Witching woman: This artist is reviving her family's tradition of water witching

Halifax artist Alana Bartol holds workshops to demonstrate water witching, which she says has been part of her family for generations.

Water witching has been used to find water, oil and minerals since at least the 15th century

Alana Bartol is a practitioner of the art of water witching, something that has been a part of her family for generations. (Lukas Wall/CBC)

Water witching may sound strange to many of us, but for centuries people have used tools — and a sixth sense — to locate water, oil and ores in the ground.

While there is no hard science to support the practice, the tradition — also known as dowsing — is alive and well. 

Calgary-based artist Alana Bartol holds workshops to demonstrate the ability she says has been part of her family for generations. She is in St. John's to run those workshops as part of the Hold Fast contemporary art festival, which runs at Eastern Edge Gallery until Sunday.

"I sort of heard stories that people in my family had been water witches, and I didn't really get super-interested in it until maybe about five years ago," Bartol told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show.

"My aunt sent me an email and she told me this story when she tried water witching when she was 13 years old in rural Nova Scotia where my family is from … she was kind of surprised and scared, but also kind of interested, but then the last line of her email said she never tried it again and she wondered if water witching wears away."

The "dowser" or water witcher will hold the end of a Y-rod in their hand and begin walking the area where they are searching for water or other underground resources. The rod will begin to move in response to the location, according to Bartol, who now lives in Alberta. 

"The rod is communicating with you in a sense," she said. 

"There's lots of theories about how it works. A lot of people say it doesn't work and that it's a pseudoscience and it's had long associations with the occult, but I thought it was really fascinating."

The craft can be traced back to 15th-century Germany, according to Bartol, when mining engineers used it to find mineral ore deposits. 

Jumping-off point

After reading her aunt's email, Bartol wondered if it was something to which she too could connect. While she hasn't witched a well just yet, Bartol says she has found other things buried in the ground while dowsing. 

"I haven't had the opportunity to go out to someone's property, but I have friends that are building a property soon. So I'm going to try to witch their well," she said.

"But I have found other things through dowsing, including pipes and waterlines and lost objects."

Bartol mostly uses her family's traditional practice as an extension of her art. 

"Mainly I use it as an artist, and within my art practice, to think about knowledge of the body, [of] how we connect with environments, and also think about alternative forms of knowledge," she said. 

Bartol says the practice is still widely used today, including in Newfoundland and Labrador. During her workshop she provides the tools for everyone to use and test their own abilities — even the skeptics. 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador        

With files from the St. John's Morning Show