Two L-shaped copper rods rattle on the dash of the minivan. Mike Doney and I bump along a country road, on our way to dowse a well for an electrical engineer in rural Redland. Doney tries to explain how he uses the rods to locate potable underground streams.
"I don't claim to fully understand it," says the 77-year-old freelance water witch. "All I know for sure is that we're on a planet that's vibratin' and resonatin' with an abundance of living energy--intelligent energy--and I can tune into it with my dowsing rods."
Dowsing is ancient, one of those old hoodoo-clouded crafts that somehow survive into the 21st century. Doney claims that dowsing lives, not because of some nostalgia for the Olden Ways, but because this divination technique is improbably useful.
Doney has located hundreds--if not thousands--of wells over the past 50 years (he charges $100 per house call, and is dead-on eight out of 10 times). He also dowses for deer, salmon, car keys, ghosts and UFOs.
Here's the really creepy thing: Doney has had his greatest successes dowsing remotely. Recently, a skeptical homeowner with acreage in McMinnville called after paying to have seven wells drilled. All were dry. Doney put the phone down, stepped into his back yard in Milwaukie, pictured the stranger's property in his head--and dowsed it. The driller hit water on the next try.
"I realize that all of this sounds just nuts," he says. "But the astonishing thing is that it actually works."
Immediately after he says this, Doney sticks his right thumb in his mouth, lets go of the steering wheel and slams his fist into the heel of his left hand three times. After a few seconds of silence, I ask. He allows that we passed a horse farm.
There was a colt in the paddock, he explains. A white colt.
That's what you're supposed to do whenever you see a white horse. Brings good luck. Something he picked up from an old woman while sitting around a campfire in Pendleton, where he once worked as a cop. Dowsing he learned from his landlord when he was a logger in Grants Pass, living behind a tavern.
Turns out our engineer is another desperate skeptic; the municipal water line servicing his 26 forested acres is off indefinitely. His family has been drinking water bought by the gallon in Southeast Portland. With dowsing rods drawn like a gunslinger, the white-haired witch asks the Keeper of the Water if there might be a potable year-round vein near the house. Instantly, both rods swing to the right 90 degrees. Doney follows a fence until the rods rotate and cross. When he steps backward, they uncross. Water. Or so the rods would have us believe. There's no driller here to confirm our find right now.
"I have a hard time believing this," confesses the engineer, arms folded, shaking his head. Doney smiles.
"A long time ago, I had a hard time believing this, too," he says.
Skeptics and wannabe water witches are invited to drop in on Mike Doney's last two weekly dowsing classes.
Rowe Middle School, Room 3, 3606 Lake Road, Milwaukie, 659-0165. 7 pm Thursdays, May 17 and 24. $15.
For more information about dowsing, check out the American Society of Dowsers website, www.dowsers.org.