HBM123: Water Witches

Smoot Hill, with 3D replicas of Kathy Emtman’s witching rods superimposed

Some time in the 90’s, Kathy Emtman received a gift from her husband, Rick. It was a pair of bent metal rods, each shaped into long ‘L’. Nothing special, not imparted with any kind of magic, just metal rods. Colloquially, these rods are called “witching rods” or “dowsing rods”. 

HBM producer Jeff Emtman (child of Rick and Kathy) remembers a scene that took place the night of that gifting: each family member taking turns holding the rods, testing who had the gift of water witching. Each person held the rods by their short end with the long ends waving around in front of them. Gripped loosely enough, the rods spin freely, seemingly with a life of their own.  And believers say that when the rods cross, that’s where there’s water underground. That is...if a true witch is holding the rods.

Who’s a water witch? Well it depends who you ask. Some say that the gift is rare, some say that it’s in nearly all of us. It’s a folk belief, one not canonized in any central text and one not well supported by science. However, it persists (strongly in some places) as a regular thing for people to do when they need a well dug—cited as a way to gather a second opinion before paying a well driller to dig on their property. 

And this desire for a second opinion seems quite understandable. Wells in the Palouse Region of Eastern Washington State (where Jeff grew up) often require digging hundreds of feet to find water of sufficient quality and quantity to sustain a family or a farm. These wells might cost $10,000 to $30,000 each. Further, the well drillers charge per hole dug, regardless of whether there’s water down there. So, picking the right spot is paramount.

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Well driller Brett Uhlenkott calls water witching a “farce”, preferring to drill based on his understanding of the landscape, his readings of the geologic maps and his knowledge of nearby successful wells. But he’s had clients who request he drill in a spot a witch found. And if that’s what his client wants, then that’s where he drills. 

Brett says there’s no mechanism for any information to travel the great distance between a witcher’s rods and a tiny vein of groundwater that runs hundreds of feet below the surface. Despite this, Brett keeps a pair of rods himself, saying that it might work for things closer to the surface. He cites an instance where he was able to locate a pipe or cable located several feet underground using the rods.  Brett thinks it might have something to do with minerals, or that it might just be something that we imagine in our heads.

Ron Libbey holds his grandson’s elbow saying that sometimes the skill can be transferred to another person temporarily if there’s physical contact.

Ron Libbey holds his grandson’s elbow saying that sometimes the skill can be transferred to another person temporarily if there’s physical contact.

The mechanism most often cited for the seemingly organic movements of a witcher’s rods is so-called ideomotor movement, which is the same thing that makes Ouija boards work.  Simply put, these motions are the result of unconscious movements we make when we feel something should work.  With witching, these motions get amplified by the long rods, resulting in movement that seems to emerge from nothing.  

Attempts to prove the validity of witching exist. Proponents cite a study by Hans-Dieter Betz that claimed incredible success rate in witched wells in countries with dry climates.  This paper received criticism for its unusual methodology.  Betz published another paper on water witching in a controlled environment, where he found a select few people who he claimed could reliably witch water, however that study also received criticism for its method of data analysis.  

Back in the 90’s.  Jeff held the rods, and he was able to find the pipes in the house, the sprinkler lines in the yard.  The rods moved convincingly, crossing where they were supposed to, uncrossing where they weren’t. 

In this episode of Here Be Monsters, Jeff revisits his hometown, debates the merits of black-box thinking with his parents (Rick and Kathy Emtman), talks with his grandma (Peggy Emtman) about the desire to have a talent she can’t have, interviews three farmers and a former farmhand (Ian Clark, Asa Clark, Ron Libbey and Owen Prout) about their experiences with witching, and asks his parents’ pastor (Wes Howell of Trinity Lutheran Church) to explain the origin of the term “hocus pocus”.

Others who helped with this episode: Lindsay Myron, Nick Long-Rinehart, Brandon Libbey, Mary Clark, Joe Hein, and Kirsten O’Brien. 

Smoot Hill, near Albion, Washington.

Producer: Jeff Emtman
Editor: Bethany Denton
Music: The Black Spot

HBM121: True North

HBM host Jeff Emtman on the roof of his university’s library in 2008.
Northern Lights image by Johny Goerend via Upsplash.

