“And the Lord said unto Moses, Go on before the people, and take with thee of the elders of Israel; and thy rod, wherewith thou smotest the river, take in thine hand, and go. Behold, I will stand before thee there upon the rock in Horeb; and thou shalt smite the rock, and there shall come water out of it, that the people may drink. And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel.”
That’s the King James Version of Exodus, Chapter 17, Verses 5 and 6, just one of countless descriptions throughout history and literature of people finding water with the aid of a stick. In this famous case, all it took to produce water in the desert was faith in an unseen force and a bit of judicious smiting.
“If you were going to drill a big well, you’d call him.”
In many respects, the picture of dowsing painted in the Bible is not all that different from how it looks today. People still tromp around in arid places, often with a Y-shaped stick or a pair of L-shaped rods held before them. When the descending point of the Y dips toward the earth, or when the two rods come together to form an X, that’s supposed to be an indication of vast reservoirs of life-giving water below the dowser’s feet.
Skeptics dismiss dowsing, or water witching as it’s also known, as unmitigated nonsense. Believers shrug and point to the results.
Romie Nunn (1903-1988) was a believer. On the face of it, Nunn seems an unlikely person to have embraced the practice, which today is often associated with the far reaches of the New Age fringe. A fixture in Casper, Wyoming, most of his life, he was active in the Rotary Club and Chamber of Commerce, and for half a century was a member of the International Order of Odd Fellows, Casper Lodge 22. During his career, Nunn worked for oil companies; he ran a gas station, a motel, and a mortuary; he bought an abandoned airfield that became a town that now bears his name; and he was even president of the Wyoming Motel Association for a spell. In short, Nunn was your classic, 20th-century cowboy businessman, wearing cowboy boots and hat even when he wasn’t riding horses, which he did a lot with his friends in the Round-Up Club.
“He was quite well known in Wyoming,” says daughter-in-law Hannah Nunn. “If you were going to drill a big well, you’d call him. He was a very charismatic character.” And even though his obituary in Casper’s Star-Tribune neglects to mention it, he was also known far and wide as a guy who had an uncanny knack for finding water.
“It started in the mountains above Casper,” remembers Hannah’s husband, Ron. “There were a lot of summer cabins up there, but people were having water problems. One day he dug a hole for somebody and hit water. I think it was pretty shallow, like six to eight feet deep. And then he started doing it a little bit more, got more successful, and pretty soon he had a reputation across Wyoming. Ranchers were always calling him and saying, ‘Could you come out? We’ve drilled five holes but haven’t gotten anything.’ And he would go out.”
Like most dowsers, Nunn learned from another practitioner of this ancient art. “There was an elderly fellow named Bert Dye,” recalls Nunn’s other surviving son, Jack. “He lived in Mills, which is a little town adjacent to Casper. Bert was a water witcher, too. My dad must have needed a well or something, and Bert came out and did it. My dad got fascinated with witching and started doing it himself. In fact, he was almost obsessed. Everybody thought Bert was nuts. Later, they thought my dad was nuts, too.”
According to Jack, “Bert used a piece of willow, a twig-like thing. If I remember correctly, he had some kind of cloth wrapped around it. I don’t know if that was to disguise it, or what, but he used willow. Initially my dad also used willow, but then he switched to copper.”
The more Nunn witched, the more water he found. “It got to a point where he could tell the difference between an underground pool of water and an underground stream,” says Jack. “He would follow the stream aboveground and at a certain point, based on how he felt the copper rod was reacting, he could give you a fairly good estimate of depth and possible output.” “It always amazed me,” says Jack’s sister, Peggy Nunn Nicolls, “that when he would find something he could also figure out the size of the stream and how deep.” “He was actually pretty accurate,” concurs Jack. “Word just spread.”
Hannah recalls one successful witching expedition fondly. “Just for the kick of it, we followed him one time out onto the prairie of a ranch,” she says. “We were walking along and all of a sudden whatever he had in his hand started to wave. He turned around and said, ‘Give me a shovel’! The shovel was handed over and he dug down probably no more than a foot or 18 inches down before he hit water.”
