The Ancient Mountain Practice of “Water Witching”



Good, clean, and reliable water is a necessity for life — even as much as oxygen — and in the hills and hollers of Appalachia this is no different.

Though there is a creek… or a crick… at the bottom of just about every mountain, decades of pollution and building hundreds of feet above waterways created a situation where finding reliable clean ground water was a matter of life and death for many mountain families only a half-century ago.

As valuable of a commodity as water has been to folks in Appalachia, an equal component of daily life has been superstition — often presented as a hybrid form of Christianity which marries traditional Biblical teaching with practices and customs that some would see more closely aligned with mysticism and the occult.  The results have led to superstitions and religious practices that are entirely unique to places such as West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.

Even today, my father refuses to close a pocketknife someone else has opened and it’s not unusual to find him “knocking on wood” the moment he mentions how good a piece of machinery has operated for him since he bought it at a “steal of a price”.

Given the realities of clean water being in such short supply, as well as many of the residents being superstitious and eager to embrace spiritualism, it should come as no surprise that the practice of “water witching” became so highly regarded throughout the mountains over the past two centuries.

In its basic form, this practice, which is more widely known as water divining or dowsing, features an individual holding a dowsing rod – which is a forked (Y-shaped) branch from a tree or bush. Some dowsers prefer branches from particular trees while others prefer the branches to be freshly cut. Witch-hazel from willow or peach trees are traditionally commonly chosen.

The “water witch” holds the two ends of the forked side in each hand with the third (the stem of the Y) pointing straight ahead. Often the branches are grasped palms down. The dowser then walks slowly over the places where he suspects water may be, and the dowsing rod is expected to dip, incline or twitch when a discovery is made. This method is sometimes known as “willow witching”.

Though generations of landowners swore by the practice of dowsing, numerous scientific studies have cast shadows of doubt on the pseudoscience.

Science writers dating back to the late-1800s have written extensively about the practice and most in a negative light stating that the twitching of the rod is most likely the result of unconscious muscular action and that the dowsing apparatus is known to amplify slight movements of the hands.

Science writer Peter Daempfle noted that when dowsing is subjected to scientific testing, it fails and others have concluded that “dowsing does not work when it is tested under properly controlled conditions that rule out the use of other cues to indicate target location.”

Nevertheless, the ancient practice still continues in many places around the globe, including right here in Appalachia.  The folks who do this, swear that it works in not only finding water, but unmarked graves, metals and several other buried items.

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