Trust Russell Crowe to make water divining, otherwise known as dowsing, cool again. The ancient mystical practice of using dowsing sticks to locate water underground is the skill that defines his character Joshua in his newest film The Water Diviner – and it’s not just water that he finds himself unearthing.
Joshua Connor – a Victorian farmer who travels to Turkey after the Great War in an attempt to find his three sons who are missing in action – is shown in the opening scene to be using a set of “angle rods”, a pair of L-shaped rods, which he holds loosely in each fist. If the rods cross over, this can be a sign of water.
The process has been in use for hundreds of years, and even though there are many who scoff at what they regard as a pseudoscience, those who practise dowsing are adamant that it works.
During a four-week trip to Africa, Mr Taylor and a team of two other dowsers found water for 50 villagesTypically, a dowser will use a tool called a “vining rod”, or a v-rod, which is usually shaped like the letter “Y”, and made from a springy material such as plastic, cane or wood. The dowser then slowly walks over a piece of land, holding the rod in front of them, and being alert for any twitches and movements, which may indicate the presence of water underground. Other tools include pendulums made of materials such as crystal, and even wands.
But no matter which method is chosen, dowsing involves more than just holding out a device and waiting for it to move.
“One thing you must remember to do is to visualise what you are looking for,” says Peter Taylor, a dowser from north Wales who has been unearthing water for 30 years. “If you are looking for a spring or a stream underground, you need to be seeing that as you dowse.”
According to Mr Taylor, dowsing can be remarkably effective. His biggest water find was in 1998, when he was called upon by the soft drinks manufacturer Calypso to see if he could find water on its Wrexham industrial estate.
“I found a spring that produced 20,000 litres of water per hour, and it still does to this day,” says Mr Taylor.
Joshua Connor, played by Russell Crowe, relies on angle rods to find water
As well as offering his services to companies, Mr Taylor also uses his divining skills in Africa, where he locates water sources for villages. He does this work for free, and during one four-week trip alone, he and a team of two other dowsers found water for some 50 villages.
Those villages in Africa today are very similar to what the Australian outback was like at the time of the First World War, as depicted in The Water Diviner. Then, farmers lived on almost subsistence conditions in an incredibly inhospitable landscape, and a plentiful supply of water was essential for their livelihoods. And, as they too lacked sophisticated modern technologies, dowsing was often the best way to find water.
But how does it work, exactly? Mr Taylor says that water gives off a magnetic signal, which is then picked up by the rod. However, he says that not everybody has what it takes to dowse.
“About one in ten people fail,” he says. “And most can get to a basic level. However, you do need training to work out what all the different movements mean, and to ignore those that are irrelevant.”
Some dowsers even offer remote readings of a piece of ground. Using satellite imagery from Google Earth, a dowser will touch their computer monitor with one hand, and hold a pendulum in the other.
“You have to transmit your mind to another part of the world,” says Mr Taylor.
Australia’s Outback is the perfect place for water divining
Naturally, there are some who dismiss dowsing as mumbo jumbo. What does he say to the cynics?
“Not a lot,” he replies. “I just feel sorry for them, and they just don’t understand. What they don’t understand is that they can learn a lot from us dowsers.”
Such cynicism is of course displayed by nearly everybody in The Water Diviner when Joshua Connor travels to Gallipoli after the war to look for his three sons. But as any dowser will tell you, even the unlikeliest piece of ground can yield rich secrets.