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A Dowse of Reality

Robert Scheer

Sign from Rod: Dr. Gene Healy demonstrates the use of a divining rod, traditionally used to find water, but now used to find just about everything--from lost keys to good videos.

When the divining rod speaks, a surprising number of people listen

By Traci Hukill

In the summer of 1692, a peasant from a village near Lyon made news all over the French countryside when he successfully tracked an accomplice to a grisly murder using a forked stick that twisted in his hands each time he crossed the suspect's path of flight. The culprit's confession landed Jacques Aymar Vernay and the art of dowsing squarely in the public eye, eliciting a mix of wonder, derision and outrage from the general and scientific communities. When scientists subjected the stick-wielding sleuth to controlled tests, however, his abysmal failure curdled like vinegar in the cream of public opinion, and Jacques, once a hero, found himself labeled a quack.

It probably wasn't the first time, and it certainly wouldn't be the last, that dowsing's reputation suffered a radical rise and plunge at the hands of a populace both enamored of and horrified by the unexplained.

Every few years PBS or an evening tabloid show runs a special on dowsing, which usually consists of following a weathered Ozark farmer to his neighbor's property, where he "witches" a well using a limb from a willow or fruit tree. Then an irritated hydrogeologist drills and finds water, and next the Carl Sagans trundle out and debunk the whole thing with a few well-chosen phrases appealing to logic. In other words, it's business as usual. The science of the five senses remains unchallenged and the old farmer's success is filed away next to sightings of the Yeti.

"There's a certain perversity about this," muses Gene Healy, a Monterey chiropractor who's been dowsing for 20 years. "Under pressure, it doesn't seem to work--the presence of skeptical people seems to dampen the effect." Healy, who is neither weathered nor from the Ozarks, has ideas about why dowsing works that bear little resemblance to the answer posited by one gruff old country water witcher who preferred divining rods--or Y-rods as they're usually called--made from fruit trees: "Fruit sticks want water!" declared the old man, as if it were perfectly obvious.

Seated at his dinner table in a pleasant, well-lit room full of comfortable furniture and markedly void of crystals, incense or any other New Age knickknacks, Healy holds up a green ceramic plant holder in the shape of a trolley car and begins to illustrate the theories set forth in Michael Talbot's The Holographic Universe. They are intricate, but the upshot is that if the universe behaves like a holograph, then one small part--an individual, for example--possesses the code for the whole.

In other words, we all already know where water is, where we lost our keys, what vitamins we need today. The trouble is accessing the knowledge, which most of us unlearn at an early age, taking our cues from an educational system mad with love for left-brain functions and scornful of the artistic and psychic yearnings of the less easily defined right brain. "The best dowsers," Healy maintains, "are children ages six to seven, before it's been programmed out of them."

All this theory makes you long for something to sink your teeth into, which is perhaps why Healy, when he finally gets around to dowsing, asks his pendulum if green beans are cheaper at Safeway than at Lucky's. The pendulum, which has supplanted the Y-rod in many dowsing circles, especially on the West Coast, can be a crystal, a plumb bob or even a set of keys, so long as it's free to move in a direction predetermined by the dowser to mean "yes" or "no." Healy's bronze plumb bob indicates a solemn, horizontal "no." He shrugs. "Could be a sale this week."

Robert Scheer

X Caliber: Dowsers use pendulums and L-rods, pictured here, to locate missing objects, water and even goofier stuff.

Videos and Allergens

Apparently no question is too frivolous for the pendulum to answer. Like many other modern dowsers, Healy consults his pendulum at the video store, while buying gifts and before meals to determine the presence of allergens and the wholesomeness of the food. And, like many of his dowsing peers, Dr. Healy--chiropractor, avid reader of science journals, owner of a Volkswagen Beetle and two shaggy dogs, who with a shock of white hair and lively, friendly eyes more closely resembles Albert Einstein (himself a dowser) than the spacey, skeletal purveyors of crystals and patchouli--represents the presence not just of conventional society but of conventional society's brightest and best in hippiedom's latest incarnation, the New Age movement.

It's a peculiar niche in that ethereal world the dowsers inhabit. On one hand, there are people dowsing for auras and past lives who first came into contact with the art through Transcendental Meditation or even Feng Shui. These slip into the New Age appellation fairly easily.

At the other end of the spectrum are the farmers who've been dowsing all along and wonder what the fuss is all about, folks like a certain lovable grump from Missouri who, although not a dowser himself, remembers seeing water witchers at work on the family farm 60 years ago. If the truth be told, he's my father, and when he growls, "Well, hell--if it works, it works," it seems a ghostly chorus of tough old country folk harrumphs and nods emphatically behind him.