As Hannah remembers it, Romie held his dowsing rod so that its forks rested on the palms of his hands. “The pointed part of the Y-shape faced forward,” she says, “and he held it loosely so that when he was walking around it could respond immediately. He wasn’t really guiding the thing; it was like he just happened to be there, but you had to be very receptive for it to work.”
Others witchers describe a more dramatic effect. Ralph Squire is the president of the Subtle Energy Research Institute, but from 1953 to 1978 he was a peach farmer in California’s Central Valley. Since water was crucial to his livelihood, he learned everything he could about how to get it, including dowsing, which he did himself and often observed. “You hold the rod loosely and a little bit upward,” he says, confirming the technique Hannah observed. But, he adds, “When it goes over the target, it points down fast; you can’t stop it from moving. I’ve seen people try to keep it from going down and it just breaks the skin on their hands. I don’t know what the force is that’s working, but there’s a force there, oh yeah. You just can’t stop it.”
Squire learned to dowse during the mid-’70s as a matter of necessity. “There was a big drought at the time,” he recalls, “so a lot of us farmers had to drill wells to make up for the lack of snow runoff in the mountains. I had very good success with it. I did 20 or 30 wells, and every one of them came in. Now, in the San Joaquin or Sacramento Valley, if you want water for a house, say six-to-10 gallons per minute, you don’t need a dowser. Just drill anywhere and you’ll get that much. But if you need 3,000 to 5,000 gallons a minute for irrigation, well, you need to hit one of those interglacial streambeds. That’s where I was dowsing.”
With anecdotal success stories like these (the tales go on and on), it kind of makes you wonder why dowsing has such as sketchy reputation, why, as Jack Nunn puts it, people eventually thought his dad was nuts. The answer lies in the unquantifiable explanations dowsers give for their abilities, the often-conflicting techniques used to achieve the same effects, and the dizzying range of elements and objects believed to be locatable via dowsing.
As far as Hannah Nunn is concerned, her father-in-law had a gift, plain and simple. “I think he felt that his body had some special sensitivity, and that’s what was really moving the dowsing rod,” says Hannah. “The rod was just an indicator, but you had to believe in it for it to work.”
Squire credits deeper forces. “According to Einstein’s theory of general relativity,” he begins, “time and space are related to speed. As speed increases, time and space shrink. Einstein said that if you could exceed the speed of light, which he believed impossible, you’d be in eternity, where there is no time and space. But several scientists have now computed that the speed of thought is 10,000 times faster than the speed of light. So if we can get our minds into the proper state, we can tap into what I call the universal mind and what some people might call God.”
Most people, whether they consider themselves religious or science-based, don’t buy that explanation. “A lot of religionists can’t accept dowsing because it doesn’t conform to their paradigm of thinking,” Squire says. “Scientists can’t accept it because they don’t understand how it works.” But that last fact doesn’t trouble Squire in the least. “I started off in college with the goal of being an aeronautical engineer,” he says. “One of the first things we learned was that it should be impossible for a bumblebee to fly because its wing span can’t generate enough aerodynamics to lift its body weight. But the bumblebee doesn’t know that, so he goes out and flies anyway. I think that’s the same with dowsing. Even though we can’t understand it, we go ahead and do it. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.”
“If you say your dowsing rods work because an alien blessed them with a magic wand, that’s fine. I don’t care why you think it works.”
Dowsers, says Squire, pick up signals that instruments designed to measure the phenomena of a Newtonian world we can’t detect. “It may be some physical thing, in which flowing water scrapes against whatever it’s running through, causing friction that may send up radiation or some sort of ray that maybe our aura can pick up on. Water is one of the easiest things to dowse,” he adds, “and that’s why most people in our society still perceive dowsing as locating water. But dowsers today do far more than locate water.”
Hannah describes the dowser’s art similarly. “He never got a chance to prove this, but Ron’s father felt that every mineral in the ground gives off waves. A dowser is just picking up those waves.”
