Here is a transcription of my (CB) interview with my informant (HH).
CB: “Okay so what did your mom teach you?”
HH: “My grandma. It was….divining rods or witching rods? I can’t remember exactly. But they were two sticks tied together, and you’d bow ‘em and there was a certain way you’d hold them in your hand, and you’d walk around and when you were over gold they’d let you know”
CB: “Why do you think it was important?”
HH: “It saved a heck of a lot of time when we were looking for gold.”
CB: “What do they mean to you?”
HH: “It was a pretty cool experience when I was a kid. Because those rods knew what was happening. So you’d take a pan of gold and then you’d wave it over the pan a few times and you’d walk around and pretty soon they’d start pulling you down just like a fishing rod. And you’d know if you dug deep enough you’d find something. And my grandma lived on a great big gold claim, and so we’d go visit her and always go looking for gold”
CB: “Why do you think people kept using the rods instead of something like a metal detector?”
HH: “Well it’s just what they’d been doing since before metal detectors.”
My informant and all of his family grew up in northern California which has a rich history associated with the Goldrush. The area where he lives is just an hour from where gold was first discovered. Many of the families and towns in the area can trace their history directly back to the Goldrush. While it is no longer a profitable career, gold can still be found if dug in the hills or panned for in the creeks. Many still actively search for gold as a hobby. The gold plot that my informant described can be traced through family back to the Goldrush. Growing up, his parents and grandparents often sent him and the other kids searching for gold as a way to keep them entertained. Witching rods are typically associated with finding water to dig wells, however the old gold miners were known to use them to find gold as well.
I interviewed my informant in person, at home, as we sat on the couch and discussed local history. The conversation was easy and comfortable.
While gold digging and panning are still somewhat common in our community, witching rods have been phased out, and are very heavily associated with ‘hillbilly superstitions’. I thought it was very interesting that my informant believed so strongly in the rods, when they had been largely discredited socially. I think this belief is rooted in the idea of tradition, and trusting the generations before you. He cited the continuation of using the rods as being accredited to the fact that it was tradition. It’s this idea that many people have successfully used the same tool as you that gives the practice a sense of truth beyond the science of a metal detector. Like many other families in the area, my informant’s family no longer owns the gold plot, or engages in gold mining of any sort. He has become a passive bearer, and I believe that this tradition won’t be practiced for much longer.
For another variation of Witching Rods see YouTube video “Beginners guide to dowsing” uploaded by gardansolyn. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bbwo0YCpV3E