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Dorothy Roberts carefully sets one slipper-clad foot in front of the other. She cradles both ends of what looks like a large, white, plastic wishbone in her palms, and as she covers the asphalt of a Boca Raton parking lot, the instrument begins to dip. She nudges a fallen sapodilla with her foot to mark the spot and continues with her search. When she reaches a fire hydrant, the rod points straight to the ground. "You can't stop it," she says. "Even if you try, its force is too strong."
Roberts isn't fooling around. She's dowsing, an ancient practice that both academics and mystics believe can locate underground water sources, geological faults, and oil.
October is National Dowsing Awareness month, and Roberts plans to demonstrate and celebrate dowsing Saturday, October 28, at the United Metaphysical Church in West Palm Beach. Spurred by the desire to share dowsing tips, Roberts decided last year to form South Florida's only chapter of dowsers. The group joined the American Society of Dowsers in April 1999, and about 20 members meet regularly on the second Tuesday of each month. Both locally and nationally the brotherhood is growing.
The nearly 40-year-old American Society of Dowsers estimates its membership at 5000; its ranks include scientists, engineers, business people, nurses, and police officers. The Palm Beach Dowsers are the fifth and most recent chapter to grace Florida, where approximately 400 folks are registered.
Dowsers have practiced their talents for centuries. Cave paintings in the Sahara that date to 6000 B.C. display a clutch of people observing someone divining water. Both Egyptians and Hebrews documented the art during the Old Testament era. And 16th-century German miners used dowsing techniques to find tin and other metals. Martin Luther decried it as the work of the forked-tongued one. As recently as the Vietnam War, U.S. Marines are said to have trained to dowse for enemy tunnels and booby traps.
Many dowsers believe everyone is born with the capability and regular practice can bolster one's abilities. The society's Website also states that, while dowsing is known best for finding water, it can also help to discover minerals, electromagnetic fields, noxious rays, lost objects and people, and ghosts.
Sound like another stop on the cuckoo choo-choo? Depends on whom you ask.
"All we can say to doubters is that we cannot discount something that has had results just because we can't explain it," offers Roberts.
The James Randi Educational Foundation, a Fort Lauderdale organization devoted to busting "pseudoscientific claims," contends dowsers are "self-deceived."
But a decadelong study conducted by German researchers found that in hundreds of cases, dowsers located underground wells, as well as determined their depths. University of Miami professor Dr. Zafer Top, who researches marine and atmospheric chemistry, concedes there is no scientific evidence that proves dowsing's effectiveness. Yet, he says, it should not be discounted. "Some would totally reject this kind of practice, but I'm open-minded," says Top. "If the person is successful, I wouldn't call it rubbish, even if their methods don't fit my training."
Roberts is a lifelong devotee of alternative medicine and metaphysics; the 44-year-old began dowsing seven years ago. She foils the chime-toting, kohl-eyed, and henna-handed persona that comes to mind when one imagines a patron of the paranormal. She smokes, drinks, and revels in pounding on her congas during impromptu pickup sets with West Palm Beach musicians.
Roberts contends that dowsing has helped her with just about anything you could imagine, from deciding how to handle her relationships to figuring out what's wrong with her car. "It's a wonderful way to tap into your intuition and expand the mind," she says with gravelly voiced enthusiasm.
Before pacing the Boca parking lot, she exhibited the tools of her trade. Both their shapes and functions vary. A weighted silver pendulum held above a numbered chart might provide a safer rush-hour route from work to home. Metal rods bent at right angles, better known as L-rods, favor novices. A gizmo that looks like an antenna, called a bobber, reveals cosmic answers by quivering à la tuning fork.
Roberts dowses a few times per month, usually for families ready to build homes. She sometimes uses her instruments to scour an insomniac's bedroom for negative energy -- or she looks for underground faults, hazardous gases, or "psychic problems." Roberts' dowsing colleague Bill Rudge was contracted by Research Aquaculture, a Stuart-based clam hatchery looking for a clean source of salinated water. (Clams are finicky. They require a particular mix of elements and minerals to breed.)
Finding the right water "is not easy to do," says researcher Glenn Massnick. "All kinds of stuff gets introduced into underwater wells that isn't seawater." After employing a well driller who punched numerous unfruitful holes around the property, Massnick contacted Rudge. Both men claim it took the latter less than 20 minutes to find two water sources, one of which provided water at 81 feet.
Massnick praises Rudge's work. "When he zeroes in on something, he doesn't mess around. He's very definitive in his answers and his approach to things." While Rudge's find was clean, the water's chemical makeup contained a tad too much iron for the clams. Massnick holds no grudge. He feels that he and his team should have given more explicit instructions to Rudge. "He can only be as good as what we tell him to look for."
The 68-year-old Rudge agrees. He has dowsed since he was 12 years old and believes the more precise the question, the more accurate the response. "With dowsing you don't have to guess anymore. It's either yes or no. There're no maybes," he says. "Isn't that beautiful?"
When Rudge, Roberts, and the others gather for their chapter's monthly meeting, there's always at least a half-hour of instruction and experiments. Sometimes they attempt to decipher the difference between covered cups of motor oil, cooking oil, and water. Other times they use their tools to try to match people with their handwriting. The exercises offer practice, not to mention a good time. "Some people think we're nuts," says Roberts with her trademark husky laugh. "But we don't. We're having a ball."