Dowsing with Henry Gross

Sam Smith – Water witches – aka dowsers are thriving in drought stricken California. Odd as it may seem, it’s a topic about which I know a bit. For example, there was that day in the 1950s when the actress Bette Davis came to my parents’ Maine farm to help us find water.

Actually, she really just came along for the ride as did the Maine novelist Kenneth Roberts, both neighbors and friends of then famed water dowser, Henry Gross. Still it was fun for a teenage boy to follow Bette Davis around all day.

One of the reasons that Gross was famous was that in 1950 he had found three water sites in Bermuda just using a map and dowsing rod while sitting in Kennebunkport, 800 miles away. Bermuda had no wells at the time and Gross’ efforts proved successful.

The most typical way to dowse was with a Y-shaped small branch. Dowsers held the two tops of the Y horizontal in their hands with the palms pointed up. If they found water, the rod descended despite the best efforts of the dowser to keep it level.

Scientists have never thought much of the technique. Wikipedia describes a “three-day test of some 30 dowsers [that] involved plastic pipes through which water flow could be controlled and directed. The pipes were buried 50 centimeters under a level field, the position of each marked on the surface with a colored strip. The dowsers had to tell whether water was running through each pipe. All the dowsers signed a statement agreeing this was a fair test of their abilities and that they expected a 100 percent success rate, however the results were no better than chance.”

Some attribute any dowsing success to “a phenomenon known as the ideomotor effect: people’s subconscious minds may influence their bodies without their consciously deciding to take action. This would make the dowsing rods a conduit for the diviner’s subconscious knowledge or perception.”

Martin Luther had a far less kindly opinion, calling dowsing a violation of the First Commandment.

This teenager, as best as I can remember, thought along the lines of “Hey, whatever works,” but later, as an anthropology major, I was struck by the prevalence in cultures around the world of what I came to regard as proto-science: coming up with right answers without the right explanations. Henry Gross had made me far more tolerant of shamans in distant lands.

Whether by chance or by skill, Gross found a number of well sites that we would use for decades. Some of these were flush to the ground, one of which (minus its top) was the culprit the day that my father had to call the local veterinarian, Russell Pinfold, at a party to tell him a cow had fallen into a well. Dr. Pinfold put down his drink long enough to ask my father: “Is it head up or head down? Because if it’s head down I ain’t comin’ over.”

Other wells extended above ground thanks to a stone and cement cylinder around a hole several feet high and about five feet in diameter. That width was large enough to send a young teenager down to finish digging but not so comfortable for adults, which is how I learned how to build a well.

To this day I still find drilled wells somewhat strange and a little boring. Besides there’s nothing to lean against or rest your soda can on.

As for Henry Gross, I have come to accept the wisdom of that great scientist, Albert Einstein. A friend was surprised to come to his house and find a horseshoe over the door. The friend asked, “You don’t believe in that, do you?” Replied Einstein, “Of course not, but they tell me it works.”

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