While dowsing traditionally is associated with a quest for hidden water, practitioners say it can also offer a sort of holistic handle on just about any problem. "Dowsing provides the answer. You provide the question," veteran water witches observed.
OK then fine: What in the world is going on here?
The 34th Annual Convention of the American Society of Dowsers brought a ragtag network of psychic friends to Vermont's lush Northeast Kingdom for a spaced-out school and cosmic conference earlier this month.
Congregating on the hilltop campus of a college near the Canadian border, more than 500 spiritualists from the society's headquarters in nearby Danville and from as far away as Nevada and Hawaii paid $300 to join the harmonic convergence. The society, whose Latin motto, "Indago Felix," means "happy hunting," has 5,000 members nationwide.
Dowsing school director Leroy Bull, a federal food inspector from Doylestown, Pa., spends his vacation at the yearly gathering. He is president of the society's Guy Snyder Chapter of Southeastern Pennsylvania, named for the legendary Lehighton dowser credited with locating water throughout Pennsylvania and located wells for the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti.
Deviceless Dowsing, Listening to the Trees; Beyond the Light, What Isn't Being Said About the Near Death Experience; Dowsing the Pearly Gates, Your Teeth-Body Connection; Conversations With Deceased People and Pets; and Dowsing the Depths of Reality - the course catalog was a New Age smorgasbord.
The bookstore, set up in the basement of the red-brick student center, dispensed crystals, candles and dowsing paraphernalia. The label "Esoteric/ Metaphysical" seemed hardly necessary for tables holding volumes on palmistry, crop circle enigmas, pyramid power and a book of photographs of
UFOs. An unbound volume, How Life Works, was available for $35, wrapped in paper and string.
"I came with an open mind," said David Ganz, a free-lance editor from New York City. "This is my introduction to ESP - in a nice part of Vermont. I figured even if the spirit didn't move me, I'd have a good vacation."
Alison T. Kelley, a medical writer from Yardley, Pa., told friends she was off to attend a "holistic" conference, skipping any mention of the controversial 500-year-old art of dowsing, which believers use to divine answers to all manner of questions, and skeptics scorn as quackery on a stick.
"We're just learning to deal with ourselves the way a lot of animals and children do," said Robert Sird, a co-director of the convention's basic dowsing school. "It's not a mystery. It's not scientific. It's just a conversation with your higher self."
"Bottom line," added co-director Jadie Stoddard. "We're getting information from somewhere other than ourselves. And we respect that."
Folk cures and New Age notions thrive up here in the Northeast Kingdom, where the general stores that offer everything from night crawlers to Ben & Jerry's are used to a clientele that shuffles through on Birkenstock sandals and Chinese slippers. Although few dowsers agree on just what dowsing is, most use it to find water. Some say it can also find lost objects, hidden tumors and emotional conflicts.
"We have people come in here and dowse books before they buy them. You see people in the grocery store dowsing food all the time," said Ellen Doyle, of Lyndonville's Green Mountain Books and Prints.
Browsing and dowsing, shopping and bobbing, they dowse because they believe the energy emitted by all matter has the power to speak spontaneously through the involuntary movements of their dowsing tools.
Bad karma on a used book? The dowser will divine it. Likewise, some dowsers believe, their tools can lead the way to all that is ripe and worth pursuing - at the produce stand, or when opportunity knocks.
The notion that the Earth and its living creatures are related through common energy fields dates at least to biblical times. In the Roman Empire, professional "auguries" prophesied the future through intuition. The first illustrations of forked sticks as aids to divination appeared in the 16th century. Dowsing for precious ores was used by European miners through the 1700s. In the 19th century, water-well dowsing was common throughout the rural United States.
By 1917, the United States Geological Survey, a branch of the Interior Department, issued a paper on the history of "water witching," which labeled dowsing a "curious superstition" that was "practically useless." Sixty years later, the agency issued an update.
"The natural explanation for 'successful' water dowsing is that in many areas, water would be hard to miss," a USGS writer declared. "In a region of adequate rainfall and favorable geology, it is difficult not to . . . find water."
An abundance of water definitely helps. Because 99 percent of New England is underlain with water, New England dowsers are almost always successful, says Dabney Caldwell, associate professor of geology at Boston University. But he doesn't want anybody to think that means dowsers are worthless.
"Dowsers, I should say, are not frauds," Caldwell remarked in a recent National Geographic Society television special. "I think they firmly believe they have a power to do this. . . . I think they have a good eye for terrain. They have a good eye for telling where water is more likely to be than some other place. But I don't think they're any more successful at finding water than I would be spitting, and saying, 'Let's drill there.' I've never seen any measurement of the process of dowsing that can be tested objectively that would indicate to me that there is a scientific basis for it."
Science makes no never mind to Paul Sevigny, a slight, grandfatherly figure with blue eyes and a pencil-thin gray mustache. Called "the dean of dowsers," Sevigny, 74, is a retired Air Force major, one-term Vermont legislator and former state judge who learned to dowse in 1966. He uses L-rods to find the direction of a vein of water, and a Y-rod to calculate the depth and productivity in gallons per minute of the source.
Every water-dowsing job Sevigny has done he has recorded in a black loose- leaf binder he carries in his shiny red Chevy Blazer. The book lists more than 3,000 wells, and claims an accuracy rate of over 90 percent.
Instead of charging for his services, he accepts donations to charities. According to his records he has amassed more than $98,000 for such causes as the Boy Scouts of America, Shriners Hospital, the Special Olympics, Make A Wish Foundation and others.
He has also amassed a following of believers. Michael Lopes, 35, an environmental planner at Smuggler's Notch, a ski and tennis resort in Jefferson, Vt., says Sevigny made a believer out of him. When the resort needed more drinking water for its 350 condominiums, Lopes called on Sevigny to identify likely spots to sink a well. Then he commissioned a Burlington hydrogeology company to "back up the supernatural aspect with geophysical data" using magnetometers and other machinery. Of the three locations Sevigny identified, one gave off a strong "signature" suggesting a subterranean fracture that could contain water. Sevigny said the source was 400 feet down. At 485 feet, the drilling company struck a 50-gallon-a-minute vein.
"I was very skeptical and now I'm not," said Lopes, who describes himself as "an evolutionary scientist type," who came to believe in the power of dowsing. "I was changed over. After walking around with Paul and watching him pick a spot and tell me how much we would get. And then we get it. I think that's too coincidental." The resort gave Sevigny a check for $200, which he donated to a Danville playground fund.
Hope Karan Gerecht, 41, an interior designer from Baltimore, is a practitioner of Feng Shui, the study of "Chi" energy and its impact on ''built environments." The arrangement of furniture, the location of doors and windows, all have a bearing on a person's general happiness, prosperity and good health, according to the ancient Chinese art.
"Acupuncture for the home," says Gerecht, smiling beneath blue-rimmed glasses. "Hang two mirrors and call me in the morning."
Gerecht came to dowsing as "another school of information gathering . . . totally accepting, but not knowing if I could do it." After a few hours, she didn't have the hang of it but she wasn't giving up.
While many of the conventioneers were so earnest as to seem obsessed, Jackie Doyle, 34, a Philadelphia massage therapist with a red ponytail and black Doc Marten boots, kept an open mind, and a sense of humor.
One group exercise was a scavenger hunt. Instructors hid 15 objects in Zip- lock bags around the bushes and trees of a grassy knoll. As many as 50 students worked simultaneously to locate them.
One happy student came up with a candy dish.
"See," said Doyle, fingering her pendulum. "That gives me more incentive. Maybe I can dowse for a canister set."