Simple definition: to search for an underground supply of water by using a special stick that leads you to it.
Webster defines it, history records it and success validates it.
Dowsing has been called everything from pseudoscience to sorcery, but it has an honorable past. Cave drawings from the Cro-Magnon era (40,000 to 50,000 years ago) found in Spain depict dowsing in 2500 B.C. Confucius mentioned it and by 2200 B.C. dowsers were engraved on ancient Egyptian stonework.
Dowsing tools were found in King Tut’s pyramid and artifacts from the Egyptian pharaohs point to dowsing with split reeds.
The biblical prophet Hosea condemned dowsing. Feeling that his people were practicing the ways of their pagan captors, he proclaimed, “They consult their piece of wood and their wand makes pronouncements to them.” Despite Hosea’s denunciation, dowsing continued.
John Mullins, the most famous Victorian era dowser, was an English stone mason who took it up in 1859 after watching a dowser find water.
Dowsing in Solvang
Jump forward 150 years or so and we find a modern mason working on a stone house when he noticed a man walking around with two brass rods.
It was late April 1978, and cistern builder Bob Johnsen, of Solvang, saw the late Dick Firth walking back and forth on the property and his curiosity was piqued.
Johnsen finally ventured over and asked Firth what he was doing.
“I’m looking for a two-inch water line,” Firth answered. Not willing to let it go at that, Johnsen asked how it worked and got the answer, “I don’t know.”
“Just then,” Johnsen recalled, “the rods crossed, Dick picked up a shovel, dug down and uncovered the line.”
Impressed and intrigued, Johnsen related the incident to longtime friend John Clark. As an experiment, the duo found a couple of brass rods, Johnsen held them over the family “john” and was stunned when they crossed.
Following the “toilet test,” Clark challenged Johnsen to find water on his parcel of land west of Buellton. Johnsen, still a little doubtful at this point, voiced his reservations but Clark insisted.
“What am I to do,” he asked, “toss a rock and have the drillers sink a well where it lands?”
The two headed to the site, Johnsen marked a spot where the rods crossed and drillers were called. The result? A well that delivered 200 gallons per minute. By then, Johnsen was completely hooked and a water witch was born.
Later, while building a cistern for well-known and respected dowser Al Monighetti, Johnsen told him that he had found water and Monighetti offered to share some finer points of witching.
“Al showed me how to use willow sticks. Took some practice but finally got the gist,” he said, adding that he told Monighetti, “I think I can do this.”
Monighetti said, "Go figure it out” and sent Johnsen to where he knew an aquifer was located. Johnsen did “figure it out” and passed the test.
A year or so later, Monighetti began to refine Johnsen's water witching.
“He showed me a piece of tie wire,” Johnsen said, “gave me the length, which signals depth, and admonished me to never, under threat of death, divulge its measurements to anyone.”
Monighetti's promise of bodily harm still rings in his ears and Johnsen has kept that secret to this day.
“Al died before I realized the wire’s power,” Johnsen said, adding that he found lots of well sites before finally learning the true value of Monighetti's “gift.”
Taking tricks abroad
Over the years, Johnsen has witched in three different counties for numerous drillers and uses three tools, rods, willow sticks and Monighetti's mystical wire.
“Willow sticks,” he said, “are hard to find. I spend more time looking for just the ‘right’ ones than I do witching.”
Johnsen's wife Pam, at first skeptical and saying “he’s full of baloney,” moved to tolerating the practice as “another new project.” After witching with him, she is now a believer.
Although his witching methods are fairly concise, Johnsen pointed out that while there’s water, it takes a test to determine if it’s potable or not.
“There is bad water,” he said. “Locally, there can be magnesium and arsenic, leftovers from man, agriculture and mining.”
Johnsen's jobs are generated by word of mouth, and he has a success rate of 100 wells since 1978 with only one dry hole. “That one,” he asserted, came about when the driller stopped short. “He didn’t go deep enough.
“Drillers must penetrate soil and rock to reach an aquifer,” Johnsen explained. "An aquifer is not an underground lake, rather it’s a network of fissures in the bedrock with layers of sand, gravel or porous rock where water collects to form natural cisterns, ‘streams’ and pockets.”
Think of a coffee filter. Coffee is the “water” while the sediment (grounds) is the particulate matter that is left behind. The beach is a perfect example of an aquifer. Dig a hole deep enough to reach damp sand and it will quickly fill with seawater. This is in fact a primitive well, the sand represents the aquifer and the level to which the water rises is the water table.
While the Santa Ynez Valley doesn’t sit on a huge underground lake or river, it does have a substantial aquifer, Johnsen said, adding that the “most prevalent water locally is to be found west and north of Buellton.”
Hand in hand
For Johnsen, witching is a pastime with the construction of Danish domed style cisterns as his “day job." A third generation stone mason, Johnsen learned the complex building method from his late father Martin, and now works with his own son Bobby, the fourth-generation Johnsen in the trade.
“Cisterns and witching go hand in hand,” he said. “First I find the water, then I get to build the storage tank.”