Free Issue! Try Saltscapes Magazine before you buy. Download Now

Despite scientific skepticism, folks still use divining rods to indicate where to find ground water, and where to dig a well. The proof is in the sipping

Listen to this. I’m not doing a thing,” says Adrian Nette. I put my ear close to the freshly cut, Y-shaped willow branch he’s holding at shoulder height, and hear a small creaking noise. It’s like the rope-and-wood creak you hear on a tall ship, but greatly muted.

It’s as if the bark were straining over its inner wood core.

Nette isn’t manipulating the branch. He’s barely holding it between his thumbs and forefingers. It’s the type of thing that if you didn’t hear for yourself, you’d think the person telling you about it was drunk, crazy, or both.

Nette is a carpenter from Annapolis Royal, NS, and on this afternoon we’re standing in a field by his brother Allan’s home on the Prospect Road, behind Cambridge, NS, talking about water witching. Or divination, to use its tarted-up title.

According to The Divining Rod: A History of Water Witching, published in 1917 by the US Government Printing Office, divining is “a curious superstition” used to find water, treasure and criminals. Its exact origins are lost, but its usage is hinted at in 8,000-year-old Chinese and Egyptian art. In the 17th century, a Jesuit scholar sparked a 100-year debate on whether the capability was controlled by the devil, or the divine.

Over the millennia, “water witching” has had several names: divination or diving for water, and dowsing/dousing. Whatever the name, it has a common purpose: looking for water.

Nette began witching back in 1974, when some “old fella” in Northwest Cove showed him how to do it. “Some old fella” is the general description many diviners use to describe their mentor. No one seems to have bothered to learn names. Nor do they remember names of the people for whom they’ve found water. They do remember the house, where the water was, how deep it was, and what they were doing that day.

“Honestly, once I do it, I wash my hands because I’m not looking for money—and I tell them I can’t guarantee to find them water,” says Gerry Milne, a retired car salesman who lives in Berwick, NS, and who has found water on more than 100 properties throughout Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley.

Two techniques

Each witch has his or her own technique. Nette is old school: he prefers a freshly cut willow or apple cutting, or whip. The advice his old fella gave him was to use a whip with sap in it, so spring is best.

When he walks across the land, Nette holds the whip straight out in front of him, with palms and thumbs facing down, and follows where the wood leads him. When the whip starts to point down, he’s found water.

“I have heard from other folks who do this that they can tell also how deep the water is, depending on how many steps they take to their strongest draw point. So it’s almost like you triangulate the spot where you’re going to find water.”

Milne, in contrast, uses bent coat hangers, which he calls his “guns.” Thumb position is key. The coat hangers “have got to be able to move by themselves,” he says. When he gets to the spot where the water is, the hangers cross.

He steps back, they uncross and, as a test, he goes forward to see if they’ll cross again.

An unscientific concept

Andrew Langille brings science to the equation. Employed in pipeline operations with Spectra Energy, in Fredericton, he says he has witched a couple of wells using apple wood. “One time I was with an old fella—I don’t remember his name—down in Charlotte County. He was witching a particular landowner’s property to drill a new well and I was there representing the company that was paying for the well. I said, ‘I’m going to do this,’ because I had previously used a similar technique to locate water underground.”

It was 1992, and he remembers the experience vividly. The wood bent downward with “quite a resounding force. It was significant. There was no noise, though.

“Now what’s really bizarre here is I’m an earth scientist. I’ve got a master’s degree and I’ve done a ton of graduate work since my master’s in earth sciences and hydrology, petro-physics and geotechnical engineering. From the fundamental physical sciences aspect, this should not happen, but it’s my opinion that we have an electrical field around us, and in order to witch or divine a well, essentially you’re allowing the energy field around you to become interrupted.

“I’ve been told I’m pretty spiritual…. I think it’s not something you learn. That’s what I’ve learned from the old guys.”

While some people struggle to understand, Langille says: “It’s really quite entertaining, sorta like stupid party tricks that work. Some people suggest that I’m pulling a fast one; they are, perhaps, not opening their minds to something they can’t understand. Those that are skeptical of it, I guess, may be more linear thinkers than I am.”

Professionally, Langille has witched hundreds of times for buried wires and pipes, using everything from coat hangers to welders’ rods to rabbit wire. While the pursuit is different, the purpose is the same: to find an anomaly, like water, or an obstruction that may impact future plans for the land, or that could hurt people or damage equipment.

