Rants from the Hill: Chickenfeathers strikes water


For well over 500 years people have engaged in “dowsing,” an activity that is also known by a variety of vernacular terms including “witching,” “divining,” and, my young daughters’ favorite, “doodlebugging.” Dowsing is the activity of attempting to locate -- without the use of scientific equipment -- something valuable that lies beneath the ground. While in earlier centuries dowsers primarily sought lodes of precious metals, in more recent times dowsing has more often been used to witch wells -- that is, to locate sources of subterranean water in advance of the drilling of a domestic water well. The devices used by dowsers vary, but most employ some form of “witching stick,” which during the Renaissance was known as the virgula divina (Latin for “divine rod”). This divining rod is often a Y-shaped stick cut from witch-hazel, willow, or peach, but it may instead be made of any number of other materials.

In order to appreciate water witching, and this short essay about it, you must understand only two things: 1. witching has been widespread for more than a half millennium; 2. there is absolutely no scientific evidence for its effectiveness.

Out here in Silver Hills, our wells are deep, expensive, and sometimes unreliable, and so your good or bad luck with a well is often a determinant not only of the value of your property but also its inhabitability. The hit-or-miss nature of drilling for water has given rise to a rich body of local folk narratives, which tend to focus on the quality of a well as an indicator of human character. For example, we all know the story about our neighbor who went 700 feet, gave up the hole, picked a new spot, and then went 900 feet before finally discovering sulphurous, fetid, barely potable liquid that leaks out at three gallons per minute. And we all know why this guy had to pay fifty grand for a dribble of putrid water: because he sided with a local developer who wants to turn our pronghorn calving grounds and mule deer winter range into a labyrinth of cul-de-sacs. Meanwhile, the nicest guy on our road went only 300 feet and scored 45 gallons per minute of liquid gold -- a sure sign that he’s received his reward on earth, even if it turns out there’s no water in heaven. And while no Silver Hillsian would ever mention God, let alone karma, we seem to believe that water, like faith, is somehow the evidence of things unseen.

Before we built our place we had first to succeed in sinking a well, so we asked around among Silver Hillsians about good drillers. The consensus seemed to be that it wasn’t who drilled your well that mattered but rather where they drilled it. And that, rumor had it, was the exclusive province of Chickenfeathers, an eighty-odd-year-old neighbor who was locally renowned as a dowser. While nobody on my road would admit to having had the old man witch their own well, they each told me that everyone else on the road had used him to witch theirs. When I politely expressed skepticism about Chickenfeathers to Ludde, my closest neighbor (and my unofficial mentor as a curmudgeon), he replied: “You’re gonna spend a bunch of thousands of dollars on a well that no scientist can tell you where to drill. Chickenfeathers may not know where to drill either, but he only charges forty bucks. You think you know better?” This from a man who once watched me put my truck into four wheel drive after I was stuck in the mud and asked, “Do you also wipe your ass after you pull your pants up?”

Needless to say, I called Chickenfeathers. He said he was too old to drive, so we made arrangements for my Dad to give him a lift out to the property. Chickenfeathers turned out to be closer to 180 than 80, and he was dressed like the Great Basin cowboy he was: roper boots, dusty jeans, plaid shirt, leather vest, silver bolo tie, rabbit felt cowboy hat with feathers on the face of the crown, and a cowhide satchel that he wore slung over his shoulder. When he got to my place, Chickenfeathers just wanted to sit on the tailgate and watch the mountains etch the sky. He had lived a long time, and he was a man who was done with hurrying. After a half hour he finally opened the leather satchel, from which he removed a curved, forked stick that he said was freshly cut from coyote willow; along with the witching stick he had a smaller leather bag, which swung from a lanyard that had been braided from strips of sagebrush bark. He positioned the forks of the willow rod in his weathered hands, glanced at me and my Dad, and said, with total confidence: “Now let’s find you boys some water.”

