• The Seventh Sense

    My first experience with dowsing (finding underground water using an ancient system that involves tree branches, pendulums, or metal rods) was as a child of four when Frasier Mears was hired by my mother to find water for our new cabin up at the Ford place on Southeast Corners Road. Now Frasier was a "character," as Floyd Bentley used to say, and had the gift of the "seventh sense." He would talk to his stick, a forked apple branch, as he walked along our fields looking for water. Frasier would say, "Tell me, Mr. Stick, is it deep?" When he did find water, the branch dipped sharply toward the ground. The strength of the pull helped him predict how deep to drill. A four-year-old knows that there is magic in the world, but Frasier was a sorcerer in the flesh, a quiet man with a forked wand that connected him to a mysterious underground world of water and darkness. (He found water that afternoon, and the well remains a good one to this day.)

    Forty-five years later, I had occasion to call on another dowser, Harry Pickering, who came by to find a good place to drill a second well, one for our barn and livestock. Harry uses metal tubes slipped onto two L-shaped handles that are held in the fist. The tubes point forward until they swing outward over water. Harry's tubes kept swinging apart at the same spot in our lower pasture as he walked back and forth. I asked to try it, and, sure enough, the tubes opened for me, too, and at the same place. It was like the first time I saw a buck at twilight, suddenly looking up from the edge of a field at my approach, its gray shape dissolving into the woods. There is magic in the world if we know where to look for it.

    Dowsing may seem a bit like necromancy to most of us, but in Vermont it is still popular. The American Society of Dowsers (ASD) in Danville continues to hold annual meetings and publishes a quarterly digest. And dowsing is an art that goes well beyond finding water. Our most famous local dowser, Herb Douglas, claimed that he could locate water at a distance using maps of a property instead of actually walking the ground. (He would dowse the maps.) He also claimed that sickness was caused by sleeping over "reaction lines," the points at which watercourses intersect, so he dowsed the beds of arthritis and cancer patients, correlating these intersections with specific points of illness in his client's body.

    The stories get stranger. At the 1984 ASD convention, a dowser claimed to have changed the course of an underground stream while sitting some distance away and tapping on a map with a pen. When the attendees inspected the site, the dowsers claimed that the stream had indeed moved, and they noted a profusion of earthworms coming out of the ground, evidently (according to the intrepid reporter) a sign of some unexplained shift in the energy fields.

    Explaining dowsing is a little like making sense of homeopathy. It is a matter of faith and, I suppose, experience. Well drillers in Vermont secretly carry dowsing equipment, which is good enough for me: Vermonters don't waste time doing things that don't work. When I asked Harry to explain the phenomenon, he said that dowsers are particularly sensitive to electricity, which is in some way connected to water.

    I have met others who have the gift of seeing the unseen. A friend of our family, Patricia, was born in Barbados with a caul over her face and, from an early age, frequently saw dead people. They walked down the street, peered over backyard fences, and even uttered propitious warnings. On the fourth floor of our house (it was built in 1859), she often sees a woman clothed in a white Victorian dress. I researched our "ghost" and discovered that a woman had indeed jumped from the fourth-floor window. Our youngest children, Charlie and Emily, sleep on that floor and claim their own sightings-- odd reflections in hall mirrors or a face peering out from a dark corner. I set these fears aside as childish imagination, but Patricia's calm certainty and reluctance to discuss her gift provide a more compelling argument.

    Now that I am thick in the maelstrom of middle age, I long to see the world clearly, to make sense of the shadows, to travel beneath the Earth's mantle to observe life deep below the surface. I hunger to see the underground tunnels of Fu Manchu or the shadow of the Queen Monkey (a favorite homegrown bedtime story), who soars above our house on moonlit evenings looking to kidnap misbehaved children. So I have a plan. Next Halloween, our family is making a pilgrimage to the haunted chimney, where, to this day, it is said that a blue light burns at night and a large, ghostly woman rides a white horse over the spot where she was murdered and her body burned like cordwood. It is a story mostly forgotten, but an old farmer, Charlie Sherman, remembers. He showed me a worn photo of the girls of the town, dressed up for church and seated next to the rough stone chimney. They, too, appeared ghostlike in stiff crinoline, their faded, wraithlike faces calling out from the past. As I grow older, I am desperately looking for a guide to this haunted universe where rivers run deep beneath the ground, influencing our lives on the surface. That's why I am taking my children with me next October-- to help me see the light, to help me peer through this unwanted fog of age and experience.

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