The Rainfall Follows The Plow
This may not be a particularly good poem, but it’s certainly an educational one – if not in the way its author intended.
The idea that otherwise cruel nature would have little choice but to respond favorably to man’s determined labor was neither original nor entirely faith-based. Nineteenth century American climatologists had been propagating such a theory for several decades.
In other news, there were climatologists in the 19th century. Who knew?
The most famous expression came from Charles Wilber, a land speculator and writer who enthusiastically promoted the American West as the final frontier, the promised land, the cure for what ails you, and generally the bestiest bestful thing you could imagine ever – even if, upon first glance, parts of it seemed pretty darn barren:
Suppose (an army of frontier farmers) 50 miles, in width… could acting in concert, turn over the prairie sod, and after deep plowing and receiving the rain and moisture, present a new surface of green growing crops instead of dry, hard baked earth covered with sparse buffalo grass. No one can question or doubt the inevitable effect of this cooling condensing surface upon the moisture in the atmosphere… A reduction of temperature must at once occur, accompanied by the usual phenomena of showers. The chief agency in this transformation is agriculture. To be more concise. Rain follows the plow.
Like many of his generation, Wilber wanted to have some scriptural support to go with his… temporal explanation. Like many of our generation, he somehow managed to convince himself the primary purpose of God’s divinely revealed Word was to provide a strangely incomplete science and/or history reference volume. Should there be pages left over to tease out the relationship of fallen man to his omnipotent Creator, well… bonus.
And every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew: for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground. But there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground. (Genesis 2:5-6, KJV)
Change that third “and” to “because” and we’ve got ourselves plowing advice – only two chapters in, no less! So never mind the weather, or the soil, or history, or science – if you keep plowing, nature itself will bend to your Puritan work ethic. If it eventually rains, it proves we’re right. If it doesn’t, you simply haven’t been faithful enough. Keep plowing.
This basic ideology was pushed by railroad executives or other boosters encouraging settlement on the Great Plains as a means to greater personal profits or political power for themselves. Homesteaders readily embraced the idea because it fit with their understanding of how the universe worked – or at least the American segment of it. If you work hard, and make good choices, things have to work out for you eventually. They just do.
Horatio Alger wrote roughly 132 million books with this same American Dream anchoring every plot, although they generally had urban settings. A young man is impoverished, probably orphaned, and otherwise despised, but he works hard, lives clean, and one day something big happens – usually in the form of a wealthy benefactor impressed by his grit and character. The hero lives prosperously ever after.
Any number of American folktales echo the same idea – the third little pig who built his house out of bricks instead of having any recreation or relationships; Cinderella, who did all the work around the house without complaining (thankfully she was pretty, so the right man would eventually rescue her); the tortoise who won the race by going slow and steady, while that silly hare thought there was a level of success which might allow one to take a breather or even sleep a bit – NOT IN AMERICA, RABBIT.
Democracy itself is founded on the idea that we get what we deserve. So is capitalism. Both assume engaged, informed individuals, each seeking their own enlightened, long-term self-interest, thus producing the best possible political and economic results, which in turn makes for a peaceful and mutually beneficial society. If you make good choices, good things happen. Make bad choices, and…
Reality was far less merciful for any number of plucky, hard-working homesteaders on the Plains. Sometimes all that hard work eventually paid off, but other times it just didn’t rain. Or if it did, the crops just didn’t grow in that particular soil. Or if they did, they weren’t transportable to market in a timely and cost-effective manner. Or if they were, the markets were flooded with similar goods and you couldn’t turn a profit on your years of labor. Or if you did, your wife or kids caught a weird disease and died anyway.
On the whole it was better to work hard and make good choices, but to quote another bit of the Old Testament out of context:
I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all. For man also knoweth not his time: as the fishes that are taken in an evil net, and as the birds that are caught in the snare; so are the sons of men snared in an evil time, when it falleth suddenly upon them. (Ecclesiastes 9:11-12)
Jesus’ disciples would have understood the homesteaders’ convictions, though. When confronted with a man who’d been blind since birth, they sought spiritual understanding of what we’d today generally think of as a medical condition:
And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him. (John 9:2-3)
We can argue the “works of God” part some other time. For our purposes the important thing is that it was neither the result of the man’s prenatal sins nor his parents’. Sometimes, as Ecclesiastes insists, stuff just happens. There may be scientific reasons, given enough time, skill, and information – but in practical, simplified terms, there are no guarantees. Cause and Effect are wily little pranksters, and not always very consistent ones.
The idea that nature exists solely as another tool or challenge for us to beat into submission runs deep in the American psyche. It’s kissing cousins with ‘Manifest Destiny’ and certainly an essential conceit if we’re to continue making the amazing technological progress of which we’re so proud. And if nature, why not the universe? Why not all of reality?
The flip side of such a paradigm, though, is that we – the human individual – are by implication responsible for every outcome. If we prosper, our hard work was the cause. If crops refuse to grow, it was an error in our calculations, our work ethic, or our personal worthiness. Part of us desperately insists that every good thing, every bad thing – not to mention the bewildering myriad in between – must be forever bound to the calculations of tiny individual mortals.
Apparent confirmations are endless. Hard work does matter. Good choices matter even more.
But plowing doesn’t ensure rain any more than laziness guarantees drought. Immunizations don’t cause autism and clean living doesn’t guarantee wealth and long life. Your parents didn’t get divorced when you were eight because you wet the bed and your kid didn’t die in that car because you failed as a parent. The examples of earthly horrors raining down on the innocent are too extensive to seriously claim otherwise; even most believers, if asked nicely and thinking clearly, will confess that to some extent, "time and chance happeneth" to us all.
And yet it’s so easy upon observing corruption that leads to poverty, illness, or other maelstroms, to extrapolate that all suffering must result from similar wrong-doing. Eventually we skip a few steps and simply despise the downtrodden. They must be asking for it, after all – you know how they are.
All homesteaders could do was play the odds based on what they knew. Circumstances improved for most (not all) when farmers worked collectively to hone techniques and share hard-won insights, not when they just plowed harder. Wilber never got his 50-miles of farmers, but something comparable was happening by the 1920s. It didn’t force the skies to open; it only meant there was nothing to hold the soil together when nature refused to rain for the better part of a decade.
Anyone still persuaded that the majority of human activity for good, ill, or other is the result of informed, calculated decision-making clearly hasn’t paid attention to social media, politics, or the bewildering popularity of "Iron Fist." We’re not rational creatures, and we don’t live in a mathematical equation.
Do what you can do, but cut yourself some slack when it doesn’t work out. And consider taking some water to your neighbor – whether you think they deserve it or not.