Alan Chadwick Drills for Water on the Farm at UCSC
A memory of Alan Chadwick as told by Greg Haynes
During the summer of 1971, Alan Chadwick began work on the newly approved farm project at the University of California at Santa Cruz that was to be a major expansion of the successful garden project. Because the University was leasing large portions of its unused acreage to cattle ranchers, the new 15 acre farm-site needed to be fenced-in as the first order of business. Every day a crew of us eager and enthusiastic apprentices headed down to the farm to plant fence posts and stretch barbed wire.
Work also proceeded on the “Roman Road,” a cobblestone roadway that Alan envisioned as an artistic entry to the farm. One of the university engineers had designed a conventional asphalt road that would lead a continuous stream of automobiles up to the farm, but the very thought of this onslaught was enough to drive Alan to distraction. He imagined a classical cobblestone pathway, planted with roses and a wide variety of other flowers, leading one in reverence and contemplation up to the garden gate. One would be forced, during the period of this walk, to leave behind some of the machinations and distractions of the modern world, with its worship if the automobile and its separation from the immediacy of nature.
Some people ridiculed this conception of Alan’s, arguing that it would take years to build such a road from stone collected in the nearby quarry on the UCSC campus. But Alan's attitude was that it had taken over four centuries to build the great Gothic cathedrals of France, so what were a few years compared with that? The ensuing controversy provided an opportunity for Steve Kaffka to ingratiate himself to the University administrators. He sided with the engineering department against Alan Chadwick in this road design, and then began his work to divide the apprentices into factions. Those of us loyal to Alan spent our days hauling limestone from the quarry and carefully placing it as pavement in the Roman system. Meanwhile Kaffka and his minions stayed out of sight, working on other and sundry projects, occasionally mocking us loyalists as backward and impractical dreamers. Tensions began to rise.
Despite all of the foregoing, another project demanded our attention. The University engineers were ready to lay pipe to connect the new farm area to the Santa Cruz city water system, but here again, Alan had other ideas. Knowing the negative effects of chlorine on healthy plant growth, he advocated drilling a private well on the farm that would provide a continuous supply of pure, un-chlorinated water for irrigation. After some lengthy and acrimonious discussions, it was agreed that the money for a well would be budgeted, but that if it were unsuccessful, then the hook-up to the city water system would go ahead as planned.
The immediate problem was: Where to drill? Alan somehow knew of a water-witcher, and this gentleman arrived one day with his apparatus for finding underground water. It consisted in a length of thick copper wire, about three feet long, bent in the shape of an “L.” The short leg, which was only four or five inches long, provided the handle, and the long side extended out in front like a pistol with a long, narrow barrel. Upon encountering an underground stream of water, the copper wire—so he explained—would pivot in his hand until it came to rest in a position parallel to the flow of the water.
We then walked the entire fifteen acres, back and forth in rows about fifty feet apart, dowsing the whole area. Although there had been a few minor movements of the copper wire along the way, only one place on the farm showed unmistakable signs of water, a place near the southeast corner of the fenced-in farm land. From the strength of the twisting motion, the dowser could tell the probable depth of the underground stream. “You'll find it at about 275 to 300 feet deep,” he said.
Alan and I looked at each other. Without a word, I proceeded to draw an X on the ground with my boot at the place indicated by the dowser, and then I went in search of a short stick. When I found one, I sharpened the end of it with my pocketknife and then pounded it into the earth with a heavy rock that was lying nearby. Finally, I found a nice, dry, cow patty and placed it carefully over the stake in order to hide it from view. Alan nodded in approval.
Two days later, another dowser showed up. I have no idea where Alan found this gentleman, but there he was ready to go, as we needed a second opinion. Saying nothing about our first consultant, we acted like we were completely new to this game. Dowser-number-two eschewed such modern innovations as copper wire. He used an old-fashioned hazel wand as his water locating instrument. It was a forked branch, and he held onto the ends of the two smaller extremities of the fork, with the main, heavier branch extending out in front. Like his predecessor, he walked the entire property in parallel lines until he had traversed the whole farm area. There was just one place that showed certain promise, he declared, and pointed with his hazel stick at the very cow patty that I had placed on the ground two days earlier.
