Divining rods both amaze, baffle during graveyard tour

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Sunday, October 9, 2011
— Human beings either have a mysterious power to sense what is under the ground, or they have been deluding themselves for centuries.

Those seem to be the choices when it comes to divining, the practice of holding sticks or metal rods that mysteriously move or twitch as one walks over the ground.

Dozens of people got a lesson in the age-old practice Saturday during the Rock County Historical Society’s annual tour of Oak Hill Cemetery.

Joel Van Haaften, the historical society’s executive director, told interested crowds that divining rods have been used for centuries to find water or other underground objects.

The practice also is called dowsing or water witching.

Van Haaften’s own grandfather was a water diviner in Iowa who was said to be able to estimate with some accuracy how deep water was located.

Van Haaften learned about it from a cemetery caretaker in Illinois. The caretaker would sweep an area where a new grave was to be dug, to be sure there were no unmarked graves around.

Some diviners claim they can tell the age, sex and height of the buried body, Van Haaften said.

Van Haaften is skeptical.

Van Haaften demonstrated, walking with two L-shaped rods made from coat hangars. As he passed over a grave, one of the rods suddenly turned sharply, about 90 degrees, like a door swinging shut.

“I’m not sure if I’m doing that, or if something else does that,” he said.

Researchers have found no scientific basis for it, Van Haaften said.

“It’s for you to decide whether you believe in it or not,” Van Haaften told his audience. “I’m not even sure I believe in it.”

Van Haaften demonstrated at an old grave marker in the potter’s section of the cemetery. One of the rods swung to one side as he walked over the grave. When he walked the opposite direction, the rod swung in the other direction.

But once, nothing happened as he walked over the grave.

Tour-goers were allowed to try their luck. It worked for some, not for others.

“Ooooh!” one woman exclaimed as one of her rods twitched for no apparent reason.

“Was it the wind? Was it your hand tipping? Was it your subconscious? That’s why you’re never going to be able to prove it,” Van Haaften remarked.

“It’s like a Ouija board, you know. It works. How, I don’t know,” said Linda Viney of Janesville after she tried it.

Viney’s friend Dolores Barlass got absolutely no response from her rods.

“Maybe I was holding it too tight,” Barlass said.

“Oh goodness! It really did do it by itself,” exclaimed a startled Brandi Dabson of Janesville. “Come here. Try it,” she urged a friend.

“You can kind of feel it in your hands. Kind of like a buzz,” Dabson said later. “It’s kind of weird.”

Others saw their rods move but didn’t feel a buzz.

Tom Lackey, a retired plumber from Janesville, said his supervisor would use divining rods to find underground water mains, and it worked. Lackey tried but couldn’t do it.

But on Saturday, Lackey felt one of his rods make the sudden inexplicable turn for no apparent reason.

“Unbelievable,” he said.

Last updated: 6:46 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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