The entire Mid-Atlantic region is in a terrible drought right now, although we got a few showers this weekend. It was most strange to visit Central Texas a week ago and see the fields a deep, rich green, while Maryland looks parched and dry. Anyway, when a weather story rolls on and on like this, newspapers almost always start searching for feature stories that have a dry-weather hook to them. Which leads us to a wonderful feature story in The Washington Post the other day by reporter Delphine Schrank that ran with the headline "A Psychic Path to Water?"
The story was, to cut to the chase, about "dowsers" or "water witches" who believe that they can find water by, well, here is the top of the story:
On a sloping patch of withered grass at his Clarke County, Va., farm one recent afternoon, William Cross did what any seasoned farmer touched with the gift will do in search of a spot to dig a well. With his leathery hands, he gripped the handles of two L-shaped copper rods, held them parallel, tucked his elbows into his ribs, puffed out his chest, marched a few paces back and forth and silently bid the earth to reveal its watery secrets.
Within seconds, the rods appeared to respond, flung across each other by what Cross described as the hand of an invisible force.
"There they go!" said the 82-year-old grandfather and former book publisher -- and part-time water witch.
Also known as dowsers, most water witches say they are born with a capacity to locate underground water by channeling its energy, or electromagnetism, or something loopy and twitchy of that kind that has yet to be named by science, through a pair of metal rods, a forked twig, a coat hanger, a pendulum or, in rare cases, acutely alert fingers.
This raises all kinds of questions, beginning with the obvious one: Does it work? But the minute I saw this story, I thought to myself, "Is the Post going to ask the other obvious question?"
One of things GetReligion does is look for what we call "ghosts," which is when a mainstream news organization covers a story that has an obvious religion angle in it, but simply fails to "get it."
So I assumed that this would be another "haunted" story. But I was wrong.
As it turned out, Schrank found the ghost and included a short passage in the story that let the reader know that it's hard to raise supernatural questions without wandering into the field of religion. Here is what that looks like, in print:
Some people decry dowsing as the handiwork of the devil; some laud it as a gift from God. Others, in the name of rational skepticism, just call it bunk. Yet the tradition endures in the fringes of Washington. If you're going to spend a small fortune poking holes in your back yard to find water, the thinking goes, you might as well try poking a spot marked -- often free of charge -- by a water witch.
And later we read:
The use of twigs and rods dates to biblical times, dowsers say. Over the centuries, practitioners uttered incantations to empower rods with divine grace to seek water and other hidden substances, from precious metals to lost cats to bad vibes. Lore has it that the term "water witch" derives not from a description of a person but rather from the witch hazel branches preferred by Anglo-Scottish immigrants.
And that's that. Obvious question answered. Good job!