By Jeff Tribe
A centuries-old art backed up by physical results was playing out in Otterville’s Woodlawn Place parking lot.
As Mae Leonard slowly walked across its gravelled surface, the steel rods she delicately held between raised hands pointed and crossed, indicating water below.
“When I get past the aquifer, they come back up.”
To discern depth and flow, Leonard switched to a pendulum. Her father John Barham would instead hold his witch hazel Y-stick over the spot and see how many times it flipped for both depth and flow calculations.
“I’m a little more modern,” she smiled.
Beginning by swinging side-to-side, its motion switched to circular, continuing through 20 rotations.
“I’d go down about 20 feet,” Leonard reported, repeating a process which resulted in a secondary sequence of seven revolutions. “About seven gallons to the minute,” she added.
If you poke around on the Internet, you will find reports of cave paintings indicating some form of dowsing, divining for water, metals or other objects has been practiced globally for thousands of years. That both the Catholic church and Martin Luther frowned on the practice in the 1500s under the theory it was linked to the occult. You will see skepticism featuring terms like “pseudo science” or “ideomotor phenomenon”, which suggests rods or other dowsing devices move in response to dowsers’ unconscious muscular action.
However, even as scientific alternatives such as ground penetrating radar have been developed, dowsers like Leonard continue to be in demand for a range of services including identifying the best spots to drill a well or identifying buried objects including gravesites.
The 83-year-old Leonard was born on a small market garden and poultry farm near Delhi, Ontario. Graduating from high school in 1958 at a time “they were crying out for teachers,” she went to Toronto for six weeks of training, “And from there, right into a classroom.”
Leonard taught 5,000 children during her 37-year career, eight years in Norfolk County and one in Brant before moving to Otterville in 1962 and settling in and retiring from Norwich Public School as a much-beloved educator. Admittedly “old school”, Leonard both gave and expected a lot, recalling how one student called her “an old witch” in a moment of frustration.
“He didn’t have any idea of the half of it,” she laughed, referencing the term “water witch” some may employ for dowsers.
Mae’s grandmother, a seamstress, was also a renowned healer, on call to local physicians from 1880 to 1910 when she moved. Today she would also be called a doula, who delivered many babies in the area. Mae’s father John was a dowser, sought by area farmers considering sinking wells.
“There were others in the family too,” said Leonard, who was invited to accompany her dad one memorable day as a child.
“I think he was giving my mom (Evelyn) a break,” Leonard laughed.
Mae would become a regular companion, carrying the basket containing the wooden marker blocks and rags her dad defined an aquifer’s parameters with.
“Now they use fancy flags,” she smiled.
She also went to the woods when her dad cut Y-sticks for dowsing, either witch hazel or willow. Holding her hand to show her how to hold a Y-stick also created a connection helping instruct her in its use.
Leonard’s training is to hang to the top ends of the ‘Y’, pointing its base downward and then inverting it to leave her palms up, open-handed, thumbs extended, the posture of a supplicant.
“So you can receive the gift,” she explained. “I was taught to ask for permission and give thanks,” Leonard added.
Leonard says thanks are directed to the religious or spiritual deity of the dowser’s choice. Her father’s dowsing friend was an Indigenous man from Michigan who always thanked the Great Spirit. This tradition of appreciation has persisted through to a Leonard water dowsing session on Six Nations, capped by cedar and tobacco being burned in a small fire.
“We held hands and gave thanks for what had happened on the day.”
Leonard says she could dowse by the time she was “eight or nine,” surprising her uncle Fred during a visit from the west.
“He was totally shocked - it worked just as well for me as it did for him.”
Back in the 1950s and 60s, she was a rare female dowser. Her husband Gord was among those who thought “It was only men who did that,” when, 20 years into their marriage, she dowsed an aquifer in their backyard in order to water newly-planted shrubbery during a dry year.
Faced by Gord’s skepticism, one of Mae’s dowsing brother-in-laws was called in, identifying the precise spot she had indicated earlier.
“He said, ‘If I was putting a well in, I’d put it there,’” she recalled. “That’s when Gord learned women could dowse.”
Leonard believes dowsing is a combination of natural ability and practice. Once, she informally tested a 30-member group and discovered roughly half seemed to have some affinity, one being a natural, while the remainder did not take to it.
“Some, well I don’t know if they’ll ever master it.”
She currently uses metal rods for dowsing water instead of traditional witch hazel or willow Y-sticks, given rods seem to work better for her.
Dowsing extends well beyond searching for water.
“There are doctors in Europe who still use dowsing.”
Leonard dowses mainly water but added gravesites in 2007, present as a member of the South Norwich Historical Society during an attempt to identify sites in Otterville’s African Methodist Episcopal Cemetery. The initial plan of scraping back six or eight inches of topsoil to expose where ground had been disturbed proved unsuccessful, one of the archeologists mentioned contacting a dowser. Agreeing to try, Leonard practiced that evening on pet burial sites in her backyard, identifying gravesites at a deeper-than-anticipated depth the following day.
“I said ‘Dig until I tell you to stop,’” she recalled. “And that’s where they found them.”
Leonard has subsequently identified gravesites in the Tillsonburg Pioneer Cemetery, Port Burwell Pioneer Cemetery and Woodlawn’s Pine Street Burying Ground. She uses brass rods, grounded by touching a rubber tire or running under water, which rotate toward each other at the beginning of a gravesite.
“When they flip back out, I’m out of the grave.”
“I know very well this is a child,” Leonard continued during a brief demonstration. “The coffin is only about this long,” she continued, holding her hands a little wider than shoulder width apart.
Scientists may be skeptical and there is a growing preference for modern machinery. But Leonard has seen an employee of a local utility company pulling a couple of copper rods out from inside his pickup truck, and a telephone company worker fishing out a set of coat hangers to do the same.
“This was an older man,” she smiled.
Some claim dowsers find water by chance, says Leonard, but both she and members of the fraternity disagree. As might the roughly guesstimated 200 people who have sought her services to locate water sources on their properties.
“I’m sure there are people who think I’m off my rocker,” Leonard concluded with a smile. “But I do get a lot of calls from people who want help.” ◊