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For Society of Dowsers, It’s Nonbelievers Who Are All Wet

<i> Steve Padilla is a Times staff writer. </i>

Fenwick Warner, a professional dowser for 40 of his 81 years, stood still in concentration, his chubby hands grasping a forked branch clipped from a peach tree.

When the branch began to quiver and slowly pointed down, Warner nodded slightly, satisfied he had found water somewhere in the subterranean depths. In his lifetime, Warner says, he’s located more than 300 water wells and only once had clients complain that he led them to a “duster.”

Most scientists rank divining rods with UFOs, alchemy and perpetual-motion machines. There is no scientific explanation, they huff, for locating water by the unexplained wiggling of a stick. Yet Warner and his brethren insist dowsing really does work.

How?

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“Absolutely no idea,” Warner deadpanned.

“I don’t see worrying my mind about it.”

Neither did 11 other people attending a recent meeting of the Southern California Chapter of the American Society of Dowsers. They had gathered at Shadow Ranch Park in Canoga Park on a sunny morning to share expertise and swap stories about their ancient and mysterious calling.

On the side of the park’s recreation building they hung a large blue banner showing the society’s logo, hands holding a Y-shaped branch, and in silver lettering: “The Art of Dowsing Shines Brightest When Helping Humanity. Southern California Chapter of the American Society of Dowsers.”

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Presiding over the meeting was chapter President Alvin Kaufman, a 73-year-old retired engineer from Woodland Hills who readily admits he can’t explain how dowsing works but says that neither can anyone else.

“If there’s 5,000 dowsers, there’s 10,000 theories,” Kaufman said.

Perhaps that mystery is part of dowsing’s charm and allure. There’s something appealing about the rustic chemistry of water, stick and human hands. Like the horse and plow, dowsing embodies an age which survives only in memory.

As Kaufman spoke, a woman fashionably dressed in purple and green wandered into the park’s meeting room. She had recognized the divining rod, or thought she had, and hopefully asked, “Is this what I think it is?”

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Kaufman smiled and replied matter-of-factly: “We’ll be talking about L-rods, forked sticks and Y-rods.”

Apparently unfamiliar with the lingo, she looked at Kaufman as if he had answered in Chippewa. Her interest in dowsing urged her to stay, but a previous engagement beckoned. “Believe it or not, I’m here for a Nicotine Anonymous meeting upstairs,” she said, heading upstairs to kick her habit but promising to return later.

Kaufman was clearly pleased by the interest. It’s hard to generate interest in dowsing, he admitted, and membership in the chapter has fallen off in recent years. In addition to dealing with skeptics--"We still get pooh-poohed"--he said the society also must contend with the pretenders who muddy the waters, so to speak, and give dowsing a bad name.

Why, some charlatans insist that dowsing requires special wooden sticks, or that it won’t work if the dowser is wearing rubber shoes. “Unfortunately,” sighed Kaufman, “there are a lot of kooks in this world.”

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All dowsing really takes is faith, the dowsers insisted. After a novice tried a plastic dowsing rod without effect, actor and sometime dowser Jack Jozefson raised that crucial point. “Did you ask for anything?” he said.

“No.”

“That’s what you got.”

They stressed that before starting a search, a dowser must indicate--out loud or silently--the object of the quest, be it water, oil, lost cities, a downed aircraft or car keys. If properly performed, dowsing can locate wells, water pipes, almost anything, Kaufman said.

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“Ask and you may receive,” Warner said. If you want water, you have to ask for water. If you want potable water, you have to say so. And if you want potable water within 50 feet of the surface, you have say that too.

“You ask with specificity,” Warner explained.

A short time later, Leo Plotkin, his wife, Mildred, Billie Rancier and Russ Hightower took up their divining rods and, as boys played touch football in the background, set off in a row across the park to search for water.

The rods held by Rancier and the Plotkins soon began to quiver. Hightower came up dry.

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“I don’t have any luck,” he said.

“He’s a nonbeliever,” Rancier said.

“It’s got to be vodka before I can find it,” Hightower said.

Rancier had brought Hightower, a retired engineer, to the meeting to introduce him to dowsing. He often stood with arms crossed as the dowsers walked back and forth, reporting water down below. He was not impressed

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“You’re moving your hand,” Hightower complained when Kaufman’s divining rod dipped toward earth.

“I am not.”

Kaufman, clearly exasperated, repeated the exercise and once again the stick pointed down. Hightower shook his head slightly. “He moved his hand.”

Indeed, there was no way to confirm Kaufman’s find. No one had brought a drill, or even a shovel. But someone did bring a pair of pliers and with them Kaufman tried to turn Hightower into a believer.

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To prove a dowsing rod would move without his help, Kaufman held a Y-shaped stick, the long end pointing forward. He balanced one branch in his left palm, careful not to grasp it, and locked the other in a pair of pliers, Hightower watching him closely.

After several paces, the rod began to dip.

Kaufman looked triumphant. Hightower balked.

“He let the pliers go down.”

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