I have a new piece up at The Aesthete!

In Search of Survivalists: Notes on Dowsing

Originally published in Wilder Quarterly

When I signed up to attend a meeting with the American Society of Dowsers, a meeting whose description promised “mini-dowsing lessons,” I imagined we’d be outside. I envisioned a group of bearded, Pendleton-clad woodsmen and myself, walking through one of New York’s more rural plots, each of us holding two twigs – closing our eyes? – waiting for our sticks to speak to us.

From what I’d read about dowsing (also called water-witching or doodlebugging), I knew that it was a method used for locating underground water (or precious metals, or the gravestone of a lost relative, or the best place to sow a crop, or oil, or bombs, or archaeological artifacts, or anything, really) by way of specific ‘tools’ – usually two L-shaped metal rods, held lightly in the dowser’s hands, a Y-shaped ‘dowsing stick’, or a pendulum. These instruments vary from bent coat hangers to specifically designed ‘divining rods’ to a crystal tied to a scrap of string; dowsers are democratic when it comes to apparatus. In the case of the rods, the dowser holds them front of him, parallel to the ground, with his elbows at his sides. He waits for the slight movement that indicates which path he should follow. At the end of this path, the dowser hopes, he will find what he is looking for.

My initiation into dowsing takes place not among birch trees but in a bustling community center in Hell’s Kitchen, in a room where you’d expect to find a PTA meeting. This is where the Anne Williams Chapter of the ASD (named for the very elderly woman in the emerald sweater, who in 2008 was named Dowser of the Year) meets monthly. There’s a soprano duet happening across the hall and a piano playing show tunes. There are tables stocked with predictable snacks (TLC crackers, those plantain chips, almonds, cheese). A trio of happy birthday balloons sulk in a corner. I wonder how we will learn to look for water in here – will our dowsing rods guide us to the jug of Poland Springs near the popcorn? – and if it is not water we were looking for than what it might be.

The group (there are nineteen of us) consists of a breed of New Yorkers found most often in places like this one – community centers, improv classes, art openings with free wine and cheese, the health and wellness sections in independent bookstores. They are a sort of new-age old guard,whose blatant diversity could be described by the headwear present – there’s the turban, the afro, and (quintessential to the vibe) the red beret. The woman across from me at the long table (leopard print sweater, tear-drop wedding ring) is a self-proclaimed psychic mediator – she can ‘speak to the other side.’ A few people look like they could work on Wall Street. Others that might be friends with my mother (they have kind lines in their faces and linen pants). There is a couple wearing matching purple shirts (not planned, they tell me, but this happens to them a lot.) The common sartorial (and spiritual?) denominator: a pendulum around each neck, on a long rope or chain.

‘Who needs a pendulum?!’ The instructor of the lesson – a quick tempered man with an evangelical warmth – shouts before we begin. I do! ‘We’ll need these back,’ he tells me sternly as he hands me a plastic baggie full of pendulum – mine is a pointed chrome-colored weight with a beaded string. ‘They’re not plastic.’

This pendulum (whose form varies from semi-precious stone to miniature globe to – as the guy next to me exhibits – a set of house keys on a string) will be used to access answers to yes or no questions. But first you must clear your energy. You can do this by tapping your thymus gland (just below the collarbone). Not just tapping it but saying hello to it. Then waving away all the negative energy in your personal space with your hands (this moderately resembles doing the Charleston). Because your body has an electro magnetic field. Because we all have electromagnetic frequencies. And when we have a clear frequency we can communicate to a higher frequency. So repeat after me. Please clear all detrimental energies from my pendulum. Allow only the highest universal truth to work through it. Because this universal truth will help us find answers to our questions. I tap my chest. So this is what we are looking for. We are looking for the answers to our questions.

Dowsing is an age old practice; find caveman renditions of divining rods on the walls of North African caves, dated up to 8,000 years old. Moses and Aaron dowse for water in the bible. The Greeks were dowsing back in 400BC; Homer refers to a dowsing tool more than once in the Odyssey as ‘Rhabdomancy’ (divining rod, in Greek).

