The dowsers of San Diego

It's so dry you can spit cotton

Charlotte Holcomb: “If I tried to hold it real tight, the stick would break right in my hands."
  • Charlotte Holcomb: “If I tried to hold it real tight, the stick would break right in my hands."
  • Image by Robert Burroughs

Folks out on Warmlands Avenue in Vista were buzzing with excitement last week. Seems that Harry and Mary Bartell had brought in a gusher. Not oil, but water, just as highly prized in this neighborhood of thirsty avocado groves. Even more wondrous than the water was the way the Bartells found it: following the advice of a traditional twig-toting water witch.

"We now know four different neighbors who are thinking about drilling a well because of this."

"We now know four different neighbors who are thinking about drilling a well because of this."

The Bartells' experience with the witcher is almost archetypal. The couple had owned the property (a 5.7-acre grove) for years, and a distant elderly relative even had witched it once before, but the Bartells had laughed that prediction off as superstition. Recently, however, they figured with their rates going so high and with hearing about a possible shortage, why not try it? With their money on the line, the couple sought a second opinion. Through word of mouth, they found a professional water witch who dutifully plodded over their acreage, pointing his V-shaped instrument to the heavens. The stick strained toward the earth at several spots, including the same one the Bartells’ relative had chosen before. From it. the witcher predicted five to ten gallons a minute at 150 feet, and fifteen gallons a minute before 300 feet. When the drill chewed into the ground, the Bartells bit their fingernails. A few hours later they broke out the champagne. The water flowed precisely as predicted. “It was fantastic!" Mrs. Bartell exclaimed. “And we now know four different neighbors who are thinking about drilling a well because of this. They’re all interested in talking to a dowser.”

Freeman Scott Mitchell: “It's a form of ESP and that's all I can say about it."

Freeman Scott Mitchell: “It's a form of ESP and that's all I can say about it."

The reputation of water witching, or dowsing, thrives on stories like the Bartell's. Dowsers naturally occupy a special role in a dry dusty land such as Southern California. Our climate is semi-arid; most of the county gets only eight to ten inches of rain each year, forcing the importation of up to 500 million gallons per day from wetter climes. For most of us, survival depends upon a tenuous network of aqueducts, and when one is threatened, as occurred with the landslide in September, water authorities get ready to push the panic button. Against that backdrop, it’s easy to see the dowser as almost heroic. Like the protagonist in Jimmy Carter’s energy fantasies, he needn’t rely on foreign water imports. He need only waft his rod over Mother Earth, divine where the precious liquid is flowing, and sink his wells in a proud gesture of independence.

On a crude map Vestal Jones shows how he’s dowsed oil deposits off the San Diego coast.

On a crude map Vestal Jones shows how he’s dowsed oil deposits off the San Diego coast.

Not surprisingly, then, San Diego County boasts a two-year-old chapter of the American Society of Dowsers, and that group’s dozen or two formal members represent only the tip of the iceberg. Local dowsers maintain a low profile, perhaps because of the scientific skepticism toward their art. but water witchers abound in the proverbial woods. “When you get out in the back country, it seems like everyone’s either a dowser or they know of someone who is,” says one San Diego County geologist currently studying local groundwater conditions. “A number of the well drillers do it,” commented another water authority. “It’s not at all unusual for the drillers to take a very scientific approach, checking the geology of the area and everything. Then when they get all done, they still witch it."

The art that they practice is old. though probably not as ancient as some dowsing enthusiasts would tell it. Folklore says that Moses, in striking his rod against the rock and bringing forth water, became the first water dowser, but the earliest undisputed evidence of dowsing dates back to medieval Germany. In 1556 a Bohemian physician described how Teutonic miners were using forked twigs to locate ore veins. From there the practice spread to England and broadened to include the hunt for water. By the end of the Seventeenth Century, European immigrants were exporting their divining rod techniques to more primitive countries all over the globe, including America.

The practice certainly had reached San Diego by 1887, when the San Diego Union reported the location of “an abundant supply of good water at Ocean Beach” sixty-one feet below the ground. The paper explained that “one of the ‘witches’ which this firm employed located the spot and stated they wouldn’t have to bore for a distance of more than sixty-five feet. This has proved correct and a large supply of water is the result.” The technique won favor with a number of well-established local clients over the years. In 1953, for example, the city of Chula Vista successfully used a dowser to find a well which could supply a city park and swimming pool. But even the successes and endorsements of such prestigious customers has done little to soften the debate surrounding water witching, a dispute which dates from the beginning of recorded dowsing history. That first dowsing historian, the medieval German physician, described “many contentions between miners concerning the forked twig. Some say that it is of the greatest use...and others deny it.” Similar arguments continue to rage today. Says one driller/ geologist who scorns the use of the divining rod. “It’s as contested as religion. Just to get into the question of whether it works or not stirs up a hornets' nest. You start talking to people and you’ll find everyone’s an expert, and each one has all the answers.”

