Dowsing our way to the 21st century

by By Richard Louv

SAN DIEGO — Trucks from the water department pulled up on my cul-de-sac. Several guys in hard hats jumped out. They began to mark the street with blue spray paint. Some of them studied books of charts. But one workman walked around holding two bent metal rods, one in each fist, pointed directly ahead of him. He watched the rods intently as they swung left or right or crossed.

“Just curious. But what are you doing?” I asked.

He looked a little sheepish and muttered, “Dowsing.”

Like most people, I’m somewhat familiar with dowsing (or divining, or water witching, as it is sometimes called), scientifically unproven method of using metal rods, sticks or branches to find subsurface water.

“Do many of you guys with the water department use dowsing rods?” I asked him.

“Quite a few of us,” he said, and wandered off, watching his rods.

Here’s the really odd thing. The reason the San Diego water department was marking the street was so AT&T wouldn’t break the water mains when its crews arrived a few days later to rip up the road, dig trenches and begin laying fiber-optic cable.

The dowser, using what can best be described as 15th century sorcery, was preparing my neighborhood for the 21st century information highway.

Maybe, as one professor says, we’re seeing pockets of pre-scientific wisdom that have always been present, but at times like this we just notice them more.

Crossed wires

But I think our wires are crossed. At the end of the 19th century, when the Industrial Revolution was overturning everyone’s technological, political and social assumptions, the metaphysical — ectoplasm, spirits, mind-readers — blossomed.

Today, in the Information Revolution, at the very moment when science and technology seem supreme, fundamentalist religion is on the rise; angels are big business; and 38 percent of Americans (according to a Harris poll) believe that finding and picking up a penny is good luck.

Dowsing is getting even more metaphysical and bizarre.

Until very recently, dowsing was used 99 percent of the time to locate underground water for rural families and livestock. All of this has changed radically in the past two or three decades.

The divining faithful don’t even try to claim that dowsing can be proved scientifically. Electromagnetic explanations have given way to ESP and the paranormal — a universal force or a Jungian kind of superconsciousness.

At a convention of the American Society of Dowsers in Vermont, which attracted 900 practitioners, only one seminar, which was poorly attended, dealt with dowsing for water wells. The rest, more than 60 of them with packed audiences, focused on Dowsing for Indian Effigy Mounds, Dowsing and Emotional Well-Being, Communicating with Animals through Dowsing and Deviceless Dowsing: Listening to the Trees.

The farmer in his field may have tapped some ancient wisdom, but what can you say about the woman who, at her local Blockbuster, dowses for good videotapes?

Maybe it’s true we’re seeing some irrational reactions to breathless technological change. On the other hand, many of the believers in science or metaphysics seem to be converging. These days advanced quantum physics and religion seem almost related.

Many people in the information industry feel that fiber optics and the like are as close as we are going to get to God. And I guess that the Internet has religious implications, too. Indeed, far from rejecting the Internet, many mystical types are mastering it.

I logged on the other day and found a Web page called Ancient Futures that linked to pages on astrology, paranormal and psychic phenomena, Feng Shui Chinese Geomancy, Tarot cards, aboriginal mysticism and divining.

I don’t know if this convergence is good or bad. I suppose I would prefer a universe in which these worlds communicate to one in which they collide.

In any case, dowsing our way down the information highway makes poetic sense.

Richard Louv is a columnist forĀ the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Pub Date: 7/25/96