Yesterday at our house, it rained for ten hours straight. Readers who live in wetter climates might be asking, “Yeah? So?” I’ll explain. Central Texas. August. Summer. Our property was already in the “Moderate Drought” category on the weather maps. So receiving the blessing of ten continuous hours of steady, soaking rain was . . . YUGE.
For weeks I’d been casting a worried eye on the small lake at the back of our property. Lately it had appeared to be shrinking a bit. We’re told by neighbors that it’s been known to go completely dry in times of severe drought. We’ve never had to deal with that, though. In the two years that we’ve lived here, there’s been so much rain that the lake has flooded four or five times, inundating twenty to thirty acres of our bottomland with water up to six feet deep. When this happened in the fall and spring, Glen and I had the surreal treat of watching ducks paddling and fish jumping among the lower branches of my favorite tree, this elm (also yuge):
Thanks to the rain, our lake is no longer in immediate danger of vanishing, and I can stop fretting over it. (At least for now.) But that worry is bound to arise again. Water—specifically, having enough of it—is a big deal in much of Texas. It’s such a big deal that people often resort to using supernatural means to locate it underground.
Dowsing: the practice of searching for water, minerals, or other buried/hidden substances with the aid of a divining rod (or rods). Call it bunkum, hooey, pseudoscience, whatever. I call it witching, because that’s what my father called it.
And at this point in our relationship, you probably won’t be surprised to hear I’ve done it.
When I was a child in San Antonio, our house sat on an oversized corner lot of a few acres. We loved to fish, and my mother got the bright idea (much better than her idea of dressing me like a British schoolgirl) that we should put a fishing pond in the yard. For this we needed to drill a well, but how to pinpoint the most likely spot to find water? My father—an engineer, and, to the casual eye, a man of only facts and figures—didn’t want to leave that critical question to a well drilling service. Too chancy; he wanted guaranteed results. So he witched for the water. And he found it in abundance, as if there’d been a big red arrow reading DRILL HERE pointing to the spot.
It wasn’t the first time he’d witched, of course. He’d done it enough to be confident of his ability to source water whenever he needed it. I was only 7, but I remember him inspecting a young fruit tree in the yard, then cutting a slender, flexible branch from it. That was his divining rod. He trimmed and smoothed it to his liking with his razor-sharp pocketknife. The branch was Y-shaped, with the arms somewhat longer than the stem. Then, holding it by the arms with the stem pointing forward, he started pacing across the yard as my mother and I watched.
I was awestruck when I saw the stem tilt abruptly toward the ground, as if tugged by a fish at the end of an invisible line. It seemed magical. It never occurred to me that he might be causing the movement himself. My father was so uncompromising that he could veer into hardnose territory (he sometimes called himself “Iron Pants”).
Then he let me try. First he made sure that I was holding the branch correctly, and then he turned me loose in the yard. Here’s how I described that scene in the last stanza of my poem, “Witching for Water” (which appeared in Kentucky Review in 2014):
[…] he’d pass the fork to me, just
seven years old, but old enough to feel the pulse
beating in the wood, to draw water like
the moon does, calling with my hands the tides.
I’d been right. It was magical: my father the sorcerer, I, his apprentice, wielding the magic wand. Such power!
But recalling it now, I’d say the power was not in my hands, but in the water’s pull. I had to hold tight as that branch tried its best to wrench free of my grip and plunge stem-first into the earth. I ask myself: If I were to reenact the scene today, would the result be the same? Maybe not. Some days I feel I’ve lost my faith. My father never did, though. Magic swirled about him all his life.
The pond was big enough for a short dock and a rowboat. My father, with long experience on the bays of South Texas, taught me how to row. The first fish we stocked? A pet store goldfish, released with great ceremony into the cool, green water. Over the next couple of years it became an enormous golden carp. Every so often we’d see brilliant flashes of gold 20 feet down as we rowed across, like spotting an open treasure chest on the bottom. Sometimes I’d swim out to the middle and dive down in pursuit of that goldfish, but I never found it.
Typing this just now, I looked up to see a V of large white birds crossing the grey sky beyond my office window. I hurried outside with the binoculars, and was able to identify a flock of American White Pelicans. Flying south. Before mid-August. The timing seems a little disconcerting (what signs and portents do they sense that I don’t?), but the sight was a bright spot in a dreary afternoon. Kind of magical. Maybe even (you know it’s coming) yuge.