The pendulum swings

Dowsing: Folk methods for finding water get more attention as Maryland tries to cope with the drought.

August 20, 1999|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Gene Wolfe is a tall, thin, drink of a man who at 76 hunts for water as a hobby.

He may seem more like a typical Towson retiree sitting on the deck behind his home, sunning his legs, shading his eyes and discussing his latest achievement.

But Wolfe is a dowser, someone who hikes into fields and forests armed with a small pendulum to tap into his inner self in search of water in the earth.

Dowsing is a centuries-old art practiced these days by people who freely discuss energy fields and psychic powers -- and one that has generated increased interest as Maryland's worst drought in 70 years dries up wells.

"It's basically a nonverbal knowingness," Wolfe said with a smile.

Wolfe, a retired mechanical engineer, feels as if he has something to smile about these days -- his first find after eight years as a dowser.

He and another dowser pinpointed a well site for a Parkton couple after they searched the tract recently equipped with dowsing rod and pendulum. Wolfe's fellow dowser, a Towson sales representative, asked that her name not be used, fearing reprisals from an employer.

But Wolfe doesn't mind being in the public eye. He is rather proud. "It's a wonderful feeling," he said.

Wolfe also told the couple how deep they should drill to find the best water supply.

Felicity and Steve Byrne say they stopped drilling at Wolfe's prescribed 375 feet. They credit him with finding a well expected to yield 15 gallons of water a minute, more than enough to supply their home.

And, he didn't charge them.

"He was more than wonderful," said Felicity Byrne, who began searching for a dowser this spring. Using a dowser made sense, she said, considering the cost of drilling a well site -- about $1,200.

"It's like a rolling of the dice every time you drill," she said. "I have to believe that there's some physical reason for how it works."

No one seems sure how dowsing works -- and many think it doesn't work.

Discussing theories with most dowsers leads to talk about electromagnetic fields, energy levels and picking up on frequencies given off by water or any other object being sought.

Dowsers are in touch with Mother Nature, said Leroy Bull, a 55-year-old dowser from Doylestown, Pa., whom Wolfe consulted about the Byrne property.

Dowsers usually walk the sites they are surveying slowly, with a rod or a pendulum. When they approach a water source, the rod will sway or point down, they say. Dowsers may swing a pendulum over maps to survey distant properties. They also use a rod or pendulum to comb maps and fields for underground pipes, gas lines, missing jewelry, children's toys or other objects.

"You can use just about anything and search for everything," said J. David Beam, president of the Chesapeake chapter of the American Society of Dowsers, which claims Wolfe and a dozen other people as members. "All I use is a coat hanger."

The practice has its skeptics and its supporters.

Bill Banks, a hydrogeologist with the U.S. Geological Service, said that although there is no scientific proof to show dowsing's effectiveness, there may be something to it.

"For years chiropractors were seen as quacks, but a lot people walked away with better backs," he said.

"It's complete nonsense," said Eugene Boudreau, a ground-water expert with a degree in geology from the University of California at Berkeley, who has written extensively on the subject.

Wayne Caswell, a Jarrettsville well driller, said, "They've got the same chance you've got and the same chance I've got of finding water."

Caswell said he will use dowsers when customers request one.

But he said he usually consults with customers, makes suggestions about where to drill based on the soils and the area's geological formations, and lets the customer decide.

"Water is where you find it, and predictable it's not," Caswell said.

Interest in dowsing has increased as this summer's drought has made water sources more precious throughout Maryland.

"We're getting more calls than we've ever seen," Beam said.

Beam, a Baltimore video engineer who has dowsed since 1980, when he took a course on the subject in Ojai, Calif., said the group has received about 10 calls in the past month from people curious about dowsing or interested in its services.

Those aren't big numbers, he said. But they're up from the one or two calls a year the group received in the past.

"We've sort of been in hibernation," Beam said.

The group has a policy of not charging. But if the job requires long-distance travel or takes most of a day, it might ask for donations of $50 to $100, he said.

Wolfe said he is learning the craft.

He attends the conventions organized each year by the Vermont-based American Society of Dowsers and subscribes to its quarterly digest, a booklet containing articles about dowsing, labyrinths and holistic health.

Wolfe began dowsing when his wife, Mary Wolfe, a fellow dowser, developed eye problems and began subscribing to the Vermont group's digest in her search for holistic health remedies.

"I started reading that, and I was hooked," Wolfe said.

The Wolfes believe that dowsers tap into the energy emanating from the objects for which they are searching.

It takes two things, they say: an open mind and practice.

"Everybody can dowse. But it's like playing baseball: Some people find it easier than others," he said.

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