The autumn sun streamed into the clearing, dusting the surrounding trees with gold. Lee squinted, more with concentration than from the intensity of the light, as he peered up into the forest to our east.
“This is a pretty clear draw,” he told us, tracing a slight depression in the overgrown slope with his forefinger. “The question is: Is it just surface runoff, or is it a deeper fracture?”
I breathed in slowly, gazing first at the brilliant blue sky, then down the length of the rutted tractor road running along the edge of the treed parcel of land I hoped to purchase. Some of the leaves were beginning to turn, but many had dried out and fallen off the trees in tired, lifeless crinkles. The last time I’d visited, the shower of leaves had been so thick that it was clearly audible in the breeze, a chorus of whispering sighs mimicking the sound of the rain the land sorely needed. I’d learned from a soil survey of the area that the whole county sat in a rain shadow, producing at least five inches less rainfall than surrounding areas.
I was walking the boot-shaped, 11-acre parcel of land I sought to buy with a man I hoped would give me answers about the availability of water here. Lee Barnes is a “water witch” — a dowser — and this meeting was the first step of the due diligence phase that had begun a few days prior, when the signed purchase agreement had gone into effect. Much rode on his findings: No water, no sale.
I turned my attention back to Lee, who was now pacing back and forth, in lines roughly perpendicular to the first small, blue flag he’d planted. Held loosely in his hands were two wooden handles, with L-shaped metal rods swinging freely from their tops, the long ends terminating in tiny spheres. Lee’s face was a study in concentration, his expression one of intent listening. Suddenly, the rods whipped sharply to the west, although Lee had made no movement with his hands.
“I never experienced that!” my father exclaimed. He’d done some dowsing for the family on occasion. I’d invited him along on the trip, knowing he’d find watching a professional dowser interesting.
Lee smiled without looking up. “That tells me the direction of the flow,” he explained, pausing in his pacing to add a flag a few yards north of the first one. “This looks like a pretty wide fracture,” he went on. “I’ll come back and mark a center-line once I’ve located a couple more possibilities for you and we’ve taken a look at where you think you might want your home site. That will give me a better idea which places I should mark for drilling.”
My Witch Hunt
Even before I found the land, I knew I’d want to work with a local dowser. Although well drillers are generally adept at predicting where to find underground sources of water, may factors play into the cost of a well. I’d heard too many stories about drilling through thick bedrock or hundreds of feet into the earth or even multiple drill sites, sometimes only to come up dry — or with slow-flowing or poor-quality water — all of which are expensive.
I’d learned a little about dowsing as a child, when my father bent two pieces of coat-hanger at the suggestion of a friend, and went in search of a water line break on our rural acre in Pennsylvania. He’d walked slowly back and forth across the yard, intently watching the ends of the hangers. When they’d slowly touched at their points, he’d marked the spot to guide the company doing the repairs, subverting the need to dig up the entire yard to find the leak. I figured if my father could locate an existing water system with a couple of bent coat-hangers, a professional should be able to accurately locate a site for a new well.
As I searched for a local water witch, one man kept surfacing as “the” dowser to work with: Lee Barnes. Coincidentally (or not), he was also re-elected by the Appalachian chapter of the American Society of Dowsers as their returning President. The more I read, the more I believed Lee was my ideal water witch. His first email — packed full of links to and attachments of resources to give me context for what he does and how he does it — sealed the deal. This man was, indeed, a professional. He has a PhD in environmental science and worked as a realtor in the area, giving him layers of intimate knowledge of local mountain properties. The fact that he offered a money-back guarantee on his dowsing consultation fee didn’t hurt, either.
Combining Science with Intuition
Dowsing for water combines principles of hydrogeology (a branch of earth science specifically dealing with the flow of water through aquifers, etc.) with intuition. Before he ever sees the site, Lee extensively researches regional soil surveys, topography, and other geological resources, which he also provides to his clients for reference. In fact, Lee maintains that the first step to knowing a bioregion is becoming familiar with its bedrock — in my case, a study of Appalachian hydrogeology, specifically — which is certainly critical information for drilling a well.
Once he’s on-site, Lee applies the research he’s done, observing variations in the landscape that indicate where water might be hiding: gullies, draws, and even overgrown ditches or streams. He then walks transect lines — or lines crossing the property — using his intuition. Lee has trained himself to notice fluctuations of energy in his body as he passes back and forth over the area. His dowsing rods, also sometimes called “divining rods,” confirm and clarify what he senses by moving toward or away from each other or, as my father was surprised to see, sharply to one side.
Dowsers use a variety of tools, including pendulums, bent metal rods, and the more traditional Y-shaped wooden stick or rod (which the American Society of Dowsers uses as their logo). Lee prefers the bent metal rods to other tools. At the beginning of his dowsing career, he used the traditional Y-shaped rod, which the dowser loosely grasps by the two short ends of the Y, using the longer end as an indicator. When I asked Lee why he no longer uses the traditional rod, he wryly replied, “They have a tendency either to jerk violently upward and nail me in the forehead or downward and hit me in the crotch. Neither experience is particularly pleasant.”
As Lee walks, he holds his dowsing rods close to his chest. “Your heart’s electromagnetic field amplitude is 60 times that of your brain’s,” he explained to my father and me, reminding me of the oft-heard, “Follow your heart.” Where he feels the strongest vibrations, and where his divining rods draw together into a point, Lee places a small, plastic flag to mark the spot.
My father, an electrical engineer, had some insight about the relationship of the energy fluctuations to the behavior of the rods. “The rods are closing the circuit,” he told us. “If you’re working with electromagnetic fields, and the rods are conductors, the rods will want to close the circuit. That’s why the tips move together like that.”
Beyond Simply Finding Water
“19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24…22…22,” Lee whispered to himself, tipping one of his dowsing rods up and down in front of his body. “Write down the number 22 next to the heading for gallons per minute,” he instructed before returning to whispering and tipping the brass rod. “60, 61, 62, 59, 58…” I fumbled with my phone, which I’d been using (ineptly) to capture video of him working and jotted the number into a small notebook he’d given me.
Lee was using one of his dowsing rods as a pendulum at this stage of his search. He explained the process as “asking simple yes/no questions, allowing my sublingual self to provide thoughtful answers with the movement of a simple tool.” The result is that he’s able to predict the flow and quality of the water, as well as the depth of the hole that would be required to reach it and the depth to which the casing would have to be placed. It’s here that I lose most folks when I tell them about what Lee does. This, to them, is “mumbo-jumbo.”
Lee simply gave me a one-shouldered shrug when I mentioned others’ doubts. “You can believe it or not. The results are what matter. My clients will be happy to tell you that my results are good.” And they are: Lee has had a 90% success rate across 500 wells, over 25 years. With his preferred well driller, his success rate rises to 95% across about 50 wells.
Lee looks for well sites that are not only accessible to machinery — making them affordable to his clients — but also with plentiful, high-quality water. He selected two likely sites for me, which I later marked with sturdier stakes and flags, knowing it would be months before I’d drill.
There was still much more to do, and the due diligence period would soon come to a close.
If you’d like to learn more about dowsing, check out the American Society of Dowsers. Their website offers a wealth of information and resources, as well as a member directory to help you find a dowser in your area.
To learn more about Lee Barnes, head out to the website for the Appalachian Chapter of the American Society of Dowsers, or take a look at his article about the practice of dowsing on the Free Library site.
This post originally appeared on my creative writing blog, Small Conceits. Because my journey to what will become my mountain home involves a different kind of storytelling, I’ve moved these posts here to retain and extend the narrative without muddying the waters on Small Conceits.