To Vestal B. Jones, an Encinitas dowser, the “answer” is electricity. “After dowsing three or four years I became sensitive to the earth’s magnetic field.” The tingling sensation in his finger, he says, sometimes startles him when he doesn’t expect it. Jones believes anyone can learn the art. “It’s another sense that people have, but some people feel it more than others. You know,” he adds sagely, “if you dowse too much it kind of ties your stomach up.”

Jones’s involvement with dowsing is typical. His grandfather was a widely respected dowser in Missouri and Oklahoma who passed the art on to his grandson. Jones forgot about it until about eight years ago when he started studying water watching as a hobby. Now he hopes to pursue it fulltime when he retires in a year or two from Convair. Already he’s handling jobs maybe once a month, charging fifty dollars to locate an ordinary water well. His record so far, he claims, is near perfect.

Jones speculates the divining rod may draw its strength from “pyramid power,” but says he doesn’t much approve of psychic explanations for dowsing. “That stuff can kind of get you off the track,” he mutters. He also rejects the theory that dowsers move their instruments themselves through involuntary muscle movements. In the back yard of this tidy home, Jones paces back and forth. Over an underground cesspool, the divining rod arches downward. “Now look, you see, there’s no way my muscles could do that. When I feel it. it’s just like there's a weight on the stick!”

Despite his rejection of psychic phenomena, Jones avidly practices map-dowsing, a variation on the traditional forked stick in which the dowser locates any of a variety of substances (water, oil, minerals) using a map and various dowsing instruments (the forked stick is but one of a rich variety of peculiar devices used by dowsers). On a crude map Jones eagerly shows how he’s dowsed oil deposits off the San Diego coast. “I even went up to the Texaco building up in Beverly Hills and showed ’em where all the oil is, but they said they have too many geologists and they could find it if it was there. You know, I could map dowse all the oil in the world,” he says eagerly. “All the big stuff would be right there on the map. Dowsers could get us out of this energy shortage in three to four years. Now, they waste millions on dry wells, but dowsers could go right out there with 'em and show ’em where to drill. They wouldn’t have to depend on the A-rabs or no one else.I think Carter just might be the type of guy that’d go for it.”

Freeman Scott Mitchell sits poised over the map-dowsing equipment in his Oceanside tract home. He is the man who successfully located the Bartells' well, and though he’d enjoy more jobs like that, with his divining rod out in the field, most of his work involves map-dowsing these days. Prospectors and miners who’ve seen one of his ads in small mining magazines send him three to five commissions a month for which he routinely charges fifty dollars. To move out in the brush he asks one hundred dollars a day plus expenses. Retired from the construction business, dowsing is now his fulltime interest, one he takes quite seriously. “This isn’t any plaything or any fantasy,” he warns. “Dowsing is an ancient art. It’s been all but lost."

Mitchell grows testy when he thinks about the unsympathetic publicity which dowsing has received. The explanation for the phenomenon is simple, he says, shaking his thick head of curly gray hair. “It's a form of ESP and that's all I can say about it. People try to lay it to radiation or some other force they don’t understand. As far as I’m concerned, it's not some radiation which is coming out of the ground; it’s what's in your head.”

Besides using standard dowsing devices, Mitchell also plays with a variety of pendulums and exotic scanners—wands which sweep across his maps. “I finally boiled it down to the fact that it doesn’t make any difference what you use as long as you get the information you seek. You see, these things are just mechanical devices. You need something to indicate to your own senses what your mind is probing for.” Thus divining rods only appear to move involuntarily, he asserts. “People could stop them from moving if they wanted to.”

Charlotte Holcomb, a twenty-year East County dowser, sees things differently. “I know I’m not moving that stick,” she says.

“If I tried to hold it real tight, the stick would break right in my hands. Sometimes it'll turn completely around.... Dowsing is just one of those things you can hardly believe in, but it seems to work and I’ve been fairly successful with it.”

Holcomb works as a realtor in downtown Jamul, where horses trot daily past her door and water witching seems a logical component of country life. A brisk, no-nonsense woman, she discusses dowsing almost skeptically. It only works most of the time for her (she claims ninety percent accuracy) and she knows it only works in a certain way. She uses a green stick, for example. Unlike some dowsers, Holcomb distrusts metal divining rods; she suspects they locate metal rather than water and she demonstrates in her cluttered office. Over a metal ashtray or a metal chair her makeshift “l.-rods" quiver and point like accusing fingers. She doesn’t charge for her services. “It’s a big responsibility," she says, “and I’m actually superstitious about it. If my ability is a gift, you shouldn’t charge for it because water’s one thing we all need."

