The Night the Earth Shook

Subterranean sounds of thunder, kettledrum, boom a-room boom boom ba bum,and the tall four-poster—my bed—shaking. I swing my legs over the edge.

I’m fully conscious now—my solid oak house, that’s shaking, too.

The Blue Ridge Mountains, ancient and bosomy, begin settling like a hen on a nest. In the muffled rumbling, I drift back into dream.

It was not, it turned out, a large earthquake. The aftermath, however, seemed cataclysmic in my little life.

Come morning, I stopped brushing my teeth to stare at the bathroom faucet. The handle had turned dry-bone in the socket. Not a trickle.

Mouth full of toothpaste, I padded downstairs to the kitchen… “and I’ll just run water over these dinner dishes”… nothing. Pulled on my fireman’s boots. Sun still not over the mountain. Reached in among lilies and damask roses and tried the garden spigot. Ditto.

Down mossy steps, along the fern-grown fieldstone wall of the springhouse, I heaved the slab off the spring box, and my new and alarming reality began to sink in. Rock had shifted in the night’s earth rumblings. Spring box yawned empty, my water source had gone dry.

That evening, I unlaced my boots by the trout stream, peeled, and grasped a wild fox grape vine, sliding down and splashing a toe in the water. Cows chewed cud on the bank above me.

I plunged—icy beyond belief—erupted roaring and flailing, and wondered if crayfish laugh!

My neighbors went humph, when I asked if the water situation would right itself. Harlon reckoned, “Well now, it’s been right dry. A few good rains… that jest might bring back your sprang. It has flowed reg’lar, rain or dry weather, time out of mind. You jest set tight; draw jugs of water from the well spigot here. We’re happy for you to do that.”

So I did do that for weeks, months, hundreds of gallons.

Having done grunt work dawn to dust, I had not thought of myself as spoiled until I had to haul every drop of water used on a working farm. Water for hot baths, and dish washing, and washing of bushels of produce, and clothes, and flushing of toilets had just flowed up out of the earth till the quake shook my complacency. Had never thought much about it. But images of slender women filling water jugs from the community well soon filled my mind as I bathed with trout, and shat like a bear in the woods, and rinsed muddy produce with precious streams of water.

Enter the Water-Witcher

The drought held—a month, two months, three. Old folks I asked, said, “Yay-up, do know ’bout an old-time water-witcher. He could maybe site you a well. Been doin’ it fer years, and his daddy before him, and grandpap before that. He might be willin’. Then ag’in, he might not. L‘il bit of an ornery ol‘ cuss. Do know his way around a meadow though.”

I drove down hair pin turns to collect him on the morning we’d set.

The old dowser man lived in a weatherboard house hung with a wide, sagging front porch, a great old lilac to one side, honeysuckle run rambling, an apple tree bent with years of fruiting. He raised a knobbly hand in greeting, said, “Hey.” He had on a slouch hat, faded bibs, scuffed work boots that were alive to the shape of his feet. Hadn’t shaved. Smelled a little goaty. Had bright assessing eyes.

“Uh, my granddaddy told me when I was a little girl that a peach twig was the thing. That’s what he used,” I said. Dowser said, “Unh-uh, any fresh-cut twig’ll do.”

When we reached the farm, he fished out a pocketknife and cut a young forked branch from a maple and one from an alder, just to make his point, walking right on past a peach tree. He began to pace out a grid across the meadow. I was trotting along like a puppy at his heels. He seemed like a gnarled old bark and leafy being, lifting and probing with his rooted feet. Could feel him searching with his senses down into rocks and channels of the earth.

He was holding the two short forks in his fists, with the longer point slanting upward. Suddenly the point shifted downward, peeling the young bark loose under his hands. He did a little chortle. We marked the spot and moved on. The twig began to quiver as we neared another spot.

“Are you doing that?” I asked.

“Doin’ it? Why no, life in the twig’s drawn down deep to life in the water. Here, you jest come on, I’ll show ye.” He had me put my hands on his, and feel the force of the pull. I was dumbfounded, but not convinced. He positioned the twig in my hands. I was scared. There was a feeble motion. He held the backs of my hands, seemingly transmitting some of his sensitivity; the twig thrummed and pointed into the earth. Blood was rushing into my face and draining out, heart thudding like the movement that had rocked my bed. He put his hands on my shoulders as I held the stick. The movement was less forceful, but real, and not moved by me. “You practice,” he said. “Hone the knack.”

We marked the best spot, and I got word to the drill rig folks. They bored on down, spitting out granite grit, and a gusher surged across the garden, sweet, and lots of it. I went back to indoor plumbing and lay in lavender-scented hot water from deep rock.

