Thursday, October 9, 2008

Water Witching in California's Great Valley

A story in today's New York Times features Phil Stine, a "water witch" and tells of the resurgence of this practice in California's Great central Valley during this time of drought. The Great Valley is, of course, the "nation's agricultural engine," to quote Jesse McKinley's story. Here's the story's lede:
Phil Stine is not crazy, or possessed, or even that special, he says. He has no idea how he does what he does. From most accounts, he does it very well.

“Phil finds the water,” said Frank Assali, an almond farmer and convert. “No doubt about it.”Mr. Stine, you see, is a “water witch,” one of a small band of believers for whom the ancient art of dowsing is alive and well.
The story continues with some colorful rural language and then with the voice of science, Dr. Thomas Harter, a UC Davis hydrologist. He says there is no scientific evidence that dowsers have a special talent at finding water and seems to attribute their popularity to the fact that they are cheaper than more sophisticated tools and equipment for locating aquifers. He suggests that men like Stine might have some intuition regarding water sources "simply by dint of knowing the territory." Harter's voice of science thus strikes me as an antidote to the what-- irrationality?-- of the farmers, the rural folks.

That contrast caused me to wonder if there is something reflective of rural culture (and not only rural associations with agriculture) in this story, in these farmers' confidence in water witching. Of course rurality is associated with nature; maybe it is also associated with the "supernatural," if you could call dowsing that. I'm not sure, but I know that I, too, find myself wanting to believe that witching works.

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