Throughout history dowsing has been used in everything from medicine to the military. Doctors have used the practice to locate cancerous tumors in the body and to discover fatal diseases or allergies; it is often used alongside  homeopathy due to their similar understanding of health as having an energetic basis. Dowsing rods were given to US marines in the Vietnam War to search for mines, tunnels, enemy camps, and booby traps. The German military hired dowsers during the Third Reich, and the system was used by numerous armies during World War II. In 2008, Iraq’s security forces spent over 80 million dollars on an unspecified quantity of a type of dowsing rod called the ADE 651.

In nearly all of its uses, dowsing seems to be a mechanism for survival; finding water, perhaps, is (or was) on the top of every survivalist’s list. Survival, by definition, means a matter of life and death – and in many cases dowsing has become a tool for keeping people alive, or at least keeping them well. For an unscientific method (there is no factual basis
for why dowsing works, if it does) a tremendous faith (a matter of life and death faith) has been placed in its power.

Like most things mystic, this is met byskeptics. Entire books have been written on the inefficacy of the method (“A Critical History of Superstitious Practices Which Have Seduced Lay Persons and Embarrassed Savants”, by Father Lebrun, for one). A Christian website rants, ‘Don't be deceived, it's occult power behind this practice, just like a Ouija board!’ In 1987, German scientists conducted the Scheunen Experiments, an extensive series of research projects to see if dowsers actually could locate items at a higher rate than would be brought about by simple chance. The majority of the results pointed to no, they couldn’t, but then there were a few dowsers who were nearly faultless – their incredible rates of success led to further discussions on the power of human intuition and its place in the scientific process (or simply the process of living). If it could not be explained, how could we accept it as real? And if it is not real, and a doctor uses it to detect a tumor in a patient’s body, should that tumor not be removed?

‘What are we looking for here?’ asks the woman next to me. She is also new to dowsing, and she scowls out at her pendulum, which remains still, hanging over a chart shaped like a half-moon. ‘What should be happening?

‘Well,’ says our teacher, ‘Let’s say you want to know if you are compatible with your current boss. You can ask the pendulum – assuming you have clear energy – am I compatible with my current boss? See what it says!’

The half-moon chart is divided into slices, by lines that mean certain percentages. Once your pendulum starts swinging, it should align with one of those numbers. I watch the woman next to me as she twitches her pendulum into action. It swings somewhere around 50 percent. I can tell she’s not satisfied.

‘Here’s a good example!’ says our teacher. ‘It’s the holidays, right? So we can use dowsing to help us shop for gifts!’

I am busy asking my pendulum about my personal life – I find I am 95% compatible with my boyfriend and 30% compatible with cake. The other students blurt out questions. ‘Can you ask a question to someone who’s passed into another dimension?’ says the woman in the red beret. ‘Is this kind of like a third eye?’ asks someone else. ‘Mine’s not working,’ says
the woman next to me, just when I am starting to believe.

Albert Einstein said, "I know very well that many scientists consider dowsing as they do astrology, as a type of ancient superstition. According to my conviction this is, however, unjustified. The dowsing rod is a simple instrument which shows the reaction of the human nervous system to certain factors which are unknown to us at this time."

Like Albert Einstein and his energetic hair, dowsing is romantic. It follows the logic (or the anti-logic), that intuition (from our nervous system or otherwise) deserves a place alongside or above intellect, and that energy flow is as important to trust as hard statistics. It praises instinct and feeling. It places trust in the idea of trust. This is romantic in the way that love is romantic – following it blindly is what makes it worth something. Following something means your course is changed, and change, in many ways, is the very essence of survival.

Homer’s name, interestingly, is derived from hóm-ē-ros, means "hostage" which is interpreted as meaning "he who accompanies; he who is forced to follow.” This points to something I find essential about the act of dowsing: the willingness – or desire – to be led – whether by a force outside or inside oneself – rather than consciously or intellectually making deductions about what one should do. Although I realized that I might be affecting the answers my pendulum gave me (after all, the pendulum doesn’t swing without being set, however slightly, in motion), I also realized that this might be the point. That sometimes we need to know what we, ourselves, are thinking, and make our choices accordingly. And so doesn’t this mean that we are actually following ourselves? And if a tool can  help us do this, why not use it? Why not pull your pendulum from your shirt pocket in the supermarket. Ask it, who and how and what should I be today?

