Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2012 v11n1
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Col. Othniel Sweet’s Mysteries of Nature, # 103 (divining)

Many have written to me or approached the podium in the aftermath of a lecture to ask about the various modes of divination, but most inquiries in this dry time of the new self-sufficiency and economic famine are about the art of dousing, as few can afford to plumb the earth in uncertainty, and recent droughts have left so many wells muddy and cisterns empty across the face of the land. On this matter I have retrieved some little information, as my own eldest tills the soil and in recent months looks to the heavens in dismay as his beans wither and cobs sport kernels hard as eye teeth. As he and his new wife suffer from the arid earth, I read their missives as shadows cast by no object but empty clouds and determine to seek the truth. Already he has begun the search for an honest wielder of the witching rod, and what follows are findings only in progress, and somewhat tainted, perhaps, by my private hunger for rescuing revelations.

Documents attest that the practice of seeking water with charmed devices predates the printing press in the German principalities. Employing the virgule divine, Georgias Agricola, early in the fifteenth century, sought ores of value under the mantle of ground and employed alternately a slingshot willow fork or thorn and claimed moderate success, though his contemporaries claimed he worked in a metal-rich region and still engaged in many barren excavations. Hence, his triumphs appear no more than rude chance. A versicle from scant decades later claimed the rods must be “gathered with vows and sacrifice,” but Agricola was by all evidence a secular man, so perhaps therein lies his error.

Munster’s Cosmographia mentions use of a crystal or pendulum to the same end, but chronicles no significant success by these means, though he describes more attentively the process of a wand connecting its skilled dowser with some source of underearth refreshment. He begins by facing north and holds the forked limb (peeled on some occasions, on others not) by its sky ends, and the trunk end he is precautious never to touch. Some will work blindfolded (though it seems mere theater) and must be guided with care over stony ground and declivity. Some appear to be sniffing and tasting the air akin to hound and snake. At first there is no difference between this process and any civilian walking a small yoke, but then the witcher begins to stiffen, legs first, then torso, and as this unfolds a shiver is perceived at the end of the stick, which has on occasion been whittled sharp as a spit. The seeker’s neck and face run russet, and soon his arms begin to shake, at which instant the rod begins to tilt and quiver, pivot and seem to pull, as if some beast were tethered on the end but beyond sight. In an instant the man is moving, lockstep, as if summoned, and surrenders volition to his instrument. With his tongue he begins a trilling, and it is best that bystanders give him some distance, in case this is madness or a spell with reach. The movement then is smooth, though alterations in direction are frequent. The wand will arrow down, then correct and lead to another spot. Stones, debris, rooted stumps, brush—none distract the wand. Soon breathing comes hard, as if obstructed, and the seeker behaves as if, in my terms, he were one of the querents touching a Ouija planchette and drawn to this letter, then that, only the final destination being of value, and the trembling of the instrument has a fatiguing effect.

Munster contends that he witnessed many successes, though of course charlatans abound, and my further reading has led to this belief: there has always been some affinity between the true diviner’s spirit and some (shall we call it) djinn or oread or simple chemical where wells and springs are amenable, some sympathy between porous wood and effluvia emitted by what remains hidden. The will and virtue of the dowser are not irrelevant, as these men—and they are always males, females are not known to discover water by this discipline, though they have methods of their own—have refined some art of concentration, some pitch almost beyond the human, and it is tempting to believe the wand allows them to know what animals know, for a deer or bobcat suffering thirst will meander in purposeful fashion and eventually discover water, will also in most cases know whether or not it be tainted.

Other substances of instance—ores and such—radiate magnetic fields and are no doubt another subgenre or mystery, and some use Spanish rods of brass, others the compass, to chart their veins, but it is best we focus on the finding of water, which brings me to my tenuous conclusion: it can be done; the question is, by whom?

To those who must resort to seeking invisible waters, my advice: you must find a man reluctant to admit this talent, one who resists, and when he consents wants no more than a day’s fair wage. The imposters (likely to broadcast their skill in bagatelles) need more substantial remuneration, for they intend to flee their failure at first chance. Though there are some few instances where a child has found water, it is best to rely on a man of full years, and I would be remiss if I omitted that widowers are said to have a disproportionate success rate. God knows why. If your candidate cites the authority of occult lodges or ceremonies held in secret, question him further, and find his previous clients, though one may have the gift and lose it, only to find it sprouts anew at a later date for undisclosed reasons.

The man my assistants rooted out hails from the Ohio Valley, and under our eye he found three wells in fourteen tries, which is accorded a fine success rate, considering the shallowness of pits we were willing to dig just to test his acumen, us having no special funds or backing in this exercise, no lasting claim to the sampled land.

Though many go willow witching, he preferred a peach branch as sweeter, more thirsty, more limber, compliant and accommodating to the hand than any willow, though like many among us he chews the bark of that tree to ease many species of pain. He gave us to know that a good fork would be green on the tree, and something in its configuration, once he began to imagine it cut, put him in mind of the vital Y of a woman’s body, and on that he would say little more, leaving us to hope that fathoming such views and uses would not lead to any implications of the flesh. He did add, whicking his whetted blade around the end for sharpness, that some “doodlebuggers”—his word throughout—put their faith in a stick dipped by night in a woman’s menses, but they were fools to fancy. Sorcery, he said, does not profit to examine its metaphors too closely.

Peach, then, a man given to shyness and few words but with a sweet trill to his mouth when in the heat of the hunt, one who senses the energies of both geology and breathing nature, no blindfold, one who can move quickly with no suggestion of haste. This is the very advice I have sent my son, with the caveat that he not invest heavily in the enterprise, though it appears far superior to employing rainmakers, preferable to either sortilege or augury for limning the earth’s clandestines.

In this cool hour of thought, eager to hear back from my offspring (but I must summon patience), I stare into the stripped hardwoods of winter beyond my window, the trees and earth sere and unforgiving. The very peach branch Howard—and so he insisted on being called, though not his name—employed on our excursion lies upon the sill before my desk, and though I fixate upon it in vain, with no iota of belief I could make it rescue a thirsting soul, let alone my heirs, I cannot wholly overthrow the fancy that it might on one warm day give forth buds, then flowers and fruit, as any astonishing wand should. Rumors come from as far as the Orient peoples that a dousing wand may promote healing, for the wise ones use such a utensil to seek the source of ailments—clots and cancers and bad humours—in the bodies of domestic beasts and even humans. I must inquire what species of plant they employ, as the machineries of hope are reluctant to shut down, and I am no less determined than ever to discern what we desire, what we are denied, what we require to survive.    

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