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Amid historic drought, some turn to an ancient practice in their quest for water

Scientists scoff, but dowsers insist their forked sticks really work

Liz Green, executive director of Three Sisters Garden, inspected her underground irrigation system while at the farm in Ipswich.Erin Clark / Globe Staff

IPSWICH — When Elizabeth Green found herself in dire need of a new well-water source to sustain her 5-acre hillside plot this summer, the 40-year-old farmer did not turn to scientists or surveyors.

She didn’t call in a team of hydrogeologists, with their fancy drone footage, and satellite data, and infrared technology.

Instead, she phoned 79-year-old Peter Britton of Hamilton, a man with faded blue jeans and an oddly shaped stick — known colloquially as a dowsing rod — whose preternatural ability to identify underground water sources has routinely left her flummoxed.

“I don’t know what he’s doing, and I don’t know how he does it,” said Green, executive director of the Three Sisters, a nonprofit community farm that provides crops to food-insecure people throughout Essex Country. “But I’ve seen the results.”

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Dowsing, or water divining as it’s sometimes called, has been described as “witchcraft,” “nonsense,” and “voodoo” — an old-wives’ tale long written off by scientists.

But in the midst of an historic drought that left ground water dangerously hard to come by, those in need of a consistent water source appear to be shelving skepticism, turning to the centuries-old practice to fill the void. Even after recent rains, all of Massachusetts still faces drought conditions, according to state officials.

Sandi Isgro, acting president of the American Society of Dowsers, a 1,600-member, Vermont-based organization that connects dowsers with water-seekers across the country, said calls seeking dowsers have doubled over the past year.

Meanwhile, Leroy Bull, a celebrity in the dowsing world who literally wrote the book on the subject (4.8 out of 5 stars on Amazon), said he’s seen a 30 percent increase this summer in requests for his water-related services.

Peter Britton, a longtime water dowser, demonstrated his dowsing rod while spending time at Three Sisters Garden in Ipswich. Erin Clark / Globe Staff

“I’ve done six golf courses in the last 10 months, and some there in your state,” said Bull, who is based in Connecticut. “They’ve got those greens, and they want them green.”

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Dowsing, by its simplest definition, is the process of locating water underground. Though there are a variety of methods — some practitioners believe they need only their minds to conjure the presence of water — it is most commonly associated with the use of a so-called dowsing rod, a slingshot-shaped tool that dowsers believe reacts to the presence of underground water.

The practice can be difficult to adequately define, much less quantify. Much of the work involves aiding farmers or rural homeowners in identifying water sources for wells. But there are a multitude of dowsing services that can be had; some dowsers claim, for instance, to have the power to rid a home of negative energy or locate missing animals.

In describing their chosen trade, many seem to have settled on a common description of the practice: Dowsing, they say, is the honing through time and experience of one’s sixth sense.

“Does the hair on your arms ever raise up?” said Greater Boston Dowsers president Susan McNeill Spuhler, just back from a dowsing job in Arkansas. “That’s called your intuition. Dowsing is focused intuition.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the science-minded have been largely unmoved by the concept.

Multiple studies have reportedly determined that locating water via dowsing is no more likely than by random chance. The US Geological Survey points out that underground water is so prevalent near the land surface that “it would be hard to drill a well and not find [at least some] water.”

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As for the movement of a dowsing rod as it nears a water source, the tell-tale sign, dowsers say, of the presence of water? Nonbelievers describe it as coincidental — made either inadvertently or subconsciously, not unlike people using a Ouija board.

“To be able to distinguish with some sticks that there is a geological discontinuity that would produce substantial water in a predictable manner is nonsense,” said James Emery, a hydrogeologist and the founder of New Hampshire-based Emery & Garrett Groundwater Investigations, which uses satellite imagery, high-altitude infrared, and lidar data to identify water sources. “There’s no scientific evidence to that.”

And yet, the practice has maintained a curious foothold in the mainstream.

Today, various municipalities and state departments across the country rely informally upon trusted dowsers to examine sites before they begin the costly process of drilling for water. The American Society of Dowsers, Isgro said, is invited annually to New Hampshire’s water workers field day and exhibit show, where they offer lessons on dowsing to the state’s water workers.

A few years ago, a United Kingdom blogger surveyed a dozen of the country’s water companies and found that at least 10 utilized dowsing in some manner.

“We’ve found that some of the older methods are just as effective [as] the new ones, but we do use drones as well, and now satellites,” said one British company, Severn Trent, in a Twitter post.

(Some of the companies surveyed later attempted to downplay their use of the practice following a bout of negative publicity.)

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For Britton, the Hamilton dowser, the practice is all a bit of a mystery.

He first learned of dowsing as a child on his family’s Vermont farm, and although he jokingly refers to it as “the stupidest thing I’ve ever done” and “completely unscientific,” he also does not deny that there is something to it.

In addition to locating the sites for two wells at Three Sisters farm, Britton — who unlike many dowsers does not charge for his services — has identified the locations of wells at at least three other Massachusetts farms in recent years, in Southborough, Dartmouth, and Dover.

His best guess, he says, is that his body is receiving a signal, through the rod’s movement, to the proximity of moving water, though he also relies on more tangible clues. One of the two wells located at Three Sisters farm, for instance, was next to a large tree stump, which he figured would have required an ample supply of water.

Whatever the explanation, his work has made at least one believer.

Green, the Ipswich farmer, does not claim to know how Britton is able to do what what he does, or why.

This much, however, she knows: Without the well water resulting from Britton’s work, the Three Sisters farm would not have survived the current drought, and countless people who rely on its yields would’ve been without food they’ve come to rely upon.

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“I still don’t understand it at all,” Green said. “But I’ve seen it in action [enough] times that his track record speaks for itself.”


Dugan Arnett can be reached at dugan.arnett@globe.com.