Let's Reminisce: Water witching
By Jerry Lincecum
Apr 10, 2017
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In response to my column on well diggers, several people responded to say they had known someone who mastered this craft.  Some had even witnessed the related procedure called “water witching” (also known as dowsing) being used to locate a source of water and then seen a good well dug on that site.

Here’s one testimony: “One of our neighbors could witch water with a forked peach tree limb. He could also determine about how many feet deep it was to the vein.  My older brother also had the witching talent.  During the severe drought of the late thirties, the water table dropped, and the well we had relied on went dry.  So we witched another dug well in a lower pasture where the water table was higher.”

I consider it safe to say that many people my age or older who grew up in rural Texas or Oklahoma have either seen water witching performed or heard about it from family members who had.  A friend who owns a good book on the subject of dowsing (“The Divinging Hand”) loaned it to me, with the admonition, “You are responsible for remembering where you got this book, because I won’t remember who I gave it to.”  If he thinks my memory is better than his, he is sadly mistaken.

Let’s acknowledge right away there is no accepted scientific rationale for dowsing.  However, a master dowser named Louis Matacia was hired by the U.S. Defense Department during the Vietnam War to teach our Marines how to use it to find tunnels and traps in Viet Cong villages.  The effectiveness of his dowsing is well documented.

Dowsing as practiced today seems to have originated in Germany during the 15th century, when it was first used in attempts to find metals. As American settlers moved westward into drier climates in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they sought out dowsers to help locate water wells.
A Y-shaped twig or rod, called a witching rod is often used during dowsing, although some use two pieces of wire about the thickness of old coat hangers. Some prefer branches from particular trees, freshly cut. Most commonly used in this region are branches from willow or peach trees. Rosemary Mulder of Sherman is one who saw willow twigs used to find water on her grandmother’s place in Oak Hill, Oklahoma.  She was fascinated to watch the twigs dip toward the ground and then see a good well dug by hand on that very spot.

This method is sometimes called "willow witching," and I myself have seen it done.  The two ends on the forked side are held, one in each hand, with the third (the stem of the "Y") pointing straight ahead. Often the branches are grasped palms down. The dowser then walks slowly over the places where he suspects the target (such as minerals or water) may be, and the dowsing rod dips or twitches when a discovery is made.
As you would expect, dowsing has often been studied on the fringes of the scientific world.  The late Dr. Howard McCarley, who was professor of Biology at Austin College, once took a class of students outdoors on the college campus and demonstrated for them the technique of “willow witching.”

Unexpectedly, he was approached by Dr. John D. Moseley, the college president, who said, “Howard, I have here with me a distinguished campus visitor, and we are curious about what you are teaching these students.”  Dr. McCarley’s answer was very straightforward: “Dr. Moseley, you do not want to know.  This is not considered science.” 

If you can find a copy of “The Divining Hand,” the author tells you how to test whether you have the talent of dowsing.  Given the shortage of water in North Texas these days, skilled dowsers should be able to cash in.

A retired Austin College professor, Dr. Jerry Lincecum teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories.  He welcomes your reminiscences on any topic: