What a day to meet a dowser. The clouds were high and bulky, the sun was hot and the Kutztown Folk Festival loudspeakers were pumping out the classics:
"In heaven there is no beer, that's why we drink it here…"
"I don't want her, you can have her, she's too fat for me…"
Nothing so plain spoken as a Pennsylvania Dutchman. Anyway, as I roamed along the rows of craftspeople and other vendors at the festival on Tuesday I came across a man I had never seen before in all my previous visits.
He wore a straw hat and suspenders and puffed a cigar and looked a bit like the musician David Crosby, with his longish gray hair and mustache.
On the table before him were two big rocks — one was limestone, dotted with fossil shellfish, and the other a chunk of pink quartz speckled with mica — plus a scattering of metal rods and plastic sticks.
The man's name is Keith J. Schaffer. The festival-issued sign above his table said "Dousing."
"They Dutchified it, man," he said, a little testily. "It's spelled with a W, not a U."
So it is. Dowsing, you probably know, is the art of finding buried things — water, metals, gems, oil — by sensing, or divining, their energy.
"It's also called water witching and doodlebugging," said Schaffer, who is 56 and lives in Exeter Township. "It's got a ton of names."
The familiar dowsing rod is a Y-shaped stick, but Schaffer, demonstrating the process to visitors, handed them a thin, L-shaped metal rod and told them to hold the short end loosely in one hand while touching one of the stones with the opposite hand.
In most cases, this caused the rod to move away from the rock being touched, then the opposite way when the hand touched the other rock. It seemed to do this for me, though not as dramatically as for other people. It might have been the breeze catching it.
For my colleague, photographer April Bartholomew, the rod didn't move at all.
"You're the 1 percent," Schaffer said, meaning poor April is among the 1 percent of the population who are born with neutral inner energy and so lack the ability to dowse.
"You know what my theory is? You escaped from Roswell, New Mexico," Schaffer told her.
Could be. That would explain a lot about April. It could also be that dowsing ranks with the Roswell flying saucer crash in terms of scientific credibility. That was my take away from a brief online tutorial on the subject, where I learned that various studies of dowsing over the ages have shown it to be no more accurate than guesswork in pinpointing the location of anything.
But I make no judgment here. I watched as the rod swept widely each way in the hand of a Wernersville woman named Leslie Davis.
"That absolutely happened by itself!" she told me. "I didn't expect it. And I'm a skeptic."
Schaffer, a mason by trade, told me he has been divining since the age of 8 when he watched a dowser locate a well for a neighbor. He does not, himself, search for water, but said he has had great success finding buried tombstones at old graveyards.
He is a member of the board of the American Society of Dowsers. The group's motto is "Indago Felix," meaning fruitful search, and its literature recommends dowsing to find "water, oil, minerals, lost objects, people, animals, earth energy and geopathic stress," among other things.
In drought-parched California, "dowsers are getting $500 a pop to find wells," Schaffer said. "Bad lines of energy in houses that cause cancer, I can get rid of them."
Again, I make no judgment.
In addition to Y-shaped sticks and L-shaped rods, dowsers use straight wands called bobbers and crystal pendulums. They frankly admit that they don't know what makes them move. Explanations based on theories about electricity and magnetism are popular but there is no broad agreement among believers.
"You're tuning in to frequencies," Schaffer said, which seemed as good an explanation as any.
With that, we wandered off in search of birch beer. We needed no rod or pendulum for that.