When I was a kid, my grandfather taught me how to water witch, more commonly called dowsing. He lived in Star Valley Wyoming, and when he was younger was often sought out by others in the community to help then locate a good location to drill a well. My Grandfather used a tree limb (sprout?) that formed a “y” shape, much like the picture above. He told me how to hold it, and then walked around with me on his back property, looking for water. I remember the stick pointing down at some places, and him telling me I had found water. As a city kid, I didn’t give much thought to it, as I was probably a few month shy of my 13th birthday. I thought it was funny, or weird, but didn’t say anything.

For my father, and his father, and probably back many generations, using this piece of tree branch to find water was nothing out of the ordinary. It was just part of everyday life. Yet for a new generation of baby boomers that watched the moon landing, this was something that didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Eric Eliason, in his BYU studies article entitled “Seer Stones, Salamanders, and Early “Folk Magic” in light of Folklore Studies and Biblical Scholarship” found the same split between his students.

The presumption that the difference between magic and proper belief is something intrinsic rather than relational to the definer is still very much alive. But on close analysis, complex definitions distinguishing “magical” from “modern” thinking rarely amount to more than “What you do is superstition, while what I do is science or true religion.” One of the biggest surprises rural students have in American university folklore courses, including at BYU, is discovering their suburban peers need to be taught what divining rods are and how to use them. Today, regardless of class, race, education, wealth, region, or religion, rural students tend to know of holding a forked stick gently in one’s hand to feel for the downward tug that points to underground water and a good spot for a well. Dowsing seems not only understandable, but essential, in rural areas where families are on their own to secure water, and where hired well drillers make no guarantees and charge by the foot. City kids are shocked that their country classmates could be such shameless occult dabblers in a modern age where you don’t have to think about where water comes from. You just turn on the tap and out it comes—like magic. My rural LDS students don’t understand why their suburban counterparts have so little respect for or belief in a common spiritual gift often displayed by their educated and reasonable bishops and stake presidents.

BYU Studies Quarterly 55:1

Apparently, both Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdrey had the same gift as my grandfather, and it all comes from the same belief in seer stones, divining rods, and looking for lost treasure (or water). From the church’s web site.

Many Christians in Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery’s day similarly believed in divining rods as instruments for revelation. Oliver was among those who believed in and used a divining rod.

The Lord recognized Oliver’s ability to use a rod: “Thou hast another gift which is the gift of working with the sprout [or rod].”

Oliver Cowdery’s Gift Gift, LDS.org

Science does not seem to back up water dowsing. From the U. S. Geological Survey web page on dowsing:

Case histories and demonstrations of dowsers may seem convincing, but when dowsing is exposed to scientific examination, it presents a very different picture. The natural explanation of “successful” water dowsing is that in many areas underground water is so prevalent close to the land surface that it would be hard to drill a well and not find water. In a region of adequate rainfall and favorable geology, it is difficult not to drill and find water!

USGS Water Dowsing

What are your thoughts on water witching? Did my grandfather have a spiritual gift that would explain his success, or does the USGS web site explain why he found water? Is it just as valid as Joseph Smith translating ancient text using a seer stone in a hat? Is finding water using a stick any more weird than using a seer stone?