Neither Alan nor I said anything. Alan wrote the fellow a check for his trouble, and off the man went. We stood there marveling that it had all worked out so precisely and infallibly, such a delicate and—to the world—decidedly unscientific procedure. We felt confirmed and approved by the divine powers in our stance against the faithless materialism of the university engineers and their doubting hangers-on.
A week later the well drillers arrived and began to bore into the ground at the precise spot that both dowsers had assured us that we would find water. True, the second man had indicated that the water was a bit deeper: 350 feet, he had said, but we assumed that this was within the margin of error and that the two measurements were basically equivalent.
I stayed with the drilling crew the whole time, punching down about a hundred feet per day. Alan stopped by once or twice a day, at times when he could conveniently get away from the garden. On the fourth day we hit rock, so the going was a bit slower. Finally the head driller indicated that we were at 350 feet with still no sign of water. At 400 feet I started to get nervous. At 450 I began to despair. At 500 feet we gave it up for lost: It was just too expensive to keep going deeper.
The well drillers tried to console us by explaining that certain types of limestone act exactly like water to dowsing instruments, and that nobody—not even the best—can tell the difference, but this information was cold comfort to us. Kaffka and his friends, the engineers, were celebrating their victory over the pseudo-scientific voodoo practices of Alan Chadwick and his credulous followers who put their faith in such ridiculous old-fashion notions like dowsing. The whole social dynamic was getting uglier by the day and was, in fact, becoming intolerable.
Years later I had the need, as part of a topographic survey, to locate an underground water pipe that everyone knew was in the area, but no one knew precisely where. I remembered how the old guys had done it in Santa Cruz and so went down and bought a short length of heavy copper wire. Bending it into an “L,” I began to go over the ground until the wire turned in my hand all by itself, coming to rest at right angles to my direction of travel. I put a stake in the ground at that point, and then moved over about fifty feet and tried again. Sure enough, the wire turned all on its own. Placing another stake at that spot, I moved over and tried again, this time with my eyes closed so as not to be influenced by the line of stakes previously established. When the wire turned again, I opened my eyes and looked to see how we fit the line: The point was right on it. I repeated this operation several times more, always with my eyes closed, and every time the wire turned precisely on the line of the other stakes. Finally I decided to dig. At about two and a half feet deep I hit the water line right where the dowsing-rod had indicated.
I have repeated this operation several times since, on other jobs, and always with success. The secret is that the water must be moving in the pipe in order for the process to work. Standing water does not affect the dowsing rod with anything like the intensity of flowing water. If you try this yourself, turn on the water and let it run while you work to locate the pipe. Hold the copper wire loosely enough so that it can turn without restriction, and don’t allow yourself to affect the movement of the rod. Practice a while, as sometimes it takes a little time to accustom yourself to the art, much like riding a bicycle. Most people can learn; you just have to relax and have faith that it works, though even doubters often have unexpected success. There is nothing magic about it; it’s just that there are forces that modern science has not yet explained. It’s only nature in one of its more subtle manifestations, employing the life force contained within the human organism.
I can only offer one more little piece of advice: Stay away from limestone rock formations!
A comment from Peter Jorris upon reading the foregoing:
Do you remember who else participated? I recall tagging along with the 2nd water witcher, because I remember the hazel wand. He was a somewhat tall, plainly-dressed fellow with strong arms and blond hair, perhaps of Nordic descent. He struck me as fairly unassuming and likeable. I believe there might have been a couple of others along with us. I had only vaguely heard or read about water witching in a context as something old fashioned and dubious. Though I found the adventure quite intriguing, I couldn't help but also feel a bit skeptical. Alan, I recall, was in a pleasant mood and very gracious to the practitioner. I enjoyed tromping around the future farm site as I believe it was a fairly nice summer day.