In Search Of… S03E04: Water Seekers

Dowsing. The supposed ability of people to find water with a stick. It's… look, it's uninteresting. Sorry, dowsers. Sorry sceptics. I know you all have something to say on the subject, but I just don't care. Probably that's unfair of me, but… y'know.

Here's a guy playing with his rod, and I can't even think of a joke to go with it.

Anyway point is, let's see how this works in In Search Of… We know the show can make Bigfoot, alien abductions and shark worship interesting, but those are pretty interesting to start with. How does it do with something really dull? Let's find out.

We open with images of green fields and water and Nimoy doing his best to sound like he cares as a tweedy guy walks across a field with a stick. Not a great start. And now a different tweedy guy with a stick. And now Nimoy with a stick. Nimoy claims that scientists are examining dowsing.

And we're back to England, for some reason. West country fields and hills and images of water. Now we're talking to Francis Hitchings. Oh, good. I liked him. He seems to come up whenever In Search Of… goes to England, and he has a wonderful way of saying nothing at all as if it were some great revelation. Here, he lays a bunch of paperback books on dowsing in a pile and announces that he didn't used to believe in dowsing but now he does.

Seriously. That's his bit. Way to earn that appearance fee.

Moving on, we're talking to Tom Graves, a former dowsing instructor. I was going to include a picture of him, but instead I'll just say: 1970s. English. Male. Former dowsing instructor. Now you should know what he looks like.

Yes, exactly that hairy.

He says that anyone can be taught to be a dowser. We see some guys who I guess are his students crossing a field, twigs in hand. Yes they do look like an album cover for a folk rock band.

Now we're talking to a Yorkshire farmer whose well ran dry, and so he spoke to a dowser. The dowser was Dr Arthur Baily, a lecturer in electronics who is also a dowser and president of the British Society of Dowsers. He's a surprisingly down-to-earth fellow whose tweed jacket has the biggest lapels I've ever seen. Goes nicely with his beige turtleneck. He talks matter-of-factly about how his dowsing proved that the well went dry because of blasting in a nearby quarry, and so needed to be rebored.

Fascinating, if true. If I was going to play sceptic, I'd wonder how much of this Baily knew before he stated waving his wands and whether he was consciously or subconsciously putting clues together to solve the mystery of the missing water. So I guess I am starting to care? Well done, show. Well done.

Now we're talking about springs through fissured rock – claiming it can only be located through dowsing. There's a little 'citation needed' moment when Nimoy claims that nowadays dowsers and geologists seem more eye to eye than back in the day when Christians persecuted dowsers. I think I must have missed that scene in The Crucible.

Moving on to Pat Lucas, 'Britain's only professional woman dowser'. You go girl? I guess? Ms Lucas lacks the folky vibe we've seen so far, instead seeming something like a senior teacher at a posh girls' school. In perfect BBC diction she explains the feeling of energy flowing through her as she finds water with her stick.

Church bells start ringing in the background as she speaks. I'm not joking, it happens. I almost expect a county cricket game to spontaneously start.

Nimoy – who seems to be trying harder than usual to sound like he's not talking guff – talks about testing the energy that Lucas describes. We see a montage of folky and/or tweedy dowsers at work while Nimoy explains the plan to measure the brain activity of dowsers at work. An impressive electronic device is shown, and just for a second I'm wondering if this is legit. My wondering dies as I see the machine's inventor.

His name is John Steel. He's a 'biofeedback expert'. He calls his device a 'mind mirror'.

He… ugh. He gestures with extremely grubby hands at his machine, explaining in a dull tone of voice about how delta brainwaves affect ESP phenomena, and… Oh, look, just ugh. I'm straight back to not caring again. So Cosplay Jesus puts the mind mirror onto Diary of an Edwardian Lady and she walks about with her stick. Seriously, he's the best 'scientists are now interested' they could get? They both babble a little as they walk. There's a graph afterwards. There's a small alpha spike or something.

Nimoy claims that there must be a scientific reason for this phenomenon – either electromagnetic or something as yet unknown to science. Harry Lovegrove, who looks like an evil teacher from a Pink Floyd video but is actually an electronic engineer is working on what looks like a steampunk camera but is actually a way of testing the human body's ability to detect microwave heat coming up from the Earth's core.

And just like that, I like this episode again. You go, Mr Lovegrove!

A dowser was called in to check Mr Lovegrove's backyard before the experiment begins and finds it free of… dowser… stuff? Okay. Now Mr Lovegrove brings out his crazy steampunk camera and talks in perfect teacher in a 1970s British children's show voice. He claims that his projector can interfere with the Earth's microwaves, laying down a 'shadow pattern' similar to the interference to radiation caused by subterranean water. The dowser found the line.

Well that looks like proof positive to me. But wait, who's here to argue the point? Why it's Francis Hitchings! He points out that Lovegrove's experiment hasn't been repeated. (That's a thing now? Repeatable experiments? Okay. Whatever floats your boat, Frank.) Besides, dowsers have done things so incredible that they defy explanation. He claims that dowsers have used pendulums to find crashed airplains, missing people and murder victims. Explain that, Mr. Lovegrove, when you're not being a supporting character in The Beano.

Now we're looking at Bill Lewis, a pendulum dowser. Hitchings goes of on a wonderful tangent about ancient standing stones sitting on the junction of underground streams. He wanted to find such stones in America so he got Lewis to find them with his pendulum, then went around and took pictures of them. He claims a 40% success rate, which if true would actually be pretty good. Hitchings concludes that there are two sides to dowsing, psychic and physical.

Next up is a dowser at work, a tweedy West Country man named Stan Shepard who uses a steel rod. He wanders around a field and reacts when he thinks he's found water. Nimoy tells us that he runs a very successful well drilling business and good for him. It's basically just more dowsing, as if we hadn't seen quite enough.

Nimoy sums up, saying that dowsing is natural and also a sixth sense and that scientists can't/don't/won't understand it so more research is needed.

So, obligatory sceptical bit. Water is a drillable distance beneath the ground in far more places than people think. And, like a lot of divination, dowsing seems to be a way of bypassing the rational faculties in order to better use one's intuition. This is interesting in and of itself, but not really supernatural.

Right, that’s done. So how was the show? Well, honestly more interesting than I expected. The small scale of the phenomenon meant that they weren't running through it at a gallop as they sometimes do, and the subject has some time to breathe. The interviewees were interesting – the dowsers being mostly pretty down-to-earth with the weirdness coming from the dowsing theorists.

It's a good episode. Not a great one, but whatever I think about the ideas this show presents, I just keep getting impressed by the craftsmanship of the presentation.

Quotes

"[Gestures at graph] Now this alpha spike represents a below-the-threshold stimulus trying to break into awareness. This is indicative of what we might call an ESP phenomenon starting to come through to consciousness. The alpha represents a very open and natural state." John Steel, as part of much longer, rambling monologue.

"That's very reassuring for me, John, because I've always thought of it as a very natural thing" Pat Lucas, as what else can you say to that?

"Nature is slow to reveal her secrets and when she does it is usually in small stages." Nimoy in his summing up, and I guess he's right at that.

Summing up

Making the most of a dull subject: 7/10, Interviewees who look like they should be in King Crimson 8/10, Interviewees who look like they should be guest stars on The Goodies: 7/10, England's Green and pleasant land: 7/10, Nimoyness: 6/10. Overall: 35/50. Credit

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