Romie Nunn was not the first person to believe he could detect the presence of minerals under his feet. In a translation by Herbert Hoover (yes, the 31st U.S. president) of Georgius Agricola’s 1556 treatise on metallurgy, De re metallica, the Renaissance scientist explains how some miners “cut a fork from a hazel bush with a knife,” to find veins of ore.” Some, he wrote, use hazel exclusively for silver and ash for copper, but switch to iron and steel when looking for gold. “All alike,” Agricola observed, “grasp the forks of the twig with their hands, clenching their fists, it being necessary that the clenched fingers should be held toward the sky in order that the twig should be raised at that end where the two branches meet. Then they wander hither and thither at random through mountainous regions. It is said that the moment they place their feet on a vein the twig immediately turns and twists, and so by its action discloses the vein….”
Nunn’s theories went even further. He believed that certain minerals gave off bad waves that could cause disease. “At times everybody thought he was totally crackers and got annoyed with him for bothering people with these ideas,” says Hannah. “He became almost paranoid over it,” sighs Jack. “He believed the reason why some of his friends were having health problems was because they were living over areas that maybe were putting out these waves that were deteriorating their health. In fact, if I’m remembering right, my parents had a sheet of steel, maybe half an inch thick, under their bed to block the waves that my dad believed could come up and impact your health. My mom just put up with it, but a lot of people truly did think he was kind of loony.”
Peggy, who calls herself a “true believer,” has a similar story: “When my husband, Bob, and I were moving from Gillette to Cheyenne in 1978,” she says, “we found a house we were going to buy, but we waited until dad drove down from Casper to check it out for us. He determined that it had an underground stream running beneath it, but we took care of that problem by putting thick black plastic sheets with Vaseline between them under our mattress and under our son, Ross’s, mattress in his crib.”
Extraordinary lengths, you say? Maybe so, “but the water-witch part really did work,” Hannah insists.
For most people, the practice of dowsing for water is tolerated (if not understood) because it’s so ingrained in Western culture. To paraphrase the old saw about bad architecture, anything can become respectable if it’s around long enough. And while Nunn might have seemed “loony” to people in Wyoming in the 1970s and ’80s, today, after radon scares and films like Erin Brockovich, his core belief that there might be bad stuff in the ground that can make you sick is widely accepted now as an obvious truth.
Still, you wouldn’t stake your faith in dowsing to make a business investment, would you? That’s what Romie Nunn did, though, and ultimately it was his undoing.
“When I was between 10 and 15 years old,” remembers Jack, “I got to drive the car while my dad would sit in the passenger’s seat witching. We drove all over Natrona County. He would hold a little test-tube sample of uranium, gold, all sorts of things, in his hand and he’d track it. I remember one time we went looking for a gold mine he thought he could witch. We never did find it.”
Peggy also had her share of witching adventures with her father. “We would take off in the truck and end up some place way out in the country,” she says. “The Bates Creek and Poison Spider areas are some that I recall. We would walk and walk and walk, and all the time my dad would have his witching rod out, whether we were witching for water, oil, or whatever. Every now and then he would let me try. It would work sometimes for me, but not always. He told me I just needed to practice more, and then we would laugh.”
“For a period of time,” Jack continues, “he drilled these shallow oil wells and hit small amounts of oil, but at that time the technology was such that he couldn’t develop it. That’s when people started thinking he was kind of crazy. He got carried away with the witching.”
If the oil wells were his downfall, he was at least savvy enough to test his capabilities before sinking his own money in the ground.
“He got really intrigued with the idea that he could bring in a well,” confirms Ron. “He had worked as a lab technician for Standard Oil, so when he got into dowsing for petroleum products, he somehow convinced them to let him shadow their geologist—Romie was the kind of guy who could make friends with anybody. He actually flew in some of the company planes. He just said, ‘Look, let me experiment with my thinking to see if it checks out with your geologist’. But if you were the geologist and you were out trying to locate oil wells for the company, and all of a sudden here was this guy on the company plane shadowing you with his dowsing rod, well, you can see what kind of resentment that would cause.”
Had he found a few gushers using his techniques, no doubt Nunn would be an even more storied character in Wyoming history than he is today. But it was not to be. “He spent many years, and quite a lot of money, dowsing for oil and natural gas,” says Ron. “He would decide that he had a good location and then he’d bring in a drilling rig. He drilled a lot of dry holes, which wasn’t cheap, even in those days.”
