The First Transcontinental Railroad stretched across the USA, from east to west (and in the 1860s people were only heading west). It runs for 3,077 kilometers (1,912 miles), from Iowa all the way to the Pacific, at San Francisco Bay.
Originally called the Pacific Railroad, the rails carried hopeful pioneers to the West Coast. This was an era when people believed it was their “manifest destiny” to settle and develop the western states and push the frontiers of the USA.
President James K. Polk was elected in 1845 after campaigning to settle the entire country and push out the British. During his term of office, the Mexican War brought Texas and California into the United States, greatly increasing the territory of the nation. Polk justified his expansionist philosophy by popularizing the phrase “manifest destiny,” which led many hopeful families to pack up and head west where they could have their own land.
Many difficulties faced these pioneers. One of the biggest was the 100th meridian west, the invisible line that marked the boundary between the humid eastern United States and the arid Western plains. The meridian cuts through Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas, and newcomers faced a completely different climate than they were used to, one that made farming almost impossible due to the lack of rain.
Having built a railroad all the way to the coast, the rail companies had to encourage people to move west. And to do that they had to somehow provide the new homesteaders with rain, otherwise, they could not survive.
Luckily, an amateur scientist named Charles Dana Wilber solved the issue. He figured out that the new land was only arid and dry because there were no people there to till the land (I guess he didn’t realize that there had been people living there for a long time before the train tracks arrived).
In 1881, Wilber published “The Great Valleys and Prairies of Nebraska and the Northwest” in which he wrote:
To those who possess the divine faculty of hope—the optimists of our times—it will always be a source of pleasure to understand that the Creator never imposed a perpetual desert upon the earth, but, on the contrary, has so endowed it that man, by the plow, can transform it, in any country, into farm areas.
He “proved” his thesis in part from a verse right at the beginning of the Bible (Genesis 2:5-6 — this is Wilber’s translation):
But there went up a mist (dew) from the earth and watered the whole face of the ground; for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, (because) and there was not a man to till the ground.
Not only did Wilber have religion on his side, but he coined a phrase that made it so much easier to sell the idea — “rain follows the plow.”
The maxim “rain follows the plow” matched the Protestant values of the settlers. If they worked hard enough they would be successful. If it didn’t rain, they just had to plow a bit harder. Of course, the same phrase also placed the blame squarely on their shoulders if the rain didn’t fall.
Richard Smith Elliott was the marketing guy for Kansas Pacific Railway. It was basically his job to encourage people to buy land in the dry, arid west and set up farms so that they would buy train tickets. He suggested planting trees along the train tracks to bring the rain along with the train.
Then he had an even better idea — the railroad itself would bring the rain, having fundamentally the same effect on the climate as all the new farming. It was a masterstroke that turned the railroad construction into an environmental, religious and political value. Though it was marketing, rather than science, the Smithsonian Institute was convinced and published Elliott’s ideas in its Annual Report of 1870.
And despite the dodgy science behind the enterprise, it seemed to work. More and more people took the train west and starting tilling the land and the rain started to fall in abundance.
Until 1881, when there was a drought. And then again in 1887, which was one of the hottest years on record, with virtually no rainfall. And this drought continued for years, peaking in 1891, by which time there were virtually no crops left, and a huge number of the pioneers had been forced to pack their bags and, penniless, head back east.
Because pseudo-science only goes so far. It can fool a lot of people a lot of the time. It can convince people to give up everything they have to start a new life in the west. It can make a lot of money for the folks at the Kansas Pacific Railway. It can even get published by the Smithsonian Institute.
But it can’t actually change the climate. And when the drought came, and the heavens dried up, no amount of plowing could bring the rain.
Throughout the past century, there have been many attempts to make it rain, including Charles William Post’s attempts to dynamite the sky; Wilhelm Reich’s cloudbusting experiments; the Thai Royal Rainmaking Project that began in 1955; and an $11 million project in Abu Dhabi to bring rain to the desert.
There have been great strides in desalination and lots of ongoing climate research, but making rain remains elusive.
It is incredible that after thousands of years and despite incredible technical advances in so many fields, about one-quarter of the world’s population face the risk of running out of water. Drought covers large parts of the globe. As the world grows warmer, more and more people live under the shadow of death due to lack of water.
In this week’s Torah portion, Ha’azinu, Moses commands the heaven and earth to bear witness to the actions of the Jewish people. Moses has led the people for 40 years, redeeming them from Egypt, guiding them through the desert and giving them the Torah. Now, right before his death, he knows that the people will rebel against him and the Torah. He calls on the sky and land to reward or punish the people for their actions.
The way the portion is written in the Torah scroll is unique. As Maimonides writes (Laws of Tefillin, Mezuzah and Sefer Torah 8:11):
Each line has a gap in the middle… so that each line is divided into two. It is written in 67 lines.
The song takes up two columns, the first begins with six regular lines, followed by 35 split lines. The next column has 35 split lines, followed by six full lines (our Torah scrolls do not follow Rambam’s ruling and have the song over 70 lines, not 67). This creates a visual representation of the rain falling from the sky and the ground absorbing the rain. And it also looks a bit like train tracks.
One of the lines in the portion resonates so clearly nowadays (Deuteronomy 32:28):
For they are a nation of lost advice, and they have no understanding.
It is no longer the Kansas Pacific Railway, but big business is still using pseudo-science to further its own agenda. Information and misinformation befuddle us, we don’t know what we can do, or even if there is anything that needs to be done.
In an age of confusion, the ancient, simple song of Ha’azinu speaks clearly and poignantly of humanity’s limited capabilities and our dependence on the majesty of nature.
The Constant is one of the best podcasts around, and this blog was inspired by the episode entitled “Make It Rain.”