It was Graves' gift as a water dowser that brought him close to thousands of people around the county and region. Dowsing, a way of finding water that's decried by some as pseudoscience, is appreciated by the homeowners, ranchers and contractors who counted on Graves for his remarkable success.
Joe Graves had a sense, "the gift" as he called it, to find what was otherwise hidden. As a dowser, he found underground rivers with only a forked willow stick and a prayer. On a hillside in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains he found perfect staurolites. And in piles of rubbish he found the pieces of trash with potential for beautiful art.
Graves was known in Taos and around the Southwest for these gifts. He died Saturday (Oct. 6), about two weeks shy of turning 86, leaving behind four adult children, several grandchildren and a community that will miss his gentle nature and quiet magic.
Graves' mother had roots in Arroyo Seco and his dad came to the area in a covered wagon. He grew up in Carson, catching wild horses with his dad and brother and learning to make his way in the then-isolated landscape west of the Gorge. It's fitting that most people remember Graves as a cowboy -- distinctive drawl and a tattered turkey feather in his hat.
Graves learned to make rustic furniture and carvings, knives and flint fire starters, elk antler chandeliers and art from the things he found.
"The man was never sitting still," said his son James Graves.
But it was his gift as a water dowser that brought Graves close to thousands of people around the county and region. Dowsing is a way of finding water that's decried by some as pseudoscience but appreciated by the homeowners, ranchers and contractors who counted on Graves for his remarkable success.
Joaquin Karcher is a builder in Taos and remembers the times Graves would drive to a vacant lot with seemingly no water underneath the earth.
"He'd come with his fresh-cut willow sticks under his arm, look at the land, take my hand and say a little prayer. He'd do his own little blessing to hope for good water and good health, then he'd get to work and find the spot," he said.
Holding tightly to copper rods or more often a willow stick -- though cottonwood and Chinese elm worked, too -- Graves would walk across the land where he guessed the underground river might run. Suddenly, the top of the forked stick would turn straight down to the ground, like a tree root looking insatiably for water.
Dowsing is also called water witching. Graves told a Taos News writer in 2006, "It's not about witches. I give the good Lord all the glory. It's a sensitivity some people have. It can't be explained, maybe like a supernatural thing or a miracle." But it's also called water divining. Would Graves contest the name, considering the water and his gift to find it came from the divine?
Graves, like his dowsing, was no-nonsense. Well drillers like his cousin Roy Graves would call him when their water-finding abilities came up short. He also dowsed for folks whose wells went dry or for people in areas around the Southwest that are far less lush than the Taos Valley.
It was the chance encounters that made him a Taos character, which almost everyone who knew him agreed he was. They weren't long exchanges -- an hour dowsing on someone's land, wandering into a shop or gallery to chat -- but his humility was piercing and that's the kind of thing that sticks with a person.
"He was like the walking truth," said Lenny Foster, a photographer who lived in Taos for more than two decades.
"He would always throw a Bible quote or two," Foster said of the simple man who felt lucky to have all that he did. "There are waves of people who have been coming for years, and a lot of them are just fine, but when I think of Taos I think of people like Joe."
If Graves had another title, it was the king of staurolights, the cross-shaped rocks found in one part of the Sangres in Taos County and only a handful of other places in the world.
Finding them is "fairly elusive to most folks," said Courtney Stewart, owner of Taos Rockers. But Graves had "that special sense."
Graves came to know of the staurolite spot when as a kid he was out hunting with his dad and uncle. Someone looked down and there was a cross. The family's been going back ever since. James Graves said his dad would spend hours digging for staurolite. And by all accounts, he gave away as many as he sold.
Three days before his stroke, Graves was in the mountains, picking up the crosses.
His son, who "got the gift" of dowsing just a few years ago, will soon head up to the mountains again with his kids, finding the special rocks and passing on his dad's touch of the divine.
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