One of my earliest memories of television is of surrepticiously watching a programme called Arthur C. Clarke’s World of Strange Powers which was banned by my parents because of it’s satanic content – or so I dimly understood at the time. In the show the famous science fiction writer reported on a variety of arcane practices and unexplainable phenomena including dowsing – a seemingly magical method of prospecting for water using only sticks or pendulums.
Until recently I had thoughtlessly written off those who practice this method of water divination as being somewhere on a spectrum between devil worshippers and con artists. However I was recently given the opportunity, along with sixteen fellow students on a permaculture course in central Portugal, to pick up a couple of pieces of bent wire and try a spot of dowsing myself. The results were remarkable and left many of us shaking our heads in disbelief. One by one we took a piece of wire gently in each hand and proceeded to walk slowly towards a patch of ground where it was known that an underground water pipe existed. One by one as we stepped onto the patch of ground the pieces of wire twitched and slowly crossed over each other. Once we passed over the hidden pipe the wires returned to their original position. Likewise, stepping backwards away from the pipe also caused the wires to uncross. When it was my turn I paused at the threshold, repeatedly stepping backwards and forwards, watching the wires cross and uncross, trying to sense in my body where the tremor was coming from that was moving my hands so minutely I could not see or feel any change at all.
Presently, the rudiments of one theory about the science behind dowsing was explained. According to this theory, whether or not someone can dowse is dependant upon the presence of a substance called magnetite in their body. A Google search on the words dowsing and magnetite results a list of fairly unreliable looking websites which I’ve decided not to link to here. It is not my intention to try to convince readers of the scientific validity of dowsing, only to describe what I experienced on that parched afternoon on a Portuguese hillside two weeks ago. However, one website suggested something which sounds (to me at least) quite plausible. The dowsing reaction is caused by moving the electrically charged body of the dowser over a magnetic anomaly. The bundle of nerve endings in the wrists causes a rotating flux, just as in an electric motor, which rotates the rods or twitches the hands. At the risk of appearing somewhat less scientific than this sounds I’d like to suggest that because the human body is made up of 90% water, the fact that we have an unusually strong energetic connection with this miraculous elixir of life should not come as news to anybody. Certainly such a perspective certainly casts horrendously water polluting activities like fracking in an even more idiotic light.
I’ve had this sense my entire life, inoculated into me as a child by the twin pillars of our society, the religions of Christianity and rationalist science, that dowsing and other “strange powers” were either dangerous or fictitious and to entertain such ideas would be to invite a philosophy founded upon witchcraft and conspiracy theories into my life. It seems almost as if there’s been a barrier somewhere on the edge of my perception which has ring fenced me into a particular way of seeing the world, an invisible line that I’ve been vaguely aware of and have not wanted to cross, because crossing it would mean stepping outside of the consensus reality and consequently becoming an outsider in our society. The notion of discourse (which, broadly speaking, refers to the capacity of language to create structures of power) is particularly important to this discussion because contained within popular (or dominant) discourses is so much we take for granted. Discourses in effect construct our reality. Within a discourse is the power to define – for example, to define what is normal (as opposed to abnormal) and what is acceptable.1
In conclusion I have to admit that it would be easy for a skeptic to argue that the fact that we knew there was a water pipe beneath that patch of earth significantly “muddies the water” of the experience/experiment I’ve described, somehow causing the wires in our hands to twitch in much the same way a lie detector does. I can’t argue with this logic. However, I can say that the experience has convinced me that there’s much more to this dowsing malarkey than mere fakery or devilry. If you don’t believe me try it yourself.
There’s more in heaven and earth, Horatio, than is dreamt of in your philosophy.
Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5
- Thomson, N. (2007) Power and Empowerment. Lyme Regis: Russell House. p.6.