My father was a douser. He could cut a V-shaped stick of willow or cherry, grasp each end in his hands, and walk the land until he found water.
He had a calling. “Electricity in the veins,” as he said. To prove it, he would stand over the septic tank and that stick would point straight down, while the muscles in his arms popped from the strain of holding it steady.
People knew this and sought him out. Old Ben James, who was more Swamp Yankee than my father, had him walk his potato farm in Wood River Junction. Others asked him to work his magic before they called the well driller.
Our own well went dry off and on after we bought the house in Shannock in 1965. That year, and the year after, one of the worst droughts in the state’s history choked off the springs that kept our dug well full. In the winter we melted snow to wash hair. In the summer we collected water in a rain barrel.
Finally, in 1971, the task could no longer be postponed. My father called the well driller. He must have walked the yard first, but I don’t recall it. I was 11 years old that fall and reading the “Little House” books of Laura Ingalls Wilder, which didn’t seem all that far from how we were living.
All of this has been on my mind because last week they tore down the corn crib. It was about ready to fall down, anyway, and we had salvaged what tools we could – the potato digger, the post-hole digger, spades and rakes and hoes, a cross-cut saw.
With the contractor’s attention turned elsewhere, the roof lay flattened atop the floorboards. I picked up a rusty metal rake and began poring over the contents. Most of what littered the floor was empty walnut shells left by squirrels, but a few artifacts remained: A brake light. A commercial license plate. A Nehi soda bottle.
Then I saw it. Stretching, I was able to hook the metal tines around one end and pull it forward.
My father’s dousing stick.
How easy it would have been to mistake this for a piece of brush. I held it to my chest, amazed I’d spotted it, grateful I could save it.
He had hung it on a hook in the old shed. Its end looked freshly sharpened.
I grabbed each end, thumbs up, the way he’d taught me. The wood trembled at my touch. I aimed its pointy end outward and began to walk.
I crossed the driveway, passed over a patch of lawn, and paused at the septic tank. But after that first vibration, nothing happened. My father had long ago given up on passing his magic to me. I didn’t have the electricity in my veins, he said.
But he was wrong about that.
I might not be able to find water. The ancient Yankee art of dousing might have died with him. But I have a different sort of power in my veins. Like his, those veins rise under my skin, blue highways on a relief map.
My father told me about other wells, other springs. Boiling springs: “There used to be one at Mame Thomas’s. She had a house over on the Mooresfield Road … up behind the barn was this boiling spring. … they used it. Fine water.” The well at Tug Hollow, where he grew up: “One year we had a drought. I’ll tell you, people from all around were coming to us for water. Used to put a trout in it [to kill bugs].”
I jotted his stories in notebooks large and small, in diaries and journals. They still give rise to sketches, and stories, and novels.
As sure as a dousing stick, I wield my pen. I pace these pages every day, looking for water, remembering my father. Like his blood in my veins, his electric voice runs from my head to my hand to the ink on the page.
No coincidence that divining is a synonym for dousing (sometimes spelled dowsing). For what are we doing when we search for water but telling the future, portending, showing the unseen? Surely a man who can reveal what lies underground has some powers of prophecy.
And what do we do when we write, but discover, guess, explore the unknown? Consider this meaning of to divine, from my old Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary: “to perceive through sympathy, or intuition; to detect; to conjecture.”
Walk the land, my father told me. Cut the branch of a willow or a cherry. Hold that stick fast and pace. And you will find the water that runs beneath, the subterranean vein, the well of creativity.