Backroads: Dowsing for Water

Ron Richardson demonstrates dowsing

I met Ron Richardson in the early 2000s. He was a patient of the neurologist my daughter worked for, and she told me he was a unique man who was interested in the old-time things I was always writing about. Employed by the U. S. Forest Service before taking a medical retirement because of his MS, he had a vast knowledge of anything concerning the outdoors. I met Ron and found him to be a very talented and humble person, willing to accept my invitation to interview him in the Backroads. From there, he went on to write many informative articles for the newspaper. He wrote about the demise of the American chestnut trees, digging ginseng, harvesting wild edibles, and a monthly column called “The Little Crow Chronicles,” a series of fictional stories about a young Indian boy and his adventures within his tribe. In the October 2002 issue he submitted an article about dowsing for water and came up to our cabin to give us a hands-on demonstration of how it worked. I am pleased to reprint the article below for anyone who has ever wondered about dowsing and the dark cloud of suspicion that has followed it down through the years. 

“With a bad drought, come poor crops, brown pasture fields and wells going dry. And when a water supply is threatened, people often call those skilled in finding a new supply in an old way. These folks are called “dowsers,” and the only tool they need to locate water is a dowsing rod which can be made from a forked tree branch or as simple as a metal coat hanger.

Some claim to be able to use a dowsing rod to find a lost person, read people’s minds, pick a winner in horse racing, or choose the best day to plant potatoes. It is no wonder that the art of dowsing is shrouded in mystery and confusion and many think it is a tool of the devil. The scientific community admits the existence of dowsing but does not believe it’s accurate or reliable enough to be of any permanent value.

I think you will find dowsing an interesting and unusual subject and I’d like to share some of my knowledge of dowsing based on thirty years of experience using it. During that time, I have used a bent wire to locate underground pipes, telephone cables, gas lines, etc. Being able to locate things of this nature was a very useful skill to me. I have always been very grateful to the man who first showed me how to dowse years ago.

The only time that dowsing has failed to work for me was the few years following a head injury. I have absolutely no idea why this was but even after the injury healed, I have not been as good a dowser as I once was.

For those who would like to give dowsing a try, here’s how I go about it. Maybe I’d better mention now that dowsing does not work for everyone. The only advice I can offer along those lines is to try it several times before giving up.

First, you’ll need a dowsing rod. Since most of my experience has been with metal rods, that is what I will talk about. I straighten out a twenty- to twenty-eight-inch-long piece of wire coat hanger because there always seems to be one handy when I need it. Copper, brass and steel seem to work the same so whatever you have on hand should work. Bend the wire five inches at one end, into a right angle to form a handle. You now have an L-shaped dowsing rod that is ready to go to work. Now comes the fun part! Grip the handle just firmly enough so the rod doesn’t move around on its own. Keep the rod as level as possible and pointed straight ahead.

Siblings dowsing

Pick a spot in your yard or field where you know the approximate location of an underground pipeline or an electric line. Because this is your first attempt, it is best to say away from areas that are crisscrossed with such lines. Walk slowly along, keeping the rod level and pointed straight ahead. For me, as soon as I step across the underground object, the rod turns in my hand and points outward, away from the side of my body. With some people the rod my turn inward. Both results mean the same thing; you’ve found something that was hidden under the ground. It’s a weird feeling the first time it happens but after a few hundred times, you get used to it.

You now have taken your first step in dowsing. Finding that spot to dig a well requires a good bit more training and experience that time doesn’t permit today. And I can’t help you with horseracing, mind reading or planting your potatoes since those things aren’t in my bag of tricks. I have not explained exactly how dowsing works for good reason. I don’t know how it works any more than I know how my color television works. I hope I have, however, provided some insight into an interesting and unusual phenomenon.”

Note: When Ron came to our house, we never told him where the water line from our spring was located but he found it immediately with his coat hanger dowsing rod. I tried my hand at it and was amazed how the pull of the metal rod turned whenever I approached the water line. Ron said a great many people have criticized him for dowsing, saying it was a tool of the devil. But, he added with a chuckle, “Those same people are the first to call me when they want to dig a well.” As with the article on Planting by the Signs, I don’t know how dowsing works… I just know it does! 


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