Witch Sticks

on May 10, 2010 in Misc

First, three simple facts:

b&w cemetery

1.  In Colorado, people can have graves on their property and not know it.

2.  I now possess some fantastic first-hand raw material for a Stephen King-type book.

3.  I spent Saturday listening to a scientist describe how easy it is to access basic information concerning whoever is buried in that lost grave simply by asking.

Right there, at the grave, asking.  No, the spirit or dead person isn’t going to answer you.  Don’t be ridiculous.  But the energy of memories is still there.  As a physicist, he doesn’t understand the mechanism of the phenomenon.  He just knows how to access those memories and get basic answers:  Is an adult or child buried here?  Male or female?  How old was the person at the time of death?  How deep down are the remains? 

I am not making this up.

But before I continue…

Yes, I know this blog is about my thriller The Compass Master and I’m supposed to be exploring Layla’s world of action and archeology and antiquities.

But think about it.  Layla’ expertise in ancient Christian texts and manuscripts would by necessity include knowledge of tombs, mausoleums, and other creepy places.  She has a background in archeology and archeologists are forever crawling around tombs and graves.  There’s also an important scene in The Compass Master that takes place in one of Rome’s catacombs.   And she has a gift for finding what her clients are looking for.

nunnery tomb

So it seemed that learning about lost graves around my home state could provide some background information.  At the very least, I might learn something intriguing to use in another novel. 

And that’s why on Saturday I drove to the rural town of Loveland and its museum to hear a lecture entitled Finding Your Ancestors Underground

The scientist who gave the lecture was an elderly WWII veteran named Duane Kniebes; he has degrees in chemistry and physics and still works as an expert witness in gas and oil explosions.  For about ten years he has also done volunteer work with the Colorado Cemetery Location Project in conjunction with the U.S. Geological Survey of Geographic Names Association and with the Colorado Council of Genealogical Societies. 

Basically, volunteers like Mr. Kniebes take a county, investigate its records in libraries and archives regarding cemeteries or isolated graves, or get oral histories from rural landowners about possible Indian or Old West settler graves on their properties.  Then they go to those graves, obtain GPS readings, and document everything as much as possible.  Their findings become part of an official record.

rock grave

In other words, Mr. Kniebes was no flake and he went out of his way to emphasize the scientific parameters of his work.

His small audience seemed equally no-nonsense.  Most of the folks were gray-haired, down-to-earth small town and rancher types who looked liked they ate meat and potatoes, drove pickup trucks, grew up close to the land and always vote Republican.  And only a few of them appeared slightly skeptical of what this man was telling them about accessing memories of the dead.  Well, if you knew about their experiences…

Mr. Kniebes first showed PowerPoint photos of isolated graves he and his wife had documented.  The graves appeared to be nothing more than some rocks on the ground.  But his expert eye could detect whether it was an Indian grave, or of a small child, or of a white or Mexican adult.  Some of the details were touching – a baby or toddler was usually buried within close view of the homestead, while an adult was on a hill’s crest.  Ninety percent of the time their body orientation is east-west, as if the dead might like to sit up to see the rising sun.  (Layla could tell you that with Muslims the orientation is reversed:  the head lies toward the East and Mecca, the feet to the West.)  Three small white stones might mark a baby’s grave, but Indians would cover theirs from head to foot with fist-sized rocks.  Some of those photos made me realize that I’ve hiked past Indian graves several times in my life and never known it.

“Now I’ll get to what you came here for,” Mr. Kniebes said.  And he pulled out a couple of wire rods.

Sweden dowsing

He told us that it was a sexton at a library who ten years earlier got him “started on rods.”  When Mr. Kniebes told him about locating a nearby grave, the sexton asked, “Did you use your witch sticks?”

“My what?” Mr. Kniebes asked.

The sexton grabbed a pair of metal bent rods from his office and showed Mr. Kniebes how to dowse for graves and get information from a dead one’s memories.

You got it.  Dowsing.  As in the ancient art.  As in witch sticks.  Divining rods.  Willow branches.

Ten years later, Mr. Kniebes and his wife are experts on grave dowsing.  They can locate graves with simple home-made rods and, in many cases, get information about who is buried in them.

And I haven’t even gotten to the strange part yet.  Or about the group’s field trip to the local cemetery.  I’ll tell you more within the next couple days.

4 Responses to “Witch Sticks”

  1. Robert L. Read says:

    I’m as skeptical and materialist as they come, but I’d like to add my own little dowsing story. When I was boy my dad needed to install a French drain in our house to keep water from pooling up by our house. He therefore needed to know where some pipes were to avoid them in digging the trench for the drain. He had some diagrams that came when we bought the house, but they were ambiguous.

    My father is also an atheistic materializt, and always has been. But he worked (at Amoco Research as a scientist) with a full-blooded Choctaw named John Supernaw. Mr. Supernau calimed he could locate the pipes by downing. Mr. Supernaus method was to take two thin copper rods, about like coat-hangers. These would be about 3 feet long. He would bend a 90 degree angle at 1-foot into each of them, forming two L-shapes. He would hold the two L’s in two hands, by the short part of the L, so that the long part would be parallel projecting in front of him about 2 feet. When he walked over the pipe, the rods would cross.

    Which proves nothing. In fact we never tested if the pipes were where he indicated, but here is the funny part. My father, who doesn’t have a mystical or spiritual or even gullible cell in his body used the same rods, and the crossed for him as well at the same point.

    This was when I was about 12. I alwasy assumed these gentlemen were playing an elaborate joke on me. I asked my father about this two years ago. He said, “Hell no, it was the damndest thing I’ve ever felt. I can’t explain. You could clearly feel the rods cross.”

    Of all the paranomal and alleged paranormal phenomena in the world, this is the one I would most like to see given scientific attention.

  2. Helena says:

    Robert — I’ve heard so many stories like yours. But as I’ll point out in my next blog, the scientist giving the lecture never for a moment referred to dowsing as paranormal. He’s convinced that dowsing is a physical phenomenon we just don’t yet understand. As a physicist, he had theories, but he knew that’s all they were.

    I gave him an example he liked. When my Dad was in college studying geology, a professor announced in one class that there was a radical theory called continental drift. All respectable geologists and other scientists called it preposterous and impossible, especially because there was no conceivable mechanism to explain how drift could happen. But the professor wisely said that some theories had a way of turning out to be rooted in fact, so he went ahead and taught the theory to his students. Sure enough, years later in the mid-1960’s, tectonic plates were discovered at the bottom of the ocean floor. There was the mechanism. Now continental drift is orthodox science.

    This is kind of a grandiose way of talking about a small thing like dowsing, but you get the idea. There are things that seem unreal because we don’t understand them, and because we don’t they seem kinda spooky.

  3. Hart says:

    This is WAY cool to me. I happen to love the idea that there are really old things that we don’t understand, and that the energy lingers after we are gone. This was fascinating to me. Thank you, Helena!

  4. Helena says:

    Hart — That’s just how I feel. And the notion that memories may linger around a grave is great stuff for writers.