Electrician Surprises the Heck out of Me

Couple days later, I came out of the kitchen bringing fresh lemonade to an electrician and stared, slack-jawed—he was dowsing the backyard with bent wires. He glanced up, and like it was the most ordinary thing in the world, said, “Now some folks uses bent coat hangers, but me, I strip ‘lectrical whar. Figure copper’ll conduct better ‘n steel.”

“Oh,” I handed him the lemonade. “Conduct what?”

“Um… path of the buried cable, water pipe from the sprang, that sort of thang, so when I’m adiggin’, I don’t git into aggurvation.”

He had bent two pieces of wire and held the short ends in each hand like pistol handles, about two feet stretching out in front of him loosely parallel and level with the earth. “Now, see, when I walk over underground ‘lectrical current or current of water, same thang’ll happen; you watch. Them wahrs swing in and cross. Got so I always check out underground stuff thataway; saves me lot of grief. Works inside, too.”

He stopped, put his palm on the ground, and reaching for a shovel, waved the wires in my direction. “Here, you fool with ‘em awhile. Ah gotta dig down, here by the house.”

Walking up and down the back yard, I felt the dowsing rods cross. He left them with me, stripping himself another set as we sat talking on the tailgate of his truck. “So, what you up to with your new toy? What’s got you so mysterified and eager, huh?”

I grinned and said, “Well, dunno yet; just something I want to check out… ” I watched while he bent his new rods, and then waved as he headed home.

A Queasy Feeling in the Old Farmhouse 

Holding the wires as though they might just coil into copperhead snakes, I went inside. There was a spot in the house, on all three floors, that had been making me uneasy ever since I’d moved in. I didn’t quite know how to describe the strange, whoozy upwelling and so had been introspective about it. I felt kind of sick and disoriented whenever I got near that spot.

I marched off a grid on the ground floor. The copper dowsing rods swung in all right—but from four compass points, not two. What? Couldn’t be electricity: It was an old house with no electrical cables underneath.

I tried it on each floor. Same spot. Two underground springs? One leading toward the spring house, and another, apparently crossing it directly below that area of odd discomfort?

I filed it away under “anomaly/don’t know.” That is, until I met an inventor that summer on a trip to California. He chatted about lines of energy in the earth and other living things. I mentioned the peculiarity in the house. He was interested; he didn’t laugh. Talked to me about dowsers called in to check out buildings, even skyscrapers, where there was too much sickness, misfortune, case after case of cancer. These, he maintained, were the results of underground streams crossing under the buildings. He suggested I pinpoint, around the perimeter of my house, the four positions of the springs flowing. “Then,” he said, “hammer a rod of steel or copper into the ground at those four points.”

“What?” I asked. “Are you serious? Hammer a stake through its heart?”

He was serious. And, no, garlic was not needed!

Back home in the Blue Ridge, I laughed. Might do this as a covert operation. Could just see it, neighbors stopping… “What on earth are you doin’?!” Though my electrician might consider it useful information.

Peeking around corners at dusk, I circled the outside of the house, holding the bent wires. I marked four apparent intersections of moving water current and outer wall. Pounded in copper stakes as per the “map,” then dashed into the house, and the darndest thing: Approaching the supposed crossing of the springs, the parallel dowsing rods quivered, oscillated within a small arc, but did not swing inward and cross. The disturbing upwelling subsided.

The Doubting Professor

Soon after the dowsing lessons, a classmate from grad school came to visit. His path had led to tenured chemistry professorship in a heat-drenched prairie town. Though basically skeptical, his mind ranged far, like a whale seining oceans for plankton. He chewed over the odd bit of data that didn’t fit what he knew, with a lot of snorting and tail-slapping.

I could hardly wait to spring this anomalous data tidbit on him. Dowsing?!! Be still, oh my beating heart!!

After building blue bird houses together and nailing them in an arc across garden and orchard, we picked peaches, golden-fleshed, luscious, wine-red at the seed. Stored plenty for winter, and full of honeyed fruit and cream, we were content.

Now? I thought to myself.

He sensed I was about to spring some mischief on him, and his eyes came into sharp focus. I chuckled a quick synopsis of the spring gone dry, forked twig, bent copper, and then drew out the dowsing rods.

He gave me a level look.

Positioning the rods in his hands, I pointed a path across the backyard. Without knowing the location of the spring, he passed above it. The rods rotated inward. He walked backwards. They rotated again. He glared at the ground, the sky, the copper wire held in his own hands.

I chuckled, and he glared at me too! But I also knew he’d keep at it, learning more, till it made sense in some category of knowing. I always had loved coming up on his blind side and surprising him

Turning away, I pondered the cool sweet evening. Might be a night for cots out under the stars, for it was August, and the time of the great meteor showers.


Miriam Louise Gardener (pseudonym) owned and worked a 70-acre organic farm in the South. A writer and singer now living in Maine, she helps out at two small organic farms and gardens, as well as reading for preschoolers/homeschoolers at the local library.

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