Burning Land of Flame

In Environment, History by Keith SanfordLeave a Comment

Burning Land of Flame is a song of warning about climate change.
It draws from Jesus’ words about the valley of Gehenna, and it uses a 400-year-old tune to tell a historical story about early railroads and homesteading in the United States.

Burning Land of Flame

A song about climate change

Words and music by Keith Sanford. Performance includes Keith Sanford on drums, percussion, keyboard synthesizers, and vocals.

Music adapted from the Passion Chorale (tune for O Sacred Head Now Wounded) by Hans Leo Hassler, 1601, and harmony adapted from the arrangement by Johann Sebastin Bach, 1729.

Before there was climate change denial

As the burning of fossil fuel warms the planet and threatens environmental disaster, many people hold a belief in which they reject scientific evidence of climate change. This denial of climate change can be compared to a rather surprising belief held by homesteaders in the United States about 150 years ago. Specifically, in the late 1800s, many people believed that, “rain follows the plow.” In other words, they believed that if they moved to dry prairie lands where it rarely rains, and if they began to plow the soil and plant crops, this activity would cause more rain to fall, thus, producing fertile farmland yielding bountiful harvests. There are many similarities between the current belief where people deny climate change and the previous belief where people expected rain to follow the plow. Both types of belief involve inflated, logically absurd, claims of human authority over the environment. They both involve stories of politics and wealth, and both types of belief are driven by human greed for power and possession. In both cases, human foolishness leads to environmental disaster.

The song, Burning Land of Flame, tells the story of how homesteaders in the late 1800s came to believe that rain follows the plow, and how people today burn fossil fuel without concern for climate change. To tell these stories, the song draws from Jesus’ words about the valley of Gehenna, and it uses a 400-year old musical source. What is the 400-year-old musical source? How did people come to believe that rain follows the plow? And, what were Jesus’ words about the valley of Gehenna? I will explain all this below.

What is the 400-year-old musical source?

First, regarding the musical source, the song uses a modern adaptation of a German melody that was written over 400 years ago (around the year 1600). Some people may recognize this melody as the tune for the hymn, “O Sacred Head Now Wounded.” Although Burning Land of Flame uses a new rhythm for this old melody, the words can still be sung to the music for this hymn using the traditional rhythm just as it is printed in a hymnal. Also, for anyone familiar with folk music of the 1970s, it is notable that Paul Simon used this old German melody for his song which is ironically titled, “American Tune.” The original melody was written before the invention of modern scales, and it uses a type of scale (called a Phrygian mode) that we rarely use in music today, giving the melody a rather haunting feel. Many years later, in 1729, Bach used modern scales to arrange harmonies for this melody, and these harmonies make the song flip from a minor key to a major key with every stanza. I used this old, haunting melody, with Bach’s distinctive harmonization (albeit with a new, syncopated rhythm) for the song because this seemed to capture the correct mood for a song about humans foolishly destroying the earth.

How did people come to believe that rain follows the plow?

The story of how homesteaders came to believe that rain follows the plow is part of the larger story of how the United States expanded across North America. Before White people from Europe arrived in North America, the land was inhabited by several Native American nations. Through a long, violent history of military conquest, war, treaties, broken treaties, massacre, and forced relocation, the United States invaded and occupied the homeland of the Native American peoples. By the time of the Civil War in 1861, the United Stated had laid claim to all the territory from coast to coast – the land that would become the current lower 48 contiguous states. However, at that time the United States had only secured its domination over the Eastern half of the country, and many Native American Nations still thrived in the Western half. Most of the western half of the country was comprised of territories that had not yet become states (with exceptions of Texas, California, and Oregon), and much of that territory had not yet been settled by White people. To secure domination over the western half of the continent, there was a need to entice White homesteaders to move West to build homes and establish farms on the land.

Toward this end, the White men from the northern states that comprised the United States Congress passed the Pacific Railway Act in 1862 which greatly accelerated the pace of westward expansion (at that time, congress would have consisted only of White males from northern states because women and Black people could not vote, and with the onset of the Civil War, southern states had recently succeeded). The purpose of this law was to encourage private companies to build railroads across the western half of the country in hopes that this infrastructure would entice White settlers to move west. The law specified that railroad companies would be given free land on which to build railroads, and moreover, they would be given many acres of extra land adjacent to the railroads they built. This extra land could then be sold, thereby making the railroad business quite lucrative. Profits could be made not only from charging fees to transport people and freight, but also from selling real estate. The amount of land given to railroad companies over the next few decades was substantial, with the total area being larger than the state of California.

