The Timeless Art of Dowsing
Dowsing -- certain people's uncanny ability to locate springs of water or other objects beneath the surface of the earth -- has always stirred heated debate. Some folks refer to it as water witching, or divining, deeming it a sort of witchcraft, and many scientists aren't willing to believe the dowsing rod at all.
On the other hand, water dowsing has been practiced since the time of the Pharaohs of Egypt, and is so widely accepted in diverse parts of the world that some governments retain their own dowsers. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that some individuals are capable of discerning the presence of water within the earth, and the North Country is not without its own ranks of credible dowsers.
One of the area's tried and true veterans is Roger "Bucky" Roberts. Born in Bartlett in 1905, Bucky has been dowsing water, metal piped, septic tanks and a variety of other objects for close to half a century.** "I've dowsed more than 750 wells from Maine to Massachusetts," said the Glen resident, "and found buried metal pipes when even a metal detector wouldn't work."
Like most with the ability, Bucky dowses as a favor, not as a profession. He spent his working years pursuing everything from farming and carpentry to operating heavy equipment, and 14 years ago retired to run a lawn mower repair service out of his home on Route 302 west of Glen. He continues to be an active dowser, though, and is still called upon to locate the most likely spot for a well, or in the event that a drilling attempt goes awry -- an occasion, Bucky will tell you, usually brought about by a property owner not calling a dowser in the first place.
One such instance occurred not too long ago at the Cathedral Trail development in Bartlett. Two separate drillings had produced negligible results, and Bucky was asked to come up and try his hand. After crisscrossing the area, Bucky's dowsing rod indicated a spot within close proximity to the two existing wells, and despite developer Joe Berry's skepticism, Bucky assured him he'd hit water at 100 feet. "I'm not always right, " Bucky allowed. "They had plenty of water at 92."
Another time, a man who'd built a house in Hart's Location was having a difficult time finding water, and contacted Bucky. "A backhoe had already dug in one spot and found no water," Bucky related. "All the good it did that fellow was give him a place to throw his tin cans." Bucky searched the property with his dowsing rod, and finally asked the owner where his septic tank was. "He pointed to it and I said, "I thought so. You've got a good vein of water running right underneath it," Bucky remembered with a laugh. "Think of the money he could have saved if he'd thought of the well before the house. The only other water I found up there wasn't on this property."
Eaton Road Agent and contractor Richard Heath is an experienced dowser, too, and has found water for landowners throughout Carroll County and southeastern Maine. The fact that his father-in-law, a geologist for the state of New Hampshire, puts no faith whatsoever in dowsing doesn't seem to phase Heath in the least. "A friend of mine was building a house in Harrison, Maine," Heath said, "and called me up because the well drillers had gone down 600 feet without getting any water. I dowsed the property and found a strong vein not 20 feet from the spot where they first drilled. At eight feet we hit water, and at 50 there was so much it was gushing right out of the hole. That's enough proof for me."
Another local dowser is Conway contractor Ed Holmes, who often uses his talents for practical applications. "I never start digging a well with my backhoe until I've dowsed a customer's property," explained Holmes, who also has had success locating sewage tanks and metal pipes of all sorts with a dowsing rod.
It's often said that the composition of the Y-shaped dowsing rod is of utmost importance, and that a proper dowser used willow, elm or perhaps fruit wood. Bucky scoffed at that idea. "Any sort of wood will do, even a stick of pine," he asserted. "I'm not too particular. I do prefer a waterbush like elm or willow, but if you're a dowser, anything will work."
"If you've got the feeling, the type of rod isn't important," concurred Ed Holmes. Many dowsers, in fact, use a combination of iron rods and wood to detect subterranean water. Bucky's method utilizes two metal rods to determine the direction in which the water is flowing. He grasps one in each hand and walks with them pointed forward, and when they swing parallel to his body, he's usually standing over a strong vein of water.
The depth and size of the vein is far more difficult to determine, and it's Bucky's feeling that only with time and experience does one become attuned enough to estimate such things. Generally, the distance between where he first feels a pulling sensation to the point of greatest attraction (when his rod bends double and is under such stress that occasionally it breaks), is a good indication of the depth of the vein. Once Bucky has located a good water source with his metal rods, he uses a wooden branch to fine tune his depth calculations. "Metal is much quicker for finding veins than wood, but wood pinpoints the depth much more accurately," explained Bucky.
No doubt to some, all of this may sound farfetched, but certain aspects of dowsing do have a scientific grounding. Ampere's Law, one of the four principles of electric-magnetism, stated that with any electric current there is an associated magnetic field. When an individual passes through a magnetic field, the result is a slight current. Why some persons are more sensitive than others is inexplicable, but regardless, being particularly sensitive to the magnetic field of flowing water, a dowser's subconscious mind contracts his muscles, which in turn make his stick bend downwards. In other words, the dowser's rod is simply an instrument to amplify a barely perceptible force. Neither is it out of the question, according to some proponents of this line of reasoning, that dowsers can detect metal, since a metal object also projects a magnetic field.
What is more difficult to comprehend is the ability of some dowsers to accomplish feats that border on psychic phenomenon. Well-known author and long-time Maine resident Kenneth Roberts was fascinated by this aspect of dowsing, and in the 1950s published a book about a particular gifted dowser entitled "Henry Gross and his Dowsing Rod." In the volume, Roberts describes Gross' incredible improvisations with a dowsing rod. At his best, Gross could detect people inside a house with his stick simply by concentrating while standing in the yard, could differentiate between Scotch, bourbon and rye whiskey in unopened glass containers, and reportedly was successful in predicting the location of freshwater in Bermuda by using his dowsing rod on a map of the island.
Bucky Roberts was acquainted with Gross, and claims fair success himself in locating objects like silver dollars that people will occasionally hide to test his skills. When asked his opinion on the scientific theory of dowsing, Bucky just shrugged his shoulders and said, "If the scientists can't tell you for sure, and there's an awful lot they don't know, how could a fool like me?"
Neither is he certain why he should be able to dowse when others can't. "I saw fellows do it when I was a kid, and one day when I was having trouble finding water on my place, I decided to give it a try, " Bucky related. "I just had a feeling for it from the beginning," Richard Heath and Ed Holmes were initiated in the same manner, and as Holmes said, "I've never been able to figure why I can do it. You just have to have the touch."
"I guess I've got a little witch in me," Heath joked. Bucky Roberts is sure, however, that if you don't have the inherent ability, it can't be instilled in you, "I've had plenty of people try it for hours without the least bit of luck," he said. "Then I'll put my hands in their elbows or wrists, and the branch bends just the way it does for me." Holmes and Heath related identical experiences.
Bucky generally runs into more skeptics than believers, and takes a definite pleasure in dispersing their disbelief, particularly when a well driller or backhoe operator hits water at depths he predicts. "Some of them still won't believe it then," Bucky exclaimed.
Few dowsers ask for payment until the water they've located is verified by digging the well, and the local practitioners are no exception. Some, like Richard Heath, often charge nothing, since as he stated with a smile, "I guess something in life has to be free."
"I don't charge them a fee anyway," Bucky said. "I tell them once the well comes in they can donate as they please. Some do, some don't even say thank you, and the rest don't believe me anyway," continued the 74-year-old native, who, by his own admission, rarely minces words. "That's okay. They can always get a driller and dig to China. They'll find something eventually - well drillers always do - but it may be an awfully expensive glass of water."
**NOTE: Roger "Bucky" Roberts passed away in 1984. Richard Heath is also deceased. Mountain Ear Chronicles could not find a record for Ed Holmes.