Climate Change

It’s hard to believe that we were once willing to accept the idea of man-made climate change.  More than willingly, we lapped it up eagerly.  Climate change was a truism on everyone’s lips.  Ministers preached sermons on the subject.  Newspapers editorialized about it, and leading scientists stepped up to offer rational explanations for the amazing phenomenon.  The difference between then and now is that what we once believed in, with an almost religious conviction, was a positive change, one that made the opening of vast sections of the West not just possible, but inevitable.

By the simple act of turning the sod, humans allowed virgin topsoil to absorb moisture like a giant sponge, gradually releasing it into the atmosphere where it was again stockpiled in the form of towering columns of water vapor, before returning to waiting croplands as blessed rainfall, just when it was needed most.  That was one theory.  Others thought it was the broad-leafed crops that exhaled moisture into the air, or perhaps it was the newly-planted orchards which helped to account for the sudden increase in precipitation.  There was even a theory that it might have something to do with the humming telegraph wires or the dozens of locomotives thundering across the prairie every day, belching black plumes of smoke skyward.  Perhaps all this human activity was somehow jostling the sky, shaking a few extra sprinkles of rain out of passing clouds.  The notion led to experiments in dynamiting the atmosphere, cloud-seeding the way Crocodile Dundee might have done it.

Whatever the reason, there was undeniable evidence that “The Great American Desert” described by Zebulon Pike and Washington Irving was beginning to give way to a veritable Eden at the very moment when it was falling under white husbandry.  There had to be a connection.

One explanation was encapsulated in the dictum, “Rain follows the plow,” the sub-heading of a chapter on rainfall in Charles Dana Wilber’s 1881 book The Great Valleys and Prairies of Nebraska and the Northwest.  Assisted by an abundance of charts, graphs and tables of data, Wilber’s book pointed to a steady increase in rainfall west of the Missouri River since 1869.  Before that time, anything west of the 100th Meridian was a forbidding land for farmers.  Crops grown east of the line could count on receiving between 20 and 40 inches of rain annually.  Along the line, it was closer to 20.  West of the line, the figure was only 10-20 inches, and growing a crop might be assured only by irrigation.  Old-timers warned emigrants crossing the Big Blue at Marysville, that they were already entering desert country.   According to Wilber, the 20-inch line was now moving west, marching rapidly and steadily, on what Wilber called a “hegira,” as buffalo grass gave way to prairie grasses “not only in all the valleys and over all the divides of the Republican river, but everywhere on the same parallel of longitude in both Nebraska and Kansas.  Nor is there any evidence of a halt, nor even a lingering or a lessening of the rate of encroachment.  Nor can any one properly say that the primitive or buffalo grass, will not continue its western retreat entirely across the plains.”

For Charles Dana Wilber, the main reason deserts existed at all was too much sand, and the sand had been allowed to take hold because humans stopped tilling the ground and no longer insisted on growing things there.

“By the repeated processes of sowing and planting with diligence the desert line is driven back, not only in Africa and Arabia, but in all regions where man has been aggressive, so that in reality there is no desert anywhere except by man’s permission or neglect.”  He called out a race of humans who had been neglecting the American Desert and allowing it to remain unproductive:  Indians.

On the contrary the Indians are, and, as far as we know, have always been, co-workers with the natural forces that maintain and extend desert conditions.  He will neither plant nor sow, but by annual fires will destroy the occasional venture of forests and groves to extend beyond their reduced limits.  He, by his law, or economy of life, makes the desert still more a desert, and when the desolation is complete, he can either disappear as the exit of the non-fittest, or retreat to other wilds.

To illustrate his point and to show that he wasn’t kidding with that “non-fittest” remark, Wilber recalled  seeing a single live stalk of corn growing at a water station in western Kansas near the Colorado line in the summer of 1869 and 1870, where construction of the Kansas Pacific Railway was underway.  Growing beside it was a useless Canada thistle.

Soon after our arrival (Little Raven) the Cheyenne chief, came to the station with a pony train of buffalo skins to exchange as usual for firewater, tobacco, powder and guns, especially the latter because most needed in their favorite pastime of scalping the unwary white man.  Comparing the corn and thistle growing side by side, one could not resist a preference 'for the survival of the fittest,' nor see any harm in the destruction of the entire tribe of thistles.  Useless, like the thistle, it was clear that the Indian had no stronger claim.  To civilize him and to make the thistle bear figs are similar tasks, which may properly occupy the minds of Utopian dreamers.

Like a tribe of thistles, a tribe of Indians is useless, even destructive.  They make deserts.  Get rid of the Indians, you get rid of the deserts.  Bring on the plows.

One of the most eminent sources for Wilber’s ideas was a science professor at the University of Nebraska, Samuel Aughey, Ph.D., L.L.D.  In the preface for his Sketches of the Physical Geography and Geology of Nebraska, published the year before Charles Dana Wilber’s book, Dr. Aughey acknowledged that “I am also under great obligations to the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad in Nebraska, to the Union Pacific Railroad, to the Atchison & Nebraska Railroad, and to other roads for transportation and other favors.”  If Dr. Aughey owed the railroads some favors, he certainly repaid them.  Just as his theories were what people wanted to hear, they were also what the railroads wanted people to hear.  Westward emigration brought the railroads passengers and future freight traffic.  The railway companies happily reprinted Dr. Aughey’s speeches and quoted him in their advertisements.

A string of droughts in the 1890’s eventually made the idea that “rain follows the plow” fall into disrepute.  The Dust Bowl years of the 1930’s finally blew it away entirely, along with much of the topsoil.  The theory had been popular.  It was what people wanted to believe.  The Bible was quoted frequently to bolster the argument.  Manifest Destiny was invoked.  The change being wrought on the land was called a “miracle of progress,” and the plow was its “unerring prophet,” as if it improved the climate just by showing up and being stored in the shed.  The scientific observations were no doubt accurate, but they had sampled a thin slice of climatological data, a 20-year cycle of increased rainfall in what would stubbornly remain a thirsty region.

Maybe if we tried that dynamiting thing again…      


© Dale Switzer 2023