Angels helped Here Be Monsters’ host Jeff Emtman once.  They picked him up and took care of him after a bad bike crash.  It was just one of many times that Jeff felt watched over by God.

Jeff used to think he might be a pastor someday.  And so, as a teenager, he made an active effort to orient his thoughts and deeds towards what God wanted. 

In this episode, Jeff tells four short stories about faith (and the lack thereof) through the metaphor of declination, or the distance in angle between the unmovable true north, and the ever shifting magnetic north.  

Producer: Jeff Emtman
Editor: Bethany Denton
Music:  The Black Spot
Photos: Jeff Emtman

View from the middle of Holden Village, where Jeff spent his Junior year of high school. Trees discussed on the episode are pictured far left. Click for a 180° panorama

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Did you hear the good news?

We have new stickers, commissioned from the incredible artist Violet Reed.

HBM120: Own Worst Interest

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In the fall of 1989, in Vancouver, Washington, a short, 29 year-old man named Westley Allan Dodd raped and murdered three young boys. The boys were brothers Cole and William Neer, ages 10 and 11, and four year old Lee Iseli.

Content Note:
Sexual violence, suicide and capital punishment

A few weeks later, police arrested Westley at movie theater after he tried and failed to abduct another boy. He quickly confessed to the three murders. The prosecution sought the death penalty, and Dodd pled guilty.

Death penalty cases take a long time due to all the appeals built into the process. These appeals are designed to make sure the state hasn’t made any mistakes in the death sentence. They check for things like juror misconduct, incompetent defense lawyers, new evidence. Death penalty cases take years, sometimes decades.

Westley Allan Dodd did not want that. Instead, he wanted to be executed as quickly as possible.

In letters to the Supreme Court of Washington, Dodd urged the court to allow him to waive his right to appeal his death sentence. He believed he deserved to die for what he did, and wanted it done as soon as possible. Dodd was what’s known as a “volunteer”–someone who gives up their rights in order to hasten their own execution. The Death Penalty Information Center cites about 150 cases of “volunteers” in the United States.

Dodd’s case sparked debate both among people who supported and opposed the death penalty. Some argued he had the right to choose whether the court would review the validity of his death sentence. Others argued that the law ensures that all defendants have due process whether they want it or not.

In the meantime, Dodd continued to advocate for his own execution in interviews and in exchanges with his pen pals. He said he felt remorseful, and even wrote a self-defense booklet for kids to learn how to stay safe from men like him. The booklet was called “When You Meet A Stranger”.

The debate made its way to the Washington Supreme Court.  In a 7-2 ruling, they decided that Dodd did, in fact, have the right to waive his remaining appeals. After just three years on death row (5 years shorter than the national average at that time) the State of Washington hanged Westley Allan Dodd.

On this episode Bethany Denton interviews  Dodd’s former attorney Gilbert Levy. And defense attorney Jeff Ellis, who was a young lawyer during the time of the Dodd trial.   Bethany also talks to Becky Price, who was one of the recipients of Dodd’s pamphlet  “When You Meet A Stranger”.

Producer: Bethany Denton
Editor: Jeff Emtman
Music:  The Black Spot

HBM119: An Episode of Pebbles and Twigs

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The end of our seventh season draws near! Just one more episode until we hang up our podcasting hats for a few months.

Content Note:
Sexual references and bodily injury

We don’t want you to miss us too much though, so on this episode, we’re tying up some loose ends, answering some questions, and sharing ways that you can stay connected with us even when our podcast feed is quieter.

Five ways to help us out this summer

Country of Birth data from the VOICE FOIA dataset. Visualized by Ahnjili Zhuparris. Interactive Version

  1. HBM Summer Art Exchange.  You like to make art?  You like to get art? Exchange something with a fellow HBM listener.  All you have to do is fill out this form. It’s free (well, except for postage).

  2. Merch. Did you know that we have HBM shirts, stickers, art prints, books, sweatshirts?  Already have those?  Fear not, we’re working on a something new for next season.

  3. The VOICE Hotline Dataset.  In 2017, Jeff FOIA’d Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for the records of the calls made to their VOICE hotline.  The (heavily redacted) spreadsheet contains 5,164 calls with many pieces of metadata for each call record.

    Google Sheets Version. This is a version that we’ve cleaned up a tad, added some useful analysis to.  You can view and comment collaboratively here.

