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The witch’s stick

“It’s when your dowsing stick gets light in your hands and starts ‘dancing.’”

Tyler Barry searches for water using ancient dowsing stick method.
Tyler Barry searches for water using ancient dowsing stick method.

Tyler Barry points his two metal rods towards the earth in front of him. He’s not exactly looking at what he’s doing: his eyes are closed, as though he’s listening for something. Then he starts lifting his heels up and down, up and down.

“I’m doing this to release my body from electrical earthing,” he says. “I want my divining rods to get a clear signal.” Of what? Of water, down under the ground. Barry gets hired by a surprising number of property owners and companies as a “Utility Locator.” Dowsers, or “water witches,” as they’re happy to be called (they have been accused of possessing “devil’s powers” ever since the 1500s) have been increasingly in demand, especially during this last drought-ridden decade here in California.

The modern business world tends to avoid contact with the practitioners of a “pre-scientific art.” Except when they don’t: a surprising number of U.S. and U.K. water and sewer companies admit that they sometimes use dowsers to speed up their search for underground water pipes or leaks. And why do sophisticated property owners turn to them, and not to the more scientifically respectable hydrologists and hydrogeologists? Cold hard cash is one big reason, but not the only one. “We deliver results,” says Barry. “They can go the hydrologists’ route and pay out thousands of dollars for digging and equipment, or they can hire me. And I come equipped with a $12 pair of metal wands, ‘L-Rods,’ that can tell me what is happening under the earth’s surface, and give certain insights that science won’t teach you.” Barry says that clients don’t just want to know where the water is, they want to know where the water isn’t, so they can lay pipes. Or alternatively, where pipes and sewage lines are, so they can know where not to dig. “So we do help answer crucial questions.” How, exactly? Bottom line, it’s just a feeling, Barry says. “It’s when your dowsing stick gets light in your hands and starts ‘dancing.’”

Walter Woods, a science teacher at Butte College near Chico, told The Guardian it’s not just “energy” that dowsers are looking for. They’re also looking for secondary clues: signs of groundwater from, say, deer tracks. “Deer have magnetite in the pineal gland in their brain,” he said. “As water moves underground, electrons are stripped out and move to the surface. Deer can sense it, and tend to walk along that vein of underground water toward a spring.” Woods says humans can tap into that same energy, using a receptive mind and aids like the metal L-rods.

Here by Friars Road in Mission Valley, Barry gives a demonstration. He does that closed-eyes, almost trance-like walk along the roadside with rods in hands. Initially, his rods face inwards, crossed over each other. But then he opens his eyes wide, as his rods follow suit.

“See? See?” he says. “The rods are swinging away from each other. There’s some water down here, for sure.” Of course, he could perfectly easily be manipulating the rods with his hands. Also, no one mentions that Friar’s Road, right next to us, happens to run alongside the largest aquifer in the county: the San Diego River.

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Tyler Barry searches for water using ancient dowsing stick method.
Tyler Barry searches for water using ancient dowsing stick method.

Tyler Barry points his two metal rods towards the earth in front of him. He’s not exactly looking at what he’s doing: his eyes are closed, as though he’s listening for something. Then he starts lifting his heels up and down, up and down.

“I’m doing this to release my body from electrical earthing,” he says. “I want my divining rods to get a clear signal.” Of what? Of water, down under the ground. Barry gets hired by a surprising number of property owners and companies as a “Utility Locator.” Dowsers, or “water witches,” as they’re happy to be called (they have been accused of possessing “devil’s powers” ever since the 1500s) have been increasingly in demand, especially during this last drought-ridden decade here in California.

The modern business world tends to avoid contact with the practitioners of a “pre-scientific art.” Except when they don’t: a surprising number of U.S. and U.K. water and sewer companies admit that they sometimes use dowsers to speed up their search for underground water pipes or leaks. And why do sophisticated property owners turn to them, and not to the more scientifically respectable hydrologists and hydrogeologists? Cold hard cash is one big reason, but not the only one. “We deliver results,” says Barry. “They can go the hydrologists’ route and pay out thousands of dollars for digging and equipment, or they can hire me. And I come equipped with a $12 pair of metal wands, ‘L-Rods,’ that can tell me what is happening under the earth’s surface, and give certain insights that science won’t teach you.” Barry says that clients don’t just want to know where the water is, they want to know where the water isn’t, so they can lay pipes. Or alternatively, where pipes and sewage lines are, so they can know where not to dig. “So we do help answer crucial questions.” How, exactly? Bottom line, it’s just a feeling, Barry says. “It’s when your dowsing stick gets light in your hands and starts ‘dancing.’”

Walter Woods, a science teacher at Butte College near Chico, told The Guardian it’s not just “energy” that dowsers are looking for. They’re also looking for secondary clues: signs of groundwater from, say, deer tracks. “Deer have magnetite in the pineal gland in their brain,” he said. “As water moves underground, electrons are stripped out and move to the surface. Deer can sense it, and tend to walk along that vein of underground water toward a spring.” Woods says humans can tap into that same energy, using a receptive mind and aids like the metal L-rods.

Here by Friars Road in Mission Valley, Barry gives a demonstration. He does that closed-eyes, almost trance-like walk along the roadside with rods in hands. Initially, his rods face inwards, crossed over each other. But then he opens his eyes wide, as his rods follow suit.

“See? See?” he says. “The rods are swinging away from each other. There’s some water down here, for sure.” Of course, he could perfectly easily be manipulating the rods with his hands. Also, no one mentions that Friar’s Road, right next to us, happens to run alongside the largest aquifer in the county: the San Diego River.

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