Chickenfeathers began to wander around in the desert in the general vicinity of where we thought the house might someday go, zigzagging through the sage and rabbit brush and desert peach and bitterbrush like a slow-motion hound working to catch a scent. My Dad and I followed along behind him, alternating glances between the witching stick and the old man’s face, which wore a look of total and unremitting concentration. Chickenfeathers’ unhurried approach gave me plenty of time to think about what I was actually doing: paying forty bills for the privilege of following a cowboy wizard around in the dust to get his entirely unscientific opinion about where I should bet a lot of money that I couldn’t afford to lose. I was embarrassed for engaging in what was clearly pure superstition. What next? Would I pay somebody to find water in the lines of my palm, or in a tarot deck? My pretensions to intelligence faded as I admitted that I had now entered the Magic Eight Ball school of problem solving -- though I rationalized that my fate may have been sealed when, as a kid, my own Magic Eight Ball cracked, lost its fluid, and remained stuck on “Reply hazy, try again.”

“Right here, boys!” called Chickenfeathers, indicating a perfectly random spot in the open desert. “Right here,” he repeated. Now he opened the small leather pouch and took out a silver plumb bob, which was attached to a long string that was decorated with chicken feathers. He began to swing the feathered bob back and forth hypnotically over the alkali sand, apparently feeling for the water through some invisible oscillation vibrating that feathered string, listening for the life-giving water percolating in its rock sanctuary hundreds of feet below the desiccated surface of the Great Basin. “You’ll go 400 feet and get 26 gallons a minute,” he declared, “and that water will be sweet as honey in the rock.”

After forking over a pair of Andy Jacksons and then delivering Chickenfeathers to his small house out on the edge of the BLM, my Dad and I tried to figure out where to drill the well. We agreed that Chickenfeathers’s performance hadn’t inspired much confidence, but unfortunately we lacked any clear way to make a truly rational decision about where to drill. The problem was not in fact where we should drill, but on what grounds we could rationalize choosing a spot other than the one Chickenfeathers had recommended. In the absence of hard facts it seemed natural to have recourse to pure superstition, and so eventually we simply gave up and drilled where Chickenfeathers said we should. As it turned out, we went 450 feet and struck 23 gallons per minute of water that is sweeter than words can ever tell. I still don’t know if Chickenfeathers was right or wrong. I know only that I got my forty bucks worth no matter what is true, no matter what remains hidden.


There is a coda to this story. Apart from my family and my High Country News editors, these monthly Rants from the Hill have had no greater advocate than my buddy Mike Colpo: an endurance athlete and mountain guide, a gifted writer and editor of Patagonia’s weblog, The Cleanest Line, a caring wilderness educator, and a courageous environmental activist. I recently met with Mike to hoist IPAs and discuss the details of our collaborative work to produce these Rants as a podcast series. At one point in the conversation I said something that prompted Mike to ask me to stop talking for a moment so he could think more about what I had said. And then he did. He sat there quietly and he actually thought about it, and in that strange moment I realized the unspeakable rarity of that simple act of respect and affection -- to actually listen to another person, to care enough to stop the clock of this frenetic life and do something that simple, that difficult, that important. Fifteen years ago I was Mike’s teacher, but in the past several years he became mine. When Mike Colpo died suddenly last week, the Great Basin lost a man with a profound ability to love and fight for this high, wild corner of the West. We don’t know where those invisible, subterranean rivers flow, or how to find them, or what it means even if we do. But there’s a kind of listening that reminds us that sweet water is down there, somewhere.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Michael P. Branch is Professor of Literature and Environment at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he teaches American literature and environmental studies. He has published five books and many articles on environmental literature, and his creative nonfiction has appeared in Utne Reader, Orion, Ecotone, Isotope, Hawk and Handsaw, Whole Terrain, and other magazines. He lives with his wife and two young daughters at 6,000 feet in the western Great Basin desert of Nevada.

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