Divine Business

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David Fullarton / www.joaniebrep.com

Bozeman, Montana’s Vernon G. Bandy takes a humble pleasure in poking holes in hydrologists’ assumptions. Those who study the ways of aquifers and groundwater declare that you can sink a drill bit just about anywhere in the earth and find water. “Maybe,” says Bandy, flicking one of the Benson and Hedges cigarettes he sneaks while he’s driving. “But what kind of water? Hard? Soft? Maybe laced with arsenic. How much water? And at $32 per foot in drilling costs, just how deep do you want to go to prove your scientific theory?”

Bandy is a dowser who plies the inscrutable art of finding objects and liquids with a divining rod or stick. He says he can locate, with something approaching regularity, just about anything–water, gold, drugs, oil, dead bodies–with his nylon dowsing rods. Today, he’s headed to dowse a well six miles west of Rapelje, a ranching community in south central Montana. “This is tough country for dowsing,” he observes. “Lot of bad water. Sulfides. Sodium and salt.”

After we pull into a pasture that is being transformed into a homesite, Bandy heads to the hatch of his trusty Buick SUV (he puts 35,000 miles on it annually) and straps on an equipment belt loaded with flagging, spray cans, hammer, and five sizes of rods. He developed these in conjunction with the late Charlie Bowman, a professor of agricultural engineering at Montana State University who claimed dowsing rods helped him locate perch while he was ice-fishing.

Gear clacking, Bandy takes out his smallest rod and walks a straight line; when he feels the rod pull to earth, Bandy marks the spot with a flag. He continues walking until the end of the rod rises. He takes out another flag and marks the width of what he calls the water “vein.” Then, using a stouter rod (if one of his bigger rods pulls hard, it means more water), he flags the vein until he’s found the area of greatest concentration of what he calls “heavy water,” a term that would tickle any nuclear physicist. There, he hammers in a piece of rebar, which he sprays at the bottom with orange and at the top with blue: his trademark.

What comes next addles the mind.

Using his smallest rod, Bandy stands over the newly marked well, silently, for perhaps a minute, his jaw trembling slightly and lips moving. He is talking to the stick, measuring depth and volume. The dowsing rod rises and falls like some priapic oracle. There is no scientific evidence supporting Bandy’s ability to find anything by dowsing. Still, he has kept records (which he’ll show to anyone) that he says support his claim to have dowsed over 4,000 water wells with 90 percent accuracy, and hundreds of gas and oil wells. He says he’s roughly 70 percent accurate on depth and volume.

Just ask Dale Price. In the 1950s and 1960s, Price’s father pin-cushioned his 3,000-acre wheat farm looking for water. Eventually, he dug up a piece of damp ground with a backhoe, sunk in a perforated piece of culvert, and siphoned the water half a mile through a hose to his house. Price’s mother wouldn’t drink it.

Price inherited the farm and wanted to build houses on a portion of the land. Water, however, remained a problem. In 1992 Price hired Bandy, who dowsed 60 wells. Thus far, Price has drilled and hit good water at acceptable rates of flow in 18 out of 20 wells. In essence, a dryland wheat farm has been transformed into a parcel of ground with 18 possible homesites.

Bandy takes his powers in stride. He eats fried food with impunity, favors lots of sugar, has no fear of excess coffee, and is a deacon in the Presbyterian church of Bozeman. Despite being skinny and wiry, Bandy has the inner thermostat of a polar bear. He’s been seen happily dowsing in shirtsleeves in the midst of a snowstorm.

He was born in 1931, in Ekalaka, Montana. His father held Montana well-driller’s license number eight. Bandy worked with his father during the summer in Carter and Powder River counties–dry places where wells made the difference between survival and being starved out.

Bandy is devoted to protocol and routine. He never lays his stick on the ground. The back of his SUV is laid out like an engineer’s closet, including records from previous dowsings, tools, and long cloth bags containing various rods. Even some drillers, notoriously dismissive of dowsers, concede Bandy’s skills. Troy Hauser of Red Dragon Drilling in Manhattan, Montana, says he’s worked around dowsers most of his life “and wouldn’t give a dime for a dozen of them.” Except Vern, he says. “Does he scare the hell out of you? He scares the hell out of me.”

Excerpted from the November 22, 2010, issue of High Country News, a bimonthly magazine that covers the issues and stories that define the American West. www.hcn.org

This article first appeared in the May-June 2011 issue of Utne Reader.

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