Ted Grachek, if he had to identify himself with one group or the other, would probably choose the farmers. An Aptos water driller who has been successfully dowsing drill sites for 18 years--"It's extremely rare that things don't work out the way I thought they would," he divulges reluctantly when pressed for statistics--he harbors little interest in understanding why dowsing works.

"I've heard hours of dissertations on how it works, and I'm just turned off by [that]," Grachek admits cheerfully. "I just know it's a very useful tool for me." He laughs and adds, "Now maybe I've just been lucky, but if that's the case, I'd rather be lucky than smart any day!"

Although Grachek still dowses with a rod, mostly for the sake of clients who might find a rod-less water witcher unsettling, both he and his son have refined their dowsing sensibilities to the point that they can see water courses and domes without the aid of dowsing tools. The ground just looks different, he says.

Gene Healy reports a similar capability. When he doesn't feel like pulling out his trusty pendulum to dowse chateaubriand in an elegant dining room, for example, he dowses without it. What he receives is a kinesthetic response, a sense of lightness in the right half of his body for "yes" and in the left half for "no." Claims like these are frankly offensive to scientific precepts and leave dowsers open to the mockery they've endured since long before Jacques Aymar Vernay's time, but most dowsers remain surprisingly unruffled by criticism.

"I'm not talking about something I believe in," asserts Barry Smith, who serves as president of the San Jose Chapter of the American Society of Dowsers when he's not teaching accounting at De Anza College. "I'm talking about something I know."

Riding the Waves

Barry Smith resides in the left wing, if you will, of dowsing society. Like the majority of modern dowsers, he's not too concerned with water. What intrigues him are the ideas that spring from dowsing, notions like time windows and labyrinths that affect the physiology of people who go through them. Smith's group, which meets monthly between September and May, recently finished studying vortexes. Just before they adjourned for the summer they practiced troubleshooting, in which everyone dowsed an individual to identify his or her health needs.

However fanciful these gatherings might sound, the San Jose meetings teem with doctors, Stanford scientists and lawyers--professionals bearing society's rubber stamp of the mastery of critical thinking. Their pervasive presence distinguishes dowsing from the order of the New Age day even more than the farmers do.

Nationally speaking, they're in good company. Edith Jurka, a board-certified New York psychiatrist, attached electrodes measuring brain waves to people doing certain types of meditation. Whereas most activities produced a bulged profile--the Transcendental Meditationists' charts indicated an increase in alpha waves, for example, while Zen Buddhists in the meditative state were theta-heavy--the dowsing state alone resulted in a more or less evenly distributed increase in alpha, beta, gamma and theta waves.

What does it mean? The evidence suggests that dowsers ply their art under a uniquely identifiable state of consciousness. Beyond that, who knows? But it sure is interesting.

And wouldn't you know it's time for the 14th Annual West Coast Dowsers Conference, held for its fourteenth year among the redwoods at UCSC's College Eight as part of a summertime conference series. The conference, which commences with a basic Dowsing School on Friday and continues with workshops and classes through Tuesday, offers as many perspectives as a jar of Jelly Bellys offers flavors.

Straight-shooting Ted Grachek speaks Saturday morning on "Locating and Drilling for Water," while conference committee member Gene Healy dives straight into the deep end that afternoon with "A Quantum Awareness Approach to Improving Dowsing." "Feng Shui Adventures," "Unlimited Potential With Angelic Help" and the "Workshop on Exorcism" might raise some eyebrows and "The Labyrinth--Blend of Order and Chaos" might exercise some synapses, but it certainly will not be an average weekend.

And now we ought to devote some time to The Testimonial. Gene Healy took a slightly perplexed reporter (that's me) onto the spacious deck of his Monterey home and handed her a set of copper L-rods, instructing her to "be present. Become aware of everything around you."

As said reporter slowly crossed the deck, finding herself mostly aware of the noise of the freeway, the rods crossed to form an X. A second, then a third time it happened over an area about three feet in diameter. With a plastic Y-rod, the effect was even more pronounced--it was as though a weight pulled the tip of the rod toward the ground. Three more times it happened. No seizures, no hand of God. The rod just moved.

No, we didn't drill to check my dowsing sense. But as I got into my car and drove home to Santa Cruz that afternoon, I had the dawning sense that the science we expect so many answers from may not be the key to the universe after all.

The West Coast Dowsers Conference begins with a Dowsing School and runs Saturday-­Tuesday at UCSC's College Eight. The cost for nonmembers is $50 for the school and $30 per day or $125 for all five days. For more information, call 459-2611.

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From the June 27-July 3, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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