Holcomb whispers her theory about San Diego’s groundwater as if she were revealing a well-kept secret. The water table seems to rise in the summer and fall in the winter, she confides. Therefore the water likely originates hundreds of miles away. “It just takes that long to get here.” she says. (Jones in Encinitas also voices confidence about San Diego’s groundwater resources. “Maybe we couldn’t get enough to completely supply all our needs in the county, but we could get quite a bit more if we tapped all our underground rivers and streams." The drought, he says, already is prompting northern Californians to turn to their own underground resources. “They’re going wild up there. Now they’re drilling all to beat heck”)

Dowsers like Holcomb and Mitchell debate among themselves the advantages of specific techniques, but their real quarrel is with the professional geologists, with men like Rex Anderson of Lakeside. the biggest drilling contractor in San Diego County (his business dates to 1954. and now Anderson, a geologist, boasts a reputation as an expert on local water). Anderson has little patience for dowsing. He’ll drill a dowsed well if a customer insists, but he says results in such cases are mediocre. “The thing is. you can find water just about any place in the county. The trick is to find the place with the most water. People might find water where the dowser has said they would find it. but what they have to realize is if they drilled just next to the same spot or a ways away, chances are they also could have found water.”

Anderson acknowledges that dowsing has undergone little formal investigation. “Some methods are so far out that they don’t even warrant that. You have to have some shred of believability before you’d even w'ant to investigate it." Instead, he and other local geologists familiar with the practice offer explanations for how the dowsers’ “powers” actually function. “You always hear about the good wells, but you don’t hear about the wells that don’t produce.” said one county geologist who asked not to be identified lest he alienate his contacts in the dowsing world. That same geologist punctures the dowsers’ cry for increased exploitation of groundwater. “There’s simply not that much water coming into the area. We just don’t have much rainfall, and you never find water running through a cavity or a tunnel in San Diego County, like they have back in the Midwest. You don’t find anything resembling an underground ‘river.’ So if we tried to take out more groundwater we might be able to do so for a while, but you’d soon end up mining the water, depleting the resource.” Groundwater also is often unusable, he says.

And though he maintains his skepticism, he offers a rationale for dowsing’s successes that is somewhat sympathetic. “A person with a good capacity for common sense will notice things and go to places where you’d look for water if you were a geologist: low spots in valleys, places supporting water-loving vegetation, joint and fracture patterns in the rocks, geologic contacts between different types of formations. These individuals (the witchers) may even be more perceptive than someone who is in science and might tend to get himself all fouled up in technical things.” Thus, dowsing may represent nothing more than an intuitive understanding of water patterns; the dowser may subconsciously “read” signs and interpret his readings with the divining rod.

But that kind of explanation doesn't satisfy dowsers like Mitchell, who reacts to the scientific doubters with cynicism. “Dowsing is a force, but there arc no scientific standards which can measure it, so by and large the scientific community rejects it. They stonewall it.” Mitchell charges. “Suppose you had gone to college and had studied geology. You wouldn't want someone to come along and upset all your ideas....When the day comes that they can control it. it'll be in every college across the country.”

Caught between the dowsers and the scientists are the drillers, the men who actually break through to the water and charge nine dollars a foot to do so. Like Lakeside's Anderson, some shy away from dowsing, but others turn to it, if reluctantly.

“Everybody leans towards geology, of course, but the county doesn't really lend itself to geological investigation.” says Bob Harris, a Campo driller who's sought water locally for thirty-five years. The types of rock formations found around San Diego make geologic clues scarce, he asserts, and helps make dowsing more attractive. Still, he readily admits, “We don't know too much about it, really. You’ll hit four or five wells by witchin', then you’ll hit one that’s no good at all.... We've all got a kind of mental record of what else we've seen, and dowsing is like hunting for game—you just have to go where the tracks are.”

Bill Doughty laughs. He’s got yet another explanation for the whole thing. Doughty worked as a well-drilling contractor in Valley Center for thirty years, and now offers consulting services to local people interested in finding water. He began as a skeptic, but eventually became a dowsing believer. “The first time I tried it, I started with misgivings,” he recalls. “So I was absolutely knocked over when that stick pulled down and it would not come up. It pulled down here and it didn't pull down there. It pulled down harder some places than others.... Anytime I walk around with one of them doggoned things I've been determined to not let it pull down, but I’ve almost had it take the skin off my hands.”

Doughty’s conversion, however, was not without some qualification. “In 30 years. I've drilled at least ten holes that were absolutely popcorn dry. Real dusters. And every one of those wells was water witched. Then I've also drilled in at least ten areas where dowsers claimed there wasn’t any water at all. Cases where they've sworn there was nothing, but it was a desperate situation, and so I just had to pick a spot almost at random. And in each of those cases I’ve come up with incredible wells. Not just good ones, but bonanzas?

“Now that tells me something," Doughty continues. He is absolutely serious, triumphant. “It tells me that someone way back when started out with the wrong concept. I’ve figured out that the more the stick pulls down, the less water there is, and the less it pulls down, the more water there is. Dowsing works, but everybody’s just got it backwards.”

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