Learn how to find water -- become a dowser

By Tom Seymour | Jun 18, 2017
Photo by: Tom Seymour The proper way to hold a dowsing stick.

So what do we do when the well runs dry? Some people just go out and find another one. Here’s how, in seven easy steps.

1. Will it work for you?

People have practiced dowsing, the ability to locate underground water, for many thousands of years. Not everyone can become proficient with dowsing equipment, but most people have at least some ability. The only way to find out if you “have it” or not is to try.

And to do that, the easiest way is to use the old-fashioned, forked-stick method. Modern dowsers use an array of synthetic tools, but the old-time, flannel-clad dowser with his or her forked stick can still find water.

Prior to the advent of motorized drilling equipment, wells were dug by hand. And before beginning a project of that magnitude, our ancestors needed to know for certain that there was water beneath them. No one wanted to spend all that effort on a dry hole. And that’s where dowsing comes in.

In years past, Maine had its share of itinerant dowsers, people who would travel from town to town, finding water and helping to establish wells. You can do the same thing and even if you never need a supplemental well, it’s nice to know you can if you need to. Besides that, dowsing is fun. So let’s get started.

2. Forked stick selection

Dowsers use a number of different kinds of sticks to ply their trade, but some varieties work better than others. Probably the easiest, most responsive and most dependable is willow, and of that, weeping willow tops the list.

If weeping willow is not available, other woods that serve as dowsing sticks are apple, pear, cherry and alder. But if possible, choose willow.

It is important to select a symmetrical stick. That is, both limbs, the parts that we hold in our hands, need to be of a similar thickness and they both should depart from the main pointer at equal angles. Thinner sticks will work better for the beginner, because they are more responsive. A properly proportioned dowsing stick or rod should describe a perfect “Y” shape.

It doesn’t hurt to cut several sticks for your initial try. One may work better than another and the willow tree won’t mind at all.

3. The stance

Our stance and how we hold the forked stick is critically important to success. Begin by standing as straight as possible, with the feet slightly spread. Then place both elbows at your side, just above the hip. Keep your elbows in that position and hold them tightly against your body. Your arms should be straight out, horizontal to the ground and your palms upturned.

Now grasp a limb of the stick in each hand, with the long, or pointed end sticking out straight. Grip the limbs tightly with a clenched fist and apply gentle pressure to spread the limbs just slightly. At this point the rod will seem almost alive, sensitive to the slightest pull from underground water.

4. The walk

First, just stand in place and try holding the rod as described above. Continue gripping the limbs fairly tightly and ever so slowly begin walking in a straight line and take small steps. Have a pre-determined point at which to end your walk. When you reach it, turn around and walk back parallel to your first line. You are, in effect, walking a grid pattern.

At some point, if water is present, the tip of the stick should bend earthward. If you feel a pulling sensation, do your best to resist it. Hold the stick even tighter and the tip of the rod should continue down despite your best efforts to stop it.

If the pull is indistinct, try walking backward for several feet and then approach the spot again. And if that doesn’t work, approach the spot where you felt the pull from the opposite direction. Why this works is anyone’s guess. In fact, the mechanics behind dowsing itself are yet poorly understood.

It helps to carry little bits of orange flagging and a pocketful of twigs. Attach the flagging to the twigs and place them in the ground at any spot where your rod dips down. You can re-dowse them later in order to ascertain which point exerts the strongest pull. Basically, the stronger the pull, the closer the water and the more powerful the vein.

5. Best season

For obvious reasons, it’s easier to locate underground veins of water in spring when the water table is high, rather then in late summer and fall, when water levels drop. But if you are seriously looking for a site for an auxiliary well, a vein you find when the water table is at its lowest will prove more dependable than one located in spring.

However, to facilitate the learning process, it’s best to begin in spring when underground water lies close to the surface. Once you get the hang of dowsing, you can refine your technique. But for now, in late spring, conditions are ideal for those first few tries.

And if the stick doesn’t bend for you, you can do as I did when first learning. I was in my early teens and my grandpa, a skilled dowser, was trying to teach me the art. But nothing happened. Undaunted, I took along my dowsing stick one day on a fishing trip in grandpa’s aluminum boat. Standing in the boat with water beneath and all around, the stick suddenly bent down and I couldn’t hold it back. Determination, then, stands as a necessary ingredient if dowsing doesn’t come easy.

After those first few youthful attempts, I became a competent dowser, having not only dowsed my own well, but wells for other people and even several farm ponds.

6. Depth finding

Some people can tell, with a fair degree of accuracy, how deep the veins are that they find with their stick. But not everyone, including me, can do that. There is a far easier way.

After locating and marking the site of a strong pull, take the tip end of any fishing rod and hold it tightly against your waist with clenched fists. The fishing rod tip, like the dowsing stick, should stick out straight, on a horizontal.

Now adjust your position so that the butt, or thicker end of the rod tip is just above the spot where you found water. Hold the rod stock-still and in no time, it will begin to bounce up and down of its own accord. When the bouncing becomes a pronounced rhythm, begin counting the bobs. Each bob of the rod tip marks one foot down. The rod will eventually stop bouncing and whatever the number of bobs, or bounces, the stick made, measured in feet, represents the depth of the water.

7. Indoor dowsing

As outlandish as it sounds, a competent dowser can find water without even stepping foot on the site. It’s called map dowsing and it works. For this you need a map of a property, spread flat on a table. And the stick should be a scaled-down version of the larger stick used outside.

Stand with the tip of the dowsing stick over the map and move it back and forth in a grid pattern. If there is a significant source of water anywhere on the map, you will find it. And then, just mark an X on the map.

I once, standing in my kitchen in Waldo, located a powerful source of water on the map of a friend’s property on the Isle of Skye, Scotland. To my knowledge, the family still uses this water source.

However you go about it and whatever you do with it, the art of dowsing, once learned, is never forgotten. So from now on you can not only find water when needed, you can also teach friends how to dowse. Have fun.

Author and naturalist Tom Seymour of Waldo is an expert on outdoor survival including hiking, fishing, sustainable living and edible wild plants. He is author of books including "Foraging New England," "Wild Plants of Maine" and "Hidden World Revealed." His new book, Foraging Maine Mushrooms comes out in June. Tom is a sought-after teacher of foraging throughout Maine. For more information visit: www.wildplantsofmaine.com.

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