“What’s interesting,” adds Jack, “is that he would hit oil, but the wells weren’t more than maybe 200 feet deep. These were shallow, shallow wells. He had a little company called Plainview Oil that he used to drill the wells and get the leases. But none of them were productive, and I think that’s when the family probably got upset with him because he was spending a lot of our money drilling those dry holes. That’s when my mother probably said, ‘You’re getting carried away’.”
“It’s a little known fact,” adds Squire, “that all the oil wells in Kuwait were dowsed. I had a friend who lived in Nebraska and was a very skilled oil dowser. He went down into Texas and Oklahoma and helped dowse for oil down there. So that’s a specialized field. Not all dowsers are capable of locating oil, though. It’s not flowing. It’s just a body of decomposed organic matter. It’s closer to what we call informational dowsing, just getting a yes or no answer, the ‘poor man’s lie detector’ thing.”
D.J. Grothe is one of those people who test such lie detectors. As the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation, Grothe has been trying to give away one million dollars to the first person who can prove that dowsing really works. Importantly, Grothe doesn’t care how it works, merely that a dowser can replicate his or her capabilities under controlled conditions.
“If you come to me and you say your dowsing rods work because an alien blessed them with a magic wand the night before,” Grothe says, “that’s fine. I don’t care why you think it works. Let’s just test it to see if it does.”
In one famous test in Kassel, Germany, a pipe running through a field was alternately filled and emptied of water. Twenty dowsers who volunteered to prove their abilities were told where the pipe was. All they needed to do was detect whether water was running in the pipe, or not.
“Initially my dad used willow, but then he switched to copper.”
Before and after the tests, each dowser certified that the tests were conducted fairly. In the end, 19 dowsers participated, each making 30 passes across the field. Each predicted he or she would be able to detect water between 90 and 100 percent of the time. The laws of chance guaranteed a success rate of 50 percent, but as a group, the dowsers managed to detect water, or its absence, only 52.3 percent of the time, doing no better than you or I would have by guessing.
“We’re open-minded,” says Grothe. “We want to test these things. If someone comes to us and says, ‘I can use dowsing rods to find X,’ well, that’s fantastic. And then we put together a mutually agreed upon test to see if their claim is borne out.”
It hasn’t happened yet, but if a dowser could prove his or her claim, the impact would go well beyond Randi’s million dollars. “Guess what else would happen?” asks Grothe. “The paradigm would change. Someone would be awarded a Nobel Prize because they’d have discovered this new phenomenon that’s never been able to be replicated in scientific inquiry. It would reinvent science. It would be a big deal, worldwide news. It’s not a matter of skeptics wanting to disprove this stuff. It’s a matter of skeptics wanting to see if these claims are anything more than a person’s wishful thinking.”
Actually, what’s going on, skeptics believe, is that dowsers are being tricked by something called the ideomotor effect. “It’s the same effect that happens when you’re playing with a planchette on a Ouija board,” Grothe says. “You don’t think you’re moving it and your partner across the table doesn’t think she’s moving it, either. That little thing seems to move on its own.”
Related to the ideomotor effect is the oxymoronic concept of an unstable equilibrium. “When you’re thinking about mechanical equilibrium,” Grothe says, “you’re talking about a closed system. But when you’re holding a dowsing rod, you’re adding energy to the system by your movement. You end up moving it without even knowing you’re doing so.” Thus, in an unstable equilibrium, the stick or rod resting in the palm of your hand appears to move.
Importantly, dowsing rods do not work unless they have contact with a human hand. “They don’t move if you just set them on a pedestal and don’t touch them. They will come to rest and not move again, even if you position whatever the rod is supposed to be receptive to in front of it. Dowsing rods are not like compass needles, which will move if they’re not being held.”
Naturally, dowsers have an explanation for that. “The dowser,” Grothe continues, “says the rod has to be held by a person because the person’s energy is the battery that fuels the device. If quantum physics, or whatever, will prove that energy fields exist, that would be a great leap forward in science. But if you say dowsing works because of quantum physics, but then can’t show that dowsing works, who cares about quantum physics’ relationship to dowsing, right? That’s why we invite people to take the test.”
Just as there are varying theories among dowsers as to why dowsing works, there are differences of opinion over the devices themselves. “For years, the argument was what kind of tree was best?” Squire says. “The final analysis determined it was pliability. That is, the ability of the stick to be able to bend without breaking.”
