Water dowsing 

Leah Curley 

Cut a forked twig from a live tree (willow, fruit or witch hazel are all good choices). Or take two L-shaped rods, a bent coat hanger, a pendulum… Some say simply your hands will do. Whatever the tool, an open mind would also come in handy if you want to try your luck at dowsing. 

“The gift” 

Water dowsing (aka water divining, witching, doodlebugging), is the art of locating groundwater, and, according to some, even know- ing its depth, pressure, flow rate and potability. The dowser is some- times described as having “the gift.” Such was said of local dowser Charles Derby, who died on September 25 at the age of 86. 

First, the science 

Exposed to scientific examination, dowsing just doesn’t hold water. After all, in any region with moderate rainfall and suitable geology, it’s hard to drill and not find water. That’s what the U.S. Geological Survey has to say on the subject. And despite what proponents of dowsing claim, about water flowing in rivers underground, Dr. Christopher S. Baird of West Texas A&M University says it actual- ly flows everywhere, through tiny pores and cracks in the rocks. But still… 

According to the American Society of Dowsers, there’s an 8,000- year-old cave painting of a man using a dowsing stick. This business goes way back. It has stood the test of time. Of course, most of us want to believe in dowsing. Accepted scientific approaches to locating water are expensive. The cost of digging a well in the wrong place is even worse. Such considerations offer great motivation to at least try divination. 

Back to Charles Derby 

In our area, people have counted on Charles Derby for decades. Known to most as Charlie (although he disliked the nickname), Charles dowsed most of his life, right up until last summer. According to brother-in-law Ron Frizzle, Charles was responsible for locating most of the wells in the Sutton Junction area, and many, many more beyond. “He could take almost anything and find water with it,” said Ron, recalling how Charles had switched from branches to a bent coat-hanger when he noticed that oftentimes, if the branch was from a tree in the area, it was drawn toward that tree’s roots rather than a water source. 

Not only could Charles tell you where to dig, he could tell you how deep. His success rate was 100%. Let the U.S. Geological Survey argue with that.

Do it yourself 

Want to try your hand? Or your stick or coat hanger? (You can get a set of dowsing rods on Amazon for under $20. Free shipping, too.) The Old Farmers’ Almanac offers the following instructions: “If you’d like to try dowsing for yourself, it’s really quite simple. Cut a Y-shaped stick from a tree, making sure that all three sections of the Y are between 12 and 16 inches long. Your dowsing rod should also be relatively flat – no branches sticking out in odd directions.” 

Then there’s how you hold it. It’s important to grasp the upper arms of the Y with the heels of your hands turned skyward. Keep your grip loose and the end of the Y pointing in front of you. Walk around. Maybe think of clean, clear water. When you hit a likely spot, the twig should bend smartly downward. Now dig here!

Charles Derby will be missed for more than his dowsing skills and his burgers at the Brome Fair. Friends, family and neighbours remember Charles as a kind and generous man. We at Tempo offer them our condolences.