Saturday, September 19, 2009

Dowsing in North Dakota!

The following is an article submitted by one of our members, RR. It relates story about dowsing here in North Dakota. Who would of thunk it? It is a good story, enjoy. A number of years ago, due to the falling levels of Lake Sacagawea, my dad and I decided to have a water well drilled on our lake lot near New Town. After contracting with the driller, I did what I do. I went down to the Minot State library and dug out the NDGS ground water reports for MacLean County. They are fairly complete, and come with some excellent subsurface geologic maps with all the aquifers mapped. There is a lot of data, including stratigraphic columns of the Pleistocene and Paleocene. If you ever need them they are in the government section on the first floor.
I grabbed my back pack and loaded up the reports, my hand level, brunton pocket transit and headed out to do some survey work. From the top of Crow Flies High butte you can see exactly where some of the side channels of the pre Wisconsian glaciations, Missouri river flowed. Straight across the river you can see Reunion point where the Lewis and Clark expeditions met back up on their way down river in 1806. If you have never seen it, I suggest you take a little side trip next time you go to the Casino. Anyway from this vantage point, and with maps in hand, I could see exactly where the aquifer ran under the glacial till, and its approximate extent and depth.
Armed with this information I called the driller to finalize my order, and tell him where I wanted the well. What followed was a surreal conversation. It was like he was speaking Swahili and I was speaking Navajo. He talked about “witching” veins of water, apparently these veins loop around and zig zag across the land. I talked about through flow, porosity and permeability. I couldn’t have the well where I wanted because the “vein” ran on the opposite side of the lot. I tried to tell him that his “vein” was over two and a half miles wide and ran from Crow Flies High to Little Knife creek. I finally gave up and let him drill where he wanted. I’m convinced to this day that he drilled where it was easiest to drive his truck.
I was visiting with my neighbor a few days after this, complaining about the driller and talking about my new water well to be. He pointed to a place on the ground a few feet away and declared. “I have a well right there”. I looked to where he was pointing “Where is it”? I asked. “Did you bury the well head”? “No”, he answered, “I haven’t had it drilled yet, but it’s been “witched” and the well is right there”. It made me think of the big prairie rock in my back yard that was actually a statue of the Madonna. I just needed someone to come out and chip away the excess rock.
A few years later I noticed activity over at my cousins place three lots to the south. They were in the process of replacing the septic tank with a new modern higher capacity system. Terry remembered the old tank being nothing more than a large steel barrel buried down hill. They didn’t know where it was and had to find it before they could replace it. A man was walking back and forth with two copper rods bent at right angles. I was introduced and was surprised to find that it was my driller who I had never yet met. Now I was extremely interested watching him work. I asked Terry if he thought this really worked. He had no doubt but that it did. “How do you think the copper reacts with the water”? I asked. “It’s the electromagnetic field in the water that attracts the rods.” he told me. This is a nice pseudo scientific explanation since individual water molecules have a strong electrostatic attraction that causes hydrogen bonding, but a body of water will always have an overall resultant field of zero. I tried to explain this to Terry, but he didn’t buy it. Now the interesting and concerning part of this story is that Terry has a PhD in education from the University of North Dakota and was at that time the activities director of the entire Minot school system. I looked over to where the driller was standing, a triumphant look on his face. His copper rods were crossed, x marking the spot, so to speak. We all walked over to check out the spot, and as they got ready to dig, being something of a smart ass I asked what I thought was an obvious question but they all thought was stupid. “How do you know that’s not a water “vein”?