“It’s important that your hands aren’t too cold because you’ve got to have a proper feel,” says Langille. “If you’re using a piece of wood, you’ve got to have a good grip; if you’re using a piece of coat hanger wire, it’s got to be able to swing freely—and not inside a frozen hand. The key is to prevent too much friction at the point from which they have to swing.”

While Milne’s coat hangers cross, Langille’s rods work differently—which may be related to his different quest. “For me, they’re sticking straight out as you’re walking towards the feature, and then when you cross a feature that is interrupting the current or the field, the coat hangers will align themselves parallel with that feature. They don’t cross. They’re not going down, they stay horizontal, but they swing.”

The whole concept—while a type of folklore that seems provable—defies explanation.

Witches: down to earth

Nette says: “I used to think there was a lot of mysticism to it, or you had to be some kind of seer or something. The fellow who showed me was a truck driver and very down to earth. He drank beer, shot deer and did all that kind of stuff; he said anybody can do this. I was building a house on the South Shore and considering digging a well or having it drilled, and this guy said, ‘Oh there’s water all over the place, just do this.’ He walked to the side of the road, cut a whip and showed it to me. I thought, ‘If that’s all there is to it, I can do that.’”

In return, Nette became a bit of a teacher himself. “Walking through the woods with my then-girlfriend, her father and brother, I showed them how to do it. They were fascinated because two of them were quite proficient at it. They felt it. But we must have looked like a band of idiots walking through the woods with these rods out front.”

It may be harder to find witches today than in the past, simply because most new homes are built on serviced lots. Otherwise, there doesn’t seem to be as much of what Nette describes as “pioneering house building,” as more homeowners turn to deeper, drilled wells.

As for having a special gift, Nette says, “Not at all. The first time is neat. But it just seems so simple and very matter of fact. It doesn’t feel like any kind of mystical thing or some gift that anybody has given you. It’s like somebody showed you how to put a saddle on a horse or something like that.”

For his part, Milne says he has had only two failures. “There was one place, on the [North] Mountain. I felt really bad for them, but it wasn’t me,” he says. “There was nothing there.” Another time, he couldn’t find water where it was wanted. A man moving a cottage in Kingsport wanted to know where to dig a well. “I walked for 20 minutes and then the guns got going.”

Milne laughs. “The old fellow says to me, ‘That ain’t where I wanted da well. I wanted it over here!’ I said, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t help ya.’ He was quite mad at me.”

The devil’s work?

However, superstitions abound. Milne says he’s had people turn their backs on him when he witches for water—even when it was for them, on their property.

“A lot of people will automatically turn and walk away; they can’t watch because they think it’s to do with the devil. I just laugh at them. I’m not working for the devil.”

Nette adds: “Just because it’s unexplainable doesn’t mean that it is associated with witchcraft. Maybe we just don’t understand. I’ve tried to think about it; is it maybe my body position that changes? Maybe my reaction to water underground has made me do something that I’m not aware of.”

Langille says, “I’ve had people suggest to me that there’s something intervening that’s not so good. I have read some books on it. I think the skepticism that exists is because it’s too simple. You trust yourself and your body and accept the fact that your body is not just the physical mass that everybody sees. There is more to it than that.”

Whatever the source of this ability, this coven of water witches has been successful at finding water. Milne has even helped a minister. Smiling at the irony, he says, “Five years ago I had a minister get me to go across the (North) Mountain to find water in a big field for a church camp or something.

“I said, ‘You realize what you’re doing?’ And he said, ‘I know. I’ve already been scolded because of believing in something like this is witchcraft.’

“We joked about it, and then I found water for him.”

Other Stories You May Enjoy

The Nickname Game

Nobody knows why New Brunswickers are sometimes called "herringchokers" but according to one theory, it's because the women working in fish-packing plants used their thumbs and forefingers to pinch the heads...

A Fork in the Road (Part 1 of 2)

“There is a particular way of life in the Atlantic Provinces: there is a value here, a quality of life, that many places lack. And much of it is associated with the fisheries…

Christmas of the China Dog

Christmases have a way of becoming monikered. For example, I recall The Christmas Aunt Molly Visited and The Christmas Janet Got Engaged. For me, however, the most outstanding was the one I called...