Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Almanacs and Dowsers
Nature Bulletin No. 342-AApril 26, 1969
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

A few days ago we read about a town in Texas where, desperate for water they sent for a preacher who is locally famous as a dowser or "water witch". With a brass Y-shaped "divining rod" held in front of him and parallel with the ground, the two branches of the Y being tightly gripped in his upturned fists, he slowly walked over the territory near their dry reservoir. Finally he told them to drill a well at a certain spot where, every time he came to it, the rod twisted in his hands until the stem pointed straight down -- supposedly of its own accord and irresistibly. They did, and got lots of water, but it tasted too salty.

We remember, many years ago when dug wells supplied the water on most farms, other dowsers who were credited with and honestly believed that they had a mysterious power to locate underground veins of water. Some used a forked twig of witch hazel, others could find water only with one from a peach tree, a few witched with willow, and occasionally these diviners predicted how deep the well must be dug. This ancient superstition and many others, although sheer poppycock and thoroughly disproved, are still accepted as gospel truth in many rural or mountain regions where the moon and the zodiac rule people's lives.

When we were boys there were just two books in grandfather' s farmhouse, the Bible and, hanging on a nail by the kitchen door, an almanac, It had one page with a weird picture of a naked man surrounded by the twelve signs of the zodiac. Arrows ran from the principal parts of his body to corresponding constellations of stars: from the head to Aries, the ram from his neck to Taurus, the bull; from his arm to Gemini, the twins; and so forth. There was a two-page calendar for each month in the year and, for each day, in addition to much other information and advice, it showed the phase of the moon on that date and the constellation or "sign" through which the moon was traveling. Just as astrologers predict the future and cast horoscopes according to movements of the sun, moon and planets through the zodiac, so most farmers planted their crops only when the moon was "right" and the "sign" was "right". In fact, the almanac was consulted before undertaking anything important -- including a haircut.

As a rule, root crops such as potatoes, turnips, carrots and onions were planted in the dark of the moon but many people would plant potatoes only on Good Friday and sowed turnip seed on the 25th of July, "wet or dry". Similarly, crops that fruited above ground -- such as beans, cabbage, oats and clover -- were planted or sowed in the light of the moon. However, other conditions had to be observed. Beans must be planted when the "sign" was in the arms; cabbage, lettuce or any vegetable that heads, when the sign was in Aries, the head; cucumbers when it was in Gemini, the twins; corn when it was in Scorpio, the crab or '"crawpappy" -- when the oak leaves were about as big as a squirrel's ears.

Pepper plants were supposed to produce best if planted by an angry person or, better still, by a lunatic; gourds by a feeble-minded person; and sage by a passing stranger. unless potatoes were dug in the light of the moon they were liable to rot; and if hay was cut when the sign was in the heart, there would be no hay next year. Hogs were butchered in the light of the moon -- otherwise the meat would not keep well and would curl up in the skillet when fried. Shingles or clapboards laid on a roof during the dark of the moon were sure to curl up. Eggs were put under a setting hen in the light of the moon and if carried there in a woman's bonnet they were all supposed to hatch out as pullets.

If carried in a man's hat, they became roosters.

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