Volume VI, No. 1, Fall 1978
by Melinda Stewart
Photography by Mary Schmalstig
"It's pulling down. I can't hold it still!"
"I don't believe in this. There has to be a trick!"
These were our various reactions as we first became acquainted with the art of water witching.
As we watched Bill York work, I had my doubts. Finding underground water with a freshly cut forked twig from a peach tree sounded a little farfetched. But grasping the stick in his hands in front of him, Bill walked slowly over the open meadow intently watching the tip. "When it moves it will point to water," he explained. After a few steps he smiled. The stick began to turn. All of his knuckles on both hands were white because he held it so tightly. "Watch my hands to see if I'm turning it. See, I can't stop it turning." When the tip pointed straight down, he stopped. "There it is. The water is down there."
Disbelief showed on all our faces. "It's not unreasonable for people not to believe it," he said, "but if they don't believe it, that's their own prerogative. I have no idea how it works. Here, you try it."
He handed me the stick. Feeling very foolish, I backed up and walked the same ground. "It doesn't work with everyone," he warned. Nothing happened to the twig I held in front of me. "Here," he said, "try again." This time he put his hands on my wrists, and the twig actually turned in my hands and pointed straight down at the same spot it had for him! I couldn't stop its turning and all he did was to lay his hands on my wrists.
One by one the others tried, positive that there wasn't anything to it. Some of us had the "talent," others didn't. Some became convinced that there was something to water witching, though we couldn't explain it either, but others remained certain that it was some kind of trick.
"He's moving it himself. The pressure of his hands in that awkward position forces the stick to turn," they reasoned.
Regardless of whether there really is a "gift" or "power," the belief in water witching is still widespread in the rural areas of the Ozarks today with almost every community having one man who can water witch. Some well drillers continue to use their services to decide where to drill, to look for the strongest point of the stream and to find underground caves and caverns to avoid. Some use water witching to find buried water pipes.
The art of water witching has been recorded far back in history. In the fifteenth century Germans used divining rods to find metals in the ground. Later this practice was adapted to find water. The skill goes by several different names, such as dousing, water wiggling and divining.
According to Bill, the best time to water witch is in the spring when the sap is in the limbs, making them limber. The stick has to be limber because it is held tightly, and when it turns to point to water, it twists in the hand. If it wasn't limber, it would break. Some men can find water with one kind of wood and not with others.
Water witchers can often determine the strength and width of a stream. They can tell the strength by the pressure of the stick as it goes down and the width by approaching the stream from opposite directions.
There are many different ways to witch, depending on the person. We've talked to two men about their ways.
BILL YORK -- "I suppose I learned through my dad when I was a kid. I was fourteen years old." Bill started by watching and eventually caught on. "I forgot all about it until two or three years ago. My son and daughter-in-law were out here and the first thing I knew we were outside showing them." He hasn't checked for the accuracy of his witching yet. "I've never water witched for wells but my dad used to."
Bill can witch With cedar, dogwood and his favorite, peach. "I like to use peach limbs in the spring and summer because they're limber. I've tried oak. It doesn't work at all.
"I cut a limb that has a fork. I try to get the forks about the same size so they will bend equally. The limb where the fork meets should be a foot long and the limbs from the fork about eighteen inches long."
He holds the stick pointing up with the two protruding forks in his fists with his palms up while he walks along. "The branch moves forward or backward depending on you. It'll go down or straight back to you. It seems like this morning this one is trying to come back to me. The main thing is to hold it tight. When it finds water, there isn't any way to stop it turning. It would twist out of your hands. I've seen it in the spring, I was holding the branch so tightly that the bark would twist around where I held it."
LYN MARBLE -- "I've been water witching since I was twenty-four. There was a man up in Michigan who witched a well for me and I just took it up from there."
He has two methods, bronze welding rods and a straight limb bent in a circle.
"The two bronze rods are about one-eighth of an inch in diameter and thirty-three inches long including the handles, the bent part. One end of each rod is bent over about four inches. Hold them by the handles with the rods parallel. Keep them level and don't put your thumbs on the top. As you come over water in the ground, they'll cross. Bronze is more sensitive than wood."
To show us how to witch with a limb he selected a limber stick about two feet long and the thickness of a pencil. He got a good grip on the underside of each end of the stick with his palms turned under and face out. Then he brought his hands inward to make a circle. "I hold it against my body. When you come to the water, it will pull down. Now watch it. It's starting to pull." Sure enough as he walked along it turned downward.
"I like to use elm best. It works for me better than the rest. But last year we used peach. This year I saw this nice cherry, and since I knew I could do it with peach, I wanted to see if I could do it with cherry instead. It worked."
Lyn can tell the width of the stream by walking various directions around the spot where the rods cross or the stick goes down. He walks along until the rods cross, and then goes farther down, turns around and walks back to where they cross again. If they cross immediately, he has to go back up farther and try again. The distance between where it crosses the first time and the last time he tries is the width of the stream. "But you have to witch across the stream instead of the direction it flows," he explained.
As we were witching at Lyn's house the rods and bough all kept pointing to a particularly strong stream near his shed. "I'm going to drill a well there soon," he said.
And so he did. The 224 foot deep well yields fifteen gallons of water a minute. Grinning in triumph he showed us the photos he had taken. "Here is the proof that water witching works."
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