Local witches still practicing craft

JIM McKain exits his car with the tools of his trade: a few wooden stakes, a hammer and two forked sticks. He is not a vampire hunter; he practices the ancient art of “water witching.”

Water witching, also known as “water dowsing,” has been around for centuries, and McKain admits as of yet no one has been able to explain just how it works.

Water dowsing or divining refers, in general, to the practice of using a forked stick, rod, pendulum, or similar device to locate underground water, minerals, or other hidden or lost substances.

Although tools and methods vary widely, most dowsers still use the traditional forked stick, which may come from a variety of trees, including the willow, peach, witch hazel or McKain’s tree of choice – the wild cherry.

McKain, 68, learned to dowse for water more than 40 years ago from an old “water witcher,” known simply as Mr. Edie. “He came over and witched a well for my dad,” McKain recalled. “He handed me his peach branch and told me to give it a try.

“I was really skeptical but when the branch moved in my hand, I was amazed,” McKain explained showing the red marks on his palm and fingers where the bark had recently twisted against his skin. “I tried as hard as I could to keep the branch from turning in my hands, but I just could not hold it.”

“You watch my fingers, they never move,” McKain told me to listen closely as he passed over the spot where he said he had found water, “You can hear the bark squeaking as it turns in my grip.

“I still can’t explain it, the stick moves and I just can’t hold it,” McKain said. “Mr. Edie told me not too many people had the ‘gift’ and that I was one of a few.”

Now, McKain carries on that tradition and like his mentor does not charge for his services, “I feel it is a gift from God and that it is by His hand that I can do this and it does not seem right to charge for it.”

McKain has encountered plenty of skeptics. He calmly assures doubters that water witching has nothing to do with witchcraft, “It’s a skill that cannot be learned, more like a talent and some people are born with the gift.”

He explained that other dowsers may use long flimsy branches, bent wire coat hangers, wire rods or pendulums.

Using his “classic” method with a forked stick, one fork is held in each hand with the palms upward . The bottom or butt end of the “Y” is pointed skyward at an angle of about 45 degrees. McKain then walks back and forth over the area to be tested . When he passes over a source of water, the butt end of the stick rotates as it is attracted downward by the “pull” of the water. He then marks the spot with a stake and crosses the streams to find direction and then puts a final stake to mark the point where the two streams cross.

Today, water dowsers practice mainly in rural or suburban communities where residents are uncertain as to how to locate the best and cheapest supply of ground water. Because the drilling and development of a well often costs more than a thousand dollars, homeowners are understandably reluctant to gamble on a dry hole so they turn to the water dowser for advice.

His talent can be linked to water witchers that predate the Egyptians, according to cave paintings in northwestern Africa that are 6,000-8,000 years old which are believed to show a water dowser at work. The exact origin of the divining rod in Europe is not known. The device was introduced into England during the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) to locate mineral deposits, and soon afterward it was adopted as a water finder throughout Europe. Water dowsing seems to be a mainly European cultural phenomenon; it was carried across the Atlantic to America by some of the earliest settlers from England and Germany.

Geologists will dismiss the success of such mystical dowsers, stating that some water exists under the Earth’s surface almost everywhere and this explains why many dowsers appear to be successful.

“You have people trained in hydrology and geology who have spent years in school to learn their trade,” McKain said. “I can see why they would not particularly be too fond of some amateurs with a stick telling them where the water is.”

To the scientists and skeptics, a water witch is nothing more than a lucky person or a person who interprets geological features. Since dowsing is not based upon any known scientific or empirical laws or forces of nature, some of these professionals are out to discredit all water witchers which is a shame. These scientists should be beyond fearing what we do not understand and labeling those able to do things we can not explain as charlatans.

Some people are less interested in why the rods move than in whether dowsing works. McKain has a long list of satisfied clients who have used his services and found water. Therefore, the evidence is simple: dowsers successfully find what they are dowsing for and they do so consistently. What more proof is needed?

Palmer can be reached at mpalmer@timesleaderonline.com.