Romie Nunn started out using sticks but eventually switched to copper pipe, whether he was looking of oil, water, or gold. Some dowsers hold pendulums over maps to find what they are looking for, which can include missing persons, while others claim that the practice as a whole works better at night than in the daytime. “Today we have plastics that are more pliable than any tree limb and they don’t dry out,” Squire says. “A tree limb, as soon as it’s laid around for a day or two and dries out, then it won’t work anymore and you have to go cut another one. So now professionals get these plastic, what we call white rods, and they have replaced the old forked stick. Of course, if you don’t have the money, just go cut something off of a tree. Pliability is the key factor.”
Except when it’s not. “Some of us dowsers now do what we call device-less dowsing. I just use some part of my body, like a couple of my fingers. I just push my thumb against my middle finger and test the muscle there, and if it holds without slipping, that means it’s a yes. But if the muscle goes limp and flips off like snapping your fingers, then I take that as a no. That’s how, for instance, I buy watermelon. I hold my left hand over each melon and I ask, ‘Which melon in this pile is at the proper maturity for my likes?’ And I keep my right hand behind my back where nobody can see it so I don’t get criticized, and then I can tell which melons are the right ones to buy. I never get a bad melon that way.”
Okay, so if a former peach farmer wants to hold his hands over melons in the grocery store to test them for ripeness and says that it works, what’s the harm? The problem, says Grothe, is that sometimes unscrupulous individuals use the promise of dowsing to separate people from their money. Worse, relying on such specious techniques can cost lives.
“You have things like the ADE 651, the Quadro Tracker, and other devices, which are empty boxes with some wires, maybe wires from an old remote control or something. They’re not even connected; it’s a scam.”
In the 1990s, school districts and police departments across the United States purchased a total of 1,000 Quadro Trackers to look for everything from illegal drugs to missing persons. As recently as 2010, the Iraqi government was using ADE 651s to detect bombs—the country spent a reported $85 million on the bogus devices before its “inventor,” a businessman named James McCormick, was convicted of fraud and sent to prison for 10 years.
“Imagine the civil liberty implications of being arrested based of a reading from a device that doesn’t actually work,” says Grothe. “Or imagine an event like the Haiti earthquake. Instead of using dogs to sniff for survivors, you spend tens of thousands of dollars on one of these gizmos that’s supposed to find survivors. Lives can be at stake because of this silly belief. It’s not just to each his own. The belief in these dowsing rods can actually cause real, immeasurable harm. The reason we care about all this is because belief in this nonsense can hurt people.”
In Romie Nunn’s case, his beliefs only hurt the family finances. And while you can detect twinges of bitterness in the voices of Nunn’s sons when they talk about that, their real regret seems to be that their father was not able to pass on his gift.
“I was always skeptical,” says Ron. “The one person who really believed in him was Hannah. She loved being his buddy. He taught her how to do it, and I think that she was pretty good at it. The rest of us he wouldn’t bother with because we weren’t really on his team.”
“All I can tell you,” says Hannah, “is that for one reason or another, I don’t know what it was, Ron’s father really wasn’t terribly keen on teaching anybody. I think he wanted this ‘power’ all to himself.”
Jack wanted in on the secret, but nothing came from all those years driving around Natrona County looking for uranium, oil, and gold.
“He tried to teach me and I tried to learn, but it never worked,” Jack says. “I guess even though I spent all that time with him, maybe I never was a complete believer. I couldn’t get it to work. But I saw enough evidence with the water that today if I had to drill a well, I would try to find a water witcher. If I had needed that done when my dad was alive, there’s no way I would’ve drilled it without him finding it for us.”
In fact, even Ron, the avowed skeptic, is still a bit haunted by his dad’s ability to connect the universe’s dots. “He would pull this one on anybody,” Ron remembers. “Let’s say you had a dead grasshopper. He would take a leg off that grasshopper, give it to you, and say, ‘Take this leg and just put it somewhere, in the house or around the house. Give me the grasshopper and I’ll make the connection between the two. I’ll find it.’ And then he would do it. I had real hard time with that one.”