Chapter 16


The Garden and the Desert

In the surge of westward advance which followed the Civil War, lands were being taken up in areas where the undependable rainfall would hinder the kind of traditional farming on which the myth of the garden had been based. The subhumid plains west of the ninety-sixth meridian (eastern Kansas and Nebraska) posed a problem that proved insoluble until the special seeds and cultivation methods of "dry farming" made possible large-scale farming west of the one- hundredth meridian. The Homestead Act, with its implied Republican urge to develop the West, could do little itself to combat the drought and dust and grasshoppers that confronted settlers to the plains. The myth of the garden needed to be revised and strengthened to combat the myth of the Great American Desert.

The journal of Zebulon Pike from his 1810 expedition across the plains first brought the problem of the plains to light, and Henry M. Brackenridge's Views of Louisiana (1817) suggested that few, if any settlers would venture far into the far regions of the west. Francis Parkman and Thomas J. Farnham, travelers to the West in the late 1830s, described the plains as a barren, desolate wilderness; a decade later Edwin Bryant noted that western Nebraska was too arid and desolate to support civilized man. And, indeed, given the definition of civilization as dependent upon agriculture, rather than the nomadic tribal existence of Bedouins following their flocks and herds, Bryant made a significant point. Late in the eighteenth century Edmund Burke and Washington Irving had both declared that expansion too far into the wilderness would yield new races of mongrel, pastoral hordes like the Mongols of Central Asia. DeBow's Review even suggested that such brigands might ally themselves with the Indians to defeat the settlers of the agricultural frontier.

Such fancies aside, the idea of a vast, uninhabitable desert was cause for the Pacific Railway Surveys of the 1850s and the chartering of the Union Pacific in 1862, efforts both to explore and eventually bridge the barrier of mountains and desert between the settlements of the Mississippi Valley and the settled portions of the Pacific Coast. The central problem was not the replacement of the imaginary renegade plains horseman with the equally imaginary stout yeoman farmer, however; the main difficulty was rainfall. Many notions of how to increase rainfall surfaced in writings of the day. For example, Josiah Gregg's Commerce of the Prairies (1844) muses about whether intense cultivation of the plains might increase precipitation and relates that New Mexican folk belief attributes the increased amount of rainfall there to the recent arrival of Missouri settlers. Secretary of the Interior Ferdinand V. Hayden suggested an ostensibly more scientific opinion that increased timer planting in Nebraska would heighten soil moisture and add to its fertility. Hayden's efforts to destroy the myth of the desert prompted all sorts of theories about the fate of the agricultural frontier, notably the wishful epigram of Samuel Aughey and Charles Dana Wilber, who used a passel of pseudoscientific notions to conclude that "Rain Follows the Plough." In this conception the sacred plow and the virtuous labor of the farmer cannot fail to fertilize the plains, and the earlier and much bleaker view of Parkman and others was overpowered by the rejuvenated myth of the garden.

Chapter 17