feel, say, when something’s just not right.  I like that maybe there are still phenomena that can’t be explained.

Again, the scientific community thinks dowsing is bogus.  It’s often referred to as a pseudoscience and the effect of the stick rotating — or, in some cases, pendulum swinging — is explained by micro-movements in the hands willing something into existence.  It’s the same explanation for why the Ouija board works.  If you want the rod to move, it will move.  Maybe that’s why believing dowsing is possible is so critical.

Mr. Easter is a carpenter who got interested in dowsing in the seventies.  A dowser came to a house he was building to find a well.  When Mr. Easter took an interest, the visiting dowser handed him a pendulum and told him to find the nearest water line.

“He asked me how many feet away it was, and I gave him an answer,” Mr. Easter said.  “He looked at me and said, you should take up dowsing.  I’ve been doing it ever since.”

Mr. Easter’s favorite rod is a cheap piece of plastic tubing held together with another piece of plastic.  It’s not a sacred object.  He told me if I wanted one to go to any local hardware store.

His first rod was bamboo, and he got it at the yearly American Dowsing Society’s fall conference that used to take place in Danville years ago, as he was just getting his start.

“In the town hall upstairs they had it set up for a display of plumb bobs and stones and sticks and tables all set up with dowsing equipment,” he said.  “There was a man there with a beard, older guy.  And I said, how do you know which one to use?  And he said, ask it if that’s the stick for you.  God’s honest truth.”

When the guy walked off Mr. Easter said he started picking up the different tools all the while looking over his shoulder to make sure no one was watching him.  He was skeptical.  The whole thing felt ridiculous, he said.

“I literally did look this way and that way to make sure no one was looking.  Picked up the next one, looked over my shoulder, picked up the next one, and I couldn’t hold it.  Down she went.

“I paid a dollar for it.  It was bamboo type of wood, really skinny.  It just would twist and twist and twist.  Three to four years I used it.

Having witnessed Doug Easter dowse, having stood shoulder-to-shoulder with him, his hand on the right branch of the plastic “Y,” my hand on the left, I could feel the power of it turning.  It’s hard to believe micro-movements in the hands could produce such a swift, confident motion.

Years before Ms. Lacross, George Weller was the president of the American Society of Dowsers.  As a doctorate-level scientist, Mr. Weller used his time at the organization to develop a file of all the confirmed dowsing success stories he could find.  In order to be a true story the dowser’s account had to match the client’s.  In two years, he was able to collect 15 proven stories.  He couldn’t remember how many were submitted.  Mr. Weller is in his eighties and he was the dowser’s president decades ago.

This is one of the proven stories, according to Mr. Weller:

“A nationally well-known dowser in Arkansas, Harold McCoy, was called by a psychologist in San Francisco,” he said.  “Her daughter’s antique harp was stolen and the police couldn’t find it anywhere in the city.”

It was a situation where the psychologist was running out of options, Mr. Weller said, so the woman turned to Mr. McCoy, one of the most famous dowsers alive at the time, as a last resort.

“She didn’t have any other options, so she contacted Harold.  He asked her to send a map of the area where the harp was stolen, and he dowsed the map.”

Mr. McCoy was in Arkansas, and the psychologist, the thief, and the harp were in California, but Mr. McCoy was able to narrow it down to the house the harp was in.

“Turns out it was not a very savory neighborhood,” Mr. Weller said.

The police told the woman to post a reward poster in the neighborhood.  She supposedly put two posters on the telephone pole directly in front of the house where Mr. McCoy said the harp could be found.  A neighbor called.  She had seen the harp go into the apartment next door.

“The police went there and found the harp,” Mr. Weller said.

“The psychologist was kind of important, wealthy, famous for a psychologist, and she was wondering what she could do for Harold.  He didn’t want any money for finding the harp.  She happened to know one of the Rockefellers, and they gave Harold money to establish a dowsing research institute in Arkansas called the Ozark Research Institute.”

I looked it up.  The Ozark Research Institute is a real thing, and Harold McCoy is its founder.

“Map dowsing is rare,” Mr. Weller said.  “Not everybody can be a concert pianist.”

Harold McCoy established a record of many incredible healings — from tumors, to depression, to diabetes, all using the “power of the focused mind.”  His mission was to teach as many people as possible to use his healing techniques. Mr. McCoy taught power of mind techniques for more than 30 years.

Mr. McCoy’s trajectory reflects that of dowsing overall.  It’s moved away from finding water and moved toward something often referred to as energy healing.

“We still get calls for water dowsers,” Ms. Lacross said.  “People have purchased some land and they’re looking for a water dowser.  There’s one in Minnesota — 4,000 wells.  We have some people, that’s how they make their living.  Not only pinpoint where, but how far down to drill, and how much water they’re going to get.

“I’m not one of them,” she said.

On the American Society of Dowsers website you can find dowsing tools, pendulums mostly, named the unicursal hexigram, or seven rings of chakras.

“They dowse for everything now — healing, all kinds of things — it ain’t just looking for water,” Mr. Easter said. “I’ve never got into that.  I’m not saying it don’t work.  Who’s to say what works and what doesn’t.”

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