    CSV Version. This is a version that you can use offline in software like Excel and Tableau.

    ICE FOIA LIbrary Version.  This is straight from the source.  Our FOIA is listed under Reports → VOICE Log: Apr. 2017- Oct. 2017

  4. Super Secret Facebook Group.  We have a top secret Facebook group.  If you want to be a part of it, just find it.  That’s the only test to get in.

  5. Voicemail Line.  Call us anytime.  Tell us your stories or record strange sounds, or ask us questions.  We love it when you call. Our number is (765) 374-5263.

More reporting about the VOICE Hotline on Splinter and the Arizona Republic.

Many thanks to the data scientist Ahnjili Zhuparris for the help with the VOICE dataset.  She created a whole slew of data visualizations for us here.

Producer: Jeff Emtman
Editor: Jeff Emtman
Music: The Black Spot

HBM117: Grave Oversight

Fire burning near Abyei town   , composited with a shadow of a satellite for HBM by Jeff Emtman.  Source image by    DigitalGlobe

Fire burning near Abyei town, composited with a shadow of a satellite for HBM by Jeff Emtman.
Source image by
DigitalGlobe

Sudan has been involved in ongoing civil wars since 1983. The wars were about religion, culture and resources. By 2005, approximately two million civilians had died. In 2011, the southern part of the country voted to secede from the north, creating the new country of South Sudan.  But there were still three regions that were claimed by both north and south: Abyei, Blue Nile, and South Kordofan. These regions are rich in oil and have fertile farmlands, so politicians and humanitarians predicted there would be violence following the secession. Civilians in these regions, mostly farmers and shepherds, would be caught in the middle.

Content Note:
Discussion of genocide

Nathaniel Raymond is a human rights investigator. He was looking into an alleged massacre in Afghanistan when he was introduced to the idea of using satellite imagery for humanitarian purposes. At that time, satellite images were sometimes used for documenting force swells and finding the locations of mass graves. But Nathaniel wondered if he could figure out a way to use satellite imagery proactively; what if he could figure out a way to see an attack coming and sound an alarm before anyone got hurt?

Nathaniel wasn’t the only one who had this idea. Actor George Clooney had also been researching ways to use satellites as “anti-genocide paparazzi” in Sudan through an organization he co-founded called The Enough Project. The Enough Project and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and others sponsored the project. The Satellite Sentinel Project partnered with the private satellite imagery company DigitalGlobe, who gave the SSP permission to point some of their satellites where they pleased and take pictures. By December 2010, the Satellite Sentinel Project was in full swing, inventing a new methodology for analyzing satellite imagery of active conflict in real time.

Nathaniel Raymond, former Director of Operations at the Sentinel Satellite Project. Photo by Jeff Emtman.

Nathaniel Raymond, former Director of Operations at the Sentinel Satellite Project. Photo by Jeff Emtman.

The mission of the Satellite Sentinel Project was threefold:

  1. Warn civilians of impending attacks,

  2. document the destruction in order to corroborate witness testimony in later investigations, and

  3. potentially dissuade the governments in both Sudan and South Sudan from returning to war in the first place.

“We wanted to see if being under surveillance would change the calculus… If they knew we were watching, would they not attack?” The Satellite Sentinel Project would release their reports at midnight so that they would be available in time for morning news in East Africa.

Critics of Satellite Sentinel Project say that South Sudan shouldn’t be a playground for experimental humanitarian efforts bankrolled by a foreign movie star. And Nathaniel says the critiques are valid. “It was always a Hail Mary pass. And, we must be clear, it was always an experiment, which in and of itself is problematic. But… what else are we going to do, sit on our hands?”

Satellite Sentinel Project released a total of 28 reports over 18 months. The methodology Nathaniel and his team developed is still being taught at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative.

Nathaniel Raymond’s 2018 talk on Satellite Sentinel Project at the EyeO Festival 2018.

PBS Newshour Reporting on Satellite Sentinel Project’s documentation of burned villages in South Sudan.

Today Nathaniel Raymond is a lecturer on Global Affairs at Yale’s Jackson Institute. Special thanks to Ziad al Achkar, one of Nathaniel’s colleagues from Satellite Sentinel Project that helped us with this episode.

Producer: Garrett Tiedemann
Editors: Bethany Denton and Jeff Emtman
Music: Garrett Tiedemann