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Witch Upon A Well

Phillip Stine of Waterford uses a willow branch as a divining rod to find water. (Bart Ah You / The Modesto Bee)

last updated: January 04, 2008 04:51:40 PM

WATERFORD, CA -- Phillip Stine gripped a forked willow branch tightly in his hands and set out across a freshly plowed field. He traversed the area for quite a while, with no result. To motorists driving past the field, Stine was a curious sight: just a man out walking with a stick.

Then something strange happened.

The tip of the willow branch quivered and, like a magnet drawn to metal, started to pull. Stine tightened his grip as the sudden force threatened to yank the wood from his hands. "OK, there it goes," he said.

He smiled broadly, youthfully, his face suddenly lit with all the excitement of a child opening a present. Even at 76, finding water is a thrill that never grows old for him. As Stine continued to walk, the tip of the branch bent backward and headed for his face. He turned his head to the side and the branch thudded against his shoulder. Had he not been in the way, the tip would have twisted until it pointed directly toward the ground. Right where the water is.

"It's crazy," he said. "I have had some good success finding water over the years, but really I don't know how or why it works. I've never found any scientific reasoning that explains it. Maybe it's the proportion of lead you've got in your butt."

That last sentence is one of Stein's trademark lines, and he delivered it with a gleam in his eye. It's easy to tell he really does get a charge out of this. As he talked about the odd -- and mildly controversial -- art of witching wells, Stine stood near a patch of ground marked by a couple of red flags. It's the precise spot where in a few weeks workers will drill hundreds of feet to put in a well to tap the network of streams that flow hundreds of feet below the earth's surface.

"I'll be the first one to tell you it's amazing," Stine said. "It's still amazing to me, and I've been doing it for a long time."

There is no doubting that Stine's branch moved; the debate lies in what caused the branch (some use metal rods) to move. The phenomenon's explanations couldn't be more far reaching: everything from electromagnetic or other subtle geological forces to ESP and other paranormal explanations. Clearly, there is no definitive answer.

As with most any topic, the Internet is rife with debate about the merits of well witching. Some point out there's no way to prove well witchers are any better at

finding water than anyone else would be, and that drilling will prove successful in any area where water is geologically possible. Others point to experiments that reveal the rods or branches also move when above objects such as metal and golf balls. And there's no explaining why some have the ability while others don't.

But believe it or not, well witching is an age-old practice that has gone on throughout this area as long as people have been digging wells here. Even though many area farmers can't explain it, most wouldn't think of drilling a well without having someone locate the water first. And that's where people like Stine come in.

In the early 1980s, Stine spent several hours walking a ranch in Farmington with a man who used metal rods to find water. When the man offered to show Stine the technique, he gave it a try and it worked. He's been doing it ever since. Along the way, he gave up metal rods in favor of the forked branches of willow trees that grow in watery areas.

When Stine's wife, Myrna, learned about her husband's new hobby, she was -- like many -- rather skeptical.

"When he first started doing this, I thought he was crazy," she said. "I tried it and it didn't work for me. And then I held his hand while he was doing it, and that's when I felt it. After that, I was convinced."

Trace Thomas had a similar conversion. Thomas, 46, said Stine has picked out the placement of all four of the wells on the family's 900-acre ranch in Hickman. Still, Thomas had his doubts. That changed a couple of years ago when Stine was witching a well on a nearby property. After Stine located what he thought was an ideal spot, he handed the branch to Thomas and showed him what to do.

"The branch started twisting until it was pointing straight back at me," Thomas said. "Then it pointed straight toward the ground. It was pulling so hard I could barely hold onto it. I couldn't believe it.

"If you put a willow branch in the ground and keep a lot of water on it, it'll become a tree. To me, it felt like the branch wanted to go into that spot on the ground because that's where the water was. It was pretty amazing. I wasn't skeptical about it after that."

Stine never has charged for his well-witching services, but as the founder of Waterford Irrigation Supply, it served his best interests to help his customers avoid digging dry wells. He sold the business about five years ago but still offers his services to former customers and mostly anyone else who calls upon him (friendly notice: he's not actively looking for more requests). He doesn't keep track of the numbers, but he figures he's spotted several hundreds of wells over the past 25 years.

These days, Stine, a former Waterford mayor, mostly spends his time overseeing operations of his walnut and almond orchards, as well as helping organize various community-service projects. But to farmers in these parts, Stine's greatest gift is one that's imperative to growing crops: He's the man who finds water.

And in an area where water tables are slowly and steadily in decline, that's no small thing.