About twenty five years ago I was on a dairy vaccinating a bunch of calves. While I was working, I noticed about 10 men standing together leaning on shovels. I knew most of the guys. So, after I finished up with the calves, I went over to give them a hard time just for fun.
"What are you guys doing?" I asked "Trying to figure out how many guys it takes to not dig a hole?"
They laughed and then pointed to a man that was walking around a large gravel parking lot with a couple of bent coat hangers in his hands.
"We're waiting for him to find the pipe so we can dig it up."
I stared at them...they actually looked serous. So I walked out to the guy with the a hangers and asked him what he was doing.
"There's supposed to be a pipe out here" he said "I'm dowsing to see if I can find it so they can dig it up and work on it."
I was at a loss for words...not my usual condition.
"You look like you don't believe that" He says after a few moments of me saying nothing.
"Odd you should say so" I responded "Because I kinda feel like I don't believe it!"
"Here" he said putting the bent hangers in my hands "You Try it"
I said I had know idea what he was doing let alone what I would be doing.
"Doesn't matter" he said. "Knowing how has nothing to do with it. You can either do it or you can't. Hold the hangers as loose as you can pointing straight ahead and walk straight forward and see if you can find the pipe."
I walked about twenty feet and suddenly the hangers, apparently of their own volition, flipped 90 degrees to point at each other. The old man slapped me on the back and said "There ya go. You're a dowser". He took the hangers from me and repeated my path and had the same result.
"It's right here boys" he shouted.
The shovel brigade went to work and a few minutes later we were looking at a pipe under the ground.
I went home and got a pair of hangers and made my own L-shaped dowsing rods then headed out to the backyard to see what I could find.
The rascals worked!
I found every sprinkler pipe in the yard!
A few months later, the underground line-locater guys were on my property with their spray paint marking things that shouldn't be dug up for a backhoe operator from the city that had come to do some work. I grabbed my coat hangers to see if I could find the stuff they'd found...yeah...I know it's cheating if there's spray paint but I was having fun.
While puttering around in an area where they hadn't sprayed anything, my hangers flipped. I checked again. Yup. Something down there. I told the backhoe guy I thought there was something there and he looked at me incredulously. I didn't blame him...I'd been wearing the same look myself a few months earlier.
He started digging and, sure enough, he hits a big line of old electrical wires right at the spot I'd showed him. He climbed down from the backhoe and looked into the hole in disbelief.
"How'd you know that was there?" he asked.
"No idea" I said "I just watch the coat hangers."
He asked me what the buried wires were for and I explained that I didn't know and would probably need lots smarter coat hangers for that sort of thing.
A few months later I was back in the yard again. I was looking for an electrical line I'd disconnected from an old lamp post and buried years before. I wanted to use it to light up my fancy new veterinary sign. I knew where it was more or less but for some reason I couldn't find it...I just kept hitting on the dumb sprinkler pipes.
While I was puttering around with my bent hangers looking in vain for for the wire, an old man drove up my driveway.
"Whatcha dowsin' for?" he asked. I told him what I was looking for but that I kept hitting on the sprinkler pipes instead.
"What's the wire like?" he asked.
"Well," I said, "it's just a wire running through a metal pipe. I know it's right here somewhere."
"How deep is it?" He asked.
"Three or four feet as I recall" I replied
"Simple." he says. "Quit thinking about sprinklers and look for a metal pipe three or four feet down."
At this point my scientifically-trained brain kicked in and began to point out to me the utter madness of such an idea. But the old man was persistent. He slapped me on the shoulder jolting me from my internal debate on what would become of my wife and kids when I was put into the asylum and said "Go on, try it."
Boom...There it was. In a spot I'd gone over already a dozen times that morning. I got a shovel and, sure enough, found the wire.
So how does dowsing work? Is it magnetic fields? Electrical vibrations? Spiritual insight? Or some other ethereal process we don't begin to understand?
Honestly, I have no idea. But I know I feel something when it's happening...an odd sort of connection to whatever it is I'm locating. I'm honestly not even sure if I really need the coat hangers anymore.
During my studies as a naturopath and herbalist I learned about another technique which immediately resonated with me as feeling very similar to dowsing. It's called muscle testing.
Muscle testing is a technique for identifying herbs (or other things) that might be helpful for our bodies. The premise is that our body, or our subconscious, or God, or the herb, or some combination of these things knows what's best for us and that we can access that information simply by asking the right question in the right way. For me, it works like this; I take an herb in my hand, clear my mind and try to completely relax my body and then ask subconsciously "Is this something that would be good for my body?" I then feel myself drawn forward or pushed backward. Other folks do the same thing by extending an arm to the side and then having someone push down on it while they ask the question. A strong resistance to the pushing is interpreted as "Yes". Weakness and submission to the push means "No".
Some people can do it very easily. Some folks can't do it at all. Some people can even do it for others with their permission.
As with dowsing, the question seems to be the important thing. The process benefits from real specificity in the query. Asking if Echinacea is a good herb, for example, is a very different question than asking if you should take Echinacea today and may get you a very different answer.
Interestingly, I've also found that a few people seem to be wired backward for this technique and will respond in the opposite way when questioned (weak or back for "yes" and strong or forward for "no"). I suppose this is no more bizarre than a person with ADD being sedated by caffeine. Sometimes people are just put together differently. A good way to tell is to ask some questions for which you know the answer before doing the testing in order to establish a baseline.
As with dowsing, some people can't do muscle testing at all and some folks are great at it. I'm with Dr. Seuss on the reasons for such disparities among individuals who, in his seminal philosophical masterpiece One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, said; "Not one of them is like another. I don't know why. Go ask your mother."
What I do know is that I've been using muscle testing for many years with good results in making decisions about herbs, formulations and dosages. The more I do it, the more convinced I am that it actually works and, like most things, the more I learn about it.
In the coming days, I'll be writing a lesson on this topic for the HomeGrown Herbalist School and I'll be doing some instructional videos. Watch the HomeGrown Herbalist YouTube Channel and you're likely to see something there soon as well.
Warning! Shameless Commercial Announcement
I have put together a couple of wonderful Muscle Testing Kits that can be very helpful in this process. :0)