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The PPM Blog

To Divine is Human

a man wearing a suit and tieContributed by Walt Henley, Senior Geologist, PPM Consultants

For 47 years, my job has been to figure out what lies unseen beneath our feet. When I worked in the oil and gas industry, I drew intricate maps of a 330-million-year-old river delta buried a mile deep. The difference in a dry hole and paydirt often came down to how accurately one could pinpoint a nice clean ancient river channel sand, which might explain why I’m in a different business now.

We had a lot of scientific tools at our disposal including geophysical logs and seismic profiles. But in the very early days of oil exploration, which believe it or not was before my time, a prospector might only have a forked tree branch, preferably peach, to “divine” the location of the elusive black gold.

Oil and gas went bust in the 1980s, so I made the transition along with thousands of other unemployed geologists to environmental geology. We still look for petroleum, except now we explore gas station parking lots for accidental releases of refined motor fuels, and we drill to depths of tens of feet instead of tens of thousands. It’s not difficult to determine whether contamination is present. But it can often be an adventure avoiding the obstacles in the way of a drill bit. You see, a whole lot of utility lines lie underneath an old filling station site, so you better not just push ahead and take your chances. If you do, the odds will catch up with you, and you may get an expensive visit from a repair crew.

PPM goes to great lengths to avoid such calamities. We call 811. We ask for construction plans. We closely inspect the surface for pavement scars. We use hand tools to dig slowly and carefully to 4 feet deep. Sometimes, we even use ground-penetrating radar. But often as not, when the work crew arrives, the first thing a grizzled old driller might do is break out his own line-locating device.

Enter the modern divining rod. Today’s version of the peach branch is a set of thin metal rods (coat hanger wire works pretty well) loosely bent over a pair of calloused hands. The operator holds the two rods pointing forward and walks slowly across the lot. At some point, the rods magically cross. If they uncross after passing the spot, the operator turns around and retraces his steps. Usually, the rods will cross again at the very same spot. Before you know it, an experienced driller will have the entire lot marked.

I consider myself a scientist, so color me skeptical. I’ve tested these things before. I can intentionally make them cross with an imperceptible tilt of the hands. But if a guy with 20 or 30 years of experience commences to pace the parking lot with a pair of divining rods, who am I to object? Who am I to claim he’s manipulating them? Why would he want to mislead anybody anyway? He’s the guy operating the drill rig and would have to deal with the damaged lines. I learned long ago to listen to the advice of people who have been around a while, even if I don’t totally understand it. Even if it’s definitively indefinite.

To divine is to conclude something by intuitive means. But intuition is often based on something real, even if it can’t be explained. A driller who has been around for a long time has experienced things I wouldn’t even think of. He’s seen things I haven’t. When he is divining, he is really bringing his years of knowledge to bear in a visible way. So, if he offers, I’ll take it.

An old driller can teach us something. Like him, we all divine things. It’s our way of making sense of an overly complex world, of navigating complicated situations and relationships. Who are we going to trust? Which job are we going to take? What do we like in a car or in a house? Don’t get me wrong. Do your homework first. Do the research. Pay attention to the details. Take all the legal and logical precautionary steps. But you’ll never know everything with absolute certainty. So, you’ll act when you divine that the time is right. It’s only human.

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