I leave the dowsing class slightly disappointed. I have not learned how to find water, and I am not sure I have answered any questions that I didn’t already know the answer to. I had come to the meeting in search of occult pioneers and mythical water witches; I had wanted to learn from them how I might stay alive if I were suddenly dying of thirst while backpacking. But as I walk home in the rain – my water for the evening – I realize that what I had been searching for – a survivalist – might just look very different ten blocks from Times Square than in 1961 Vermont. That the people I was swinging pendulums with, for whom staying alive is not a matter of finding  water but of choosing what brand to buy at the store, are perhaps the urban (modern capitalist?) equivalent. They might dowse to see if they should sign a lease on an apartment or invest in a certain type of hand cream. They may  need to know if their subway commute is going to take longer than usual. They live in New York City, after all, where survival can depend on meeting once a month at the community center, asking questions in unison.

Crystal Visions: A Close Up Look at the Mythic, Mystical Geode

 Intro to a text on geodes, originally published in Wilder Quarterly
A geode, on the outside, looks just like any other rock: sandy, dusty, brownish gray – a generally unfascinating hunk of earth. Inside – if you crack its hard crust – is another story: a network of hexagonal, trigonal, tetragonal, orthorhombic, monoclinic and triclinic patterns created by constantly growing crystals the color of small girls’ bedrooms. It looks like a fairy spontaneously combusted inside of it, leaving an intricate, sparkling hole in her wake.
Having recently been introduced to the world of crystals by a good friend who has “gotten into them,” I have come to understand that each comes with its own powers. Aquamarine conjures courage, jade brings joy, a tiger’s eye relieves uncertainty. The geode, most commonly filled with quartz crystals, is apparently a master at channeling feminine energies: aiding in pregnancy, fertility, and grounding. (Seeing that it is composed of tiny crystals growing inside the stomach of a bigger rock, this makes practical sense to me.) It can also aid in communication, decision making, and ‘astral travels’. Just like any other rock? Maybe not.
The other night the same friend put a rose quartz in my hand. On the outside, it was just another rock, calm and cool and skin-pink. But I also felt a warm gentleness, emanating either from my friend or from the rose quartz (which is said to be the stone of unconditional love). Holding something, no matter if I understood or believed in its elusive magic, felt a bit like being held – a small crystal in the stomach of a bigger rock.



I am so excited to give a lecture at the Carville Annex in San Francisco in March!  I am also super stoked that Alexis gave me floral print hair, something I've always wanted but never knew I wanted. See you soon, San Francisco!



A Carville Annex Offsite Solstice Reading plus Communing

guest curated by Annakai Geshlider

Sunday, December 16th, 11am
at the redwood grove in the botanical gardens
1199 9th Ave at lincoln

(come early so you can wander through the
gardens to find the redwoods spot with leisure)
bring your ID if you live in SF you get in for free,
if not you might have to pay like $2 to get in which
is super worth it for the walk with the plants alone.

the few people reading: Lindsay Crawford / Sarah Fontaine / Annakai Geshlider / Jordan Karnes / Mabel Taylor + special guest from NYC, Molly Prentiss

wear your finest warm dress ups, or what you want the redwoods to see you in / cozy drinks will be provided

Dear friends,

Junior Clemons, poet, genius, and friend extraordinaire, is coming to New York on his world famous book tour for his new book SO MANY MOUNTAINS BUT THIS ONE SPECIFICALLY, put out by Carville Annex Press. He will be doing two readings while he is in New York, and this is an official invite to attend one or both of them (BOTH!) He will read so many good poems and will be accompanied by so many good friends.

The first event is on THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 8th, at 8pm at Unnamable Books, in Prospect Heights. With Sarah Fontaine, Iris Cushing, and Caitie Moore.

The second is on SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 10th at 7pm at The Legion, in Williamsburg. With M.G. Martin, Marisa Crawford, Tess Patalano, Matt Rohrer, Jessica Chrastil, and myself. Songs by Golden West Service and Wanda + Wonder to follow.

Check out these fliers and post them, tweet them, pass them along. Come one, come all, bring friends

Stay tuned for the fall issue of Wilder Quarterly...available in just a couple short weeks! I have small articles about mythic orbs of light and sparkly healing geodes inside, because fall is magical.

New story up at Metazen!