I drive trains for a living so I spend long hours traveling across country with various people. This leaves a lot of time for conversation. I was telling my conductor these stories because I think there’re funny. He gave me a serious look and said. “We wouldn’t think of trying to drill a well without witching for it first”, he tells me. Don is from a large extended farm family from the Epping area, so over the years that’s probably a lot of wells. “I’ve done it myself”, he tells me. Now this was my chance to do some real research. “How does it feel when the rods cross”? I ask. “We use willow sticks” he says. Apparently like any religion there was a schism in water witching, you have your copper rod people and then you have your willow stick people. The willow stick is cut at a branch so it is in the shape of a y. The dowser holds the top of the y and the bottom points out the water. “Okay so how does the willow stick feel, when you find water”? “When you’re over water the end of the willow stick pulls down hard, my aunt was the best at it” Don tells me. “She could tell you how deep the water was”. This is amazing, I think. “OK, have you ever done any experimentation”? I ask. “What? Why? “To prove and quantify the effect”. I insist. “How would you do that”? He asks. “Bury some barrels in the ground. Put water in some and leave some empty and see what happens when you try to dowse over them, hook up a torsion balance to your willow stick, and see if it will register”. “How do you prepare your willow stick I ask, do you leave the leaves on, do you strip off the bark” He gives me that look like he thinks I’m stupid. ‘Why would you do that” he asks. Being something of a smart ass I add. “Well if the water receptors are in the bark, and you stripped it off, the willow stick wouldn’t work, but if the receptors are in the wood then the bark interference would be removed and it would work better. If you hooked up a torsion balance then you could tell exactly how strong the force was. You could formulate an equation. Establish a scientific theory.” This proved to be too much for him and our conversation turned to sports or something.
James Randi actually did an excellent experiment on this. He carefully engineered and charted a series of buried pipes. Water was run through the pipes in turn. Water dowsers were invited to find the pipes and given small stakes to mark them. Not one dowser was able to find a single pipe with water in them, a total failure. My daughter, Heidi, who designed our logo by the way, bought me an autographed copy of this and Dunnings “Skeptoid”, where she had Brian write, “thanks for teaching me to view the world through science”. I’m so proud of her. Check out her blog at
Randi does a good job of explaining what happens during water witching. It’s mostly psycological. The dowser holds either the willow stick or bent rods gripped in the palm of the hand. Since the palm of the hand cannot hold a small diameter tightly, either the stick or rod is free to move with a small force. In the case of the willow stick when the dowsers sub concious tells him he is over water he applys a force separating the y. This induces a torsion on the bottom and the point of the stick can snap down as the y slips in the palm. With the copper rods, when the dowser feels he is over water his wrists will bend forward slightly and a real physical force will move the rods against his grip to cross the rods. The force is called gravity.
Ground water occurs almost everywhere. Its movement is more of a migration than a flow. It moves in mass following gravity usually following rivers or streams not in pipe like veins. What a well driller actually looks for are areas of sediment that have spaces between the grains to hold the water(porosity) and grains that are coarse enough to allow the water to move(permeability).
With the possible exception of Astrology, more people seem to believe in this pseudoscience than almost any other. It’s scary. We must be vigilant. My last conductor was reading a book in, amazingly, numerology. another story.
From RR and me the Skeptical DoDo

1 comment:

Heidi Richter said...

What year was this? I totally remember when this happened! I suppose crossing sticks together is just easier than doing what you did and researching the NDGS maps. Do you think when they say 'vein' of water they're really picturing something tube-shaped with a small diameter?

Anyway, here's a video of Richard Dawkins running a similar test as Randi: -- What's interesting about it are the surprised reactions of the dowsers when they fail, and the excuses they come up with. It's almost sad; the idomotor effect really leads them to believe that something physical is happening to their rods from an outside source!

One of my own amusing encounters with the idiomotor effect was when I was at a party with a friend of a friend who was a few months pregnant. The women there were testing if the baby was going to be a boy or a girl by dangling a needle from a thread over her belly.

"If it spins in a little circle, it's a girl, and if it swings back and forth like a pendulum, it's a boy." (note: I may have this backwards, but that is irrelevant.)

I asked if it really worked, and the woman said, yes, usually, if you do it right.

"So about half the time then?"

Yes, about half the time.

Fancy that! ;)