Advertising farmland on the prairie

To maximize their profits from selling real estate, however, the railroad companies had to address a problem. Much of the land in the western half the country, and especially land west of the 100th meridian (which is a vertical line running through the middle of present-day Dakotas, down through Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas), was prairie land. These great plains were too dry for farming. White settlers were eager to purchase land where soil was fertile and rain was plentiful, but not land that was unsuitable for farming, where they would be destined to a miserable life of famine, hardship, and crop failure. Thus, to make this prairie land valuable, railroad companies launched a publicity campaign. They deceptively advertised the western prairies as providing wonderful farmland.

Railroad advertisement for land in Kansas

The pamphlet depicted above, probably from the 1870s, is an advertisement by a railroad company selling dry, prairie land in western Kansas. The pictures on the left side of the advertisement depict a starting-level Kansas prairie farm plot that grows rapidly and produces an abundant harvest after only six years of work, whereas the pictures on the right depict a woodland farm from some other part of the country that is still ramshackle and unproductive even after ten years of work. In truth, the land being sold was not suitable for farming as advertised. It was too dry. In all likelihood, most people that purchased this land and attempted to farm, failed to make it work. Hungry and destitute, eventually, they simply had to abandon their land.

Debates about whether rain follows the plow

In 1878 a famous explorer and geologist named John Wesley Powell published a report, based on extensive research, claiming that the arid western plains were too dry for farming. He claimed that individual farmers could not survive on standard plots of farmland, and instead, he proposed a plan where the federal government would regulate the formation of cooperative communities based around shared irrigation districts and large pasture lands. Powell’s ideas were anathema to the railroad companies who were becoming wealthy by selling standard plots of farmland to settlers. Thus, railroad companies fought back against Powell’s ideas by promoting the theory that “rain follows the plow.” According to this theory, when people engage in the process of plowing and farming the soil, it creates conditions that draw more rain to the area.

For several reasons, most people sided with the railroad companies and against Powell.

The plans Powell proposed involved government regulation and cooperative communities, which seemed to violate people’s desire for autonomy, individualism, and independence. People wanted to believe in the dream of owning their own farms, and Powell’s ideas were not what they wanted to hear.

Also, western Kansas received an unusually large amount of rain in 1877, and this unusually wet year was interpreted as evidence of rain following the plow. People thought that it must have rained so much that year because of all the new farms in Kansas. Notably, this is a natural human tendency. We all tend to notice things that support our beliefs and fail to notice things that prove our beliefs to be wrong. Thus, when people believe that the rain follows the plow, they are likely to notice all the instances where rain falls on plowed ground and fail to notice instances where plowed ground remained dry.

In addition, because railroad companies were wealthy, they could invest in advertising and they could support politicians that catered to their interests. Although Powell’s ideas about government regulation were debated in congress, they were never supported and never became popular. Instead, people continued to believe that rain follows the plow, and railroad companies continued to sell land.

The Dust Bowl

Several decades later, after World War I, there was a surge in farming on the western prairie lands. This was made possible by several years of adequate rainfall in the 1920s. In addition, farmers now had access to gas-powered tractors and mechanized farm equipment that made their work more efficient. For several years, there was a high demand for wheat, and prices were high, which made it possible for farmers to make a good profit growing wheat on the great plains. By plowing ever more acres of the vast prairie land, farmers removed the dense root systems of prairie grass that held the soil in place, and they exposed the broken ground to elements of nature.

Then, around the time of the great depression of the 1930s, the price for wheat fell. To make a profit, farmers used their gas-powered tractors and mechanized farm equipment to plow more land to produce more wheat, but excess wheat on the market only drove prices down further. As farmers cut away the prairie grass, rain began to wash the precious topsoil away. Then, several years of drought struck, producing one of the worst environmental disasters in United States history.

Without rain, crops failed, and the prairie became a vast, barren, dry, field of loosely plowed dirt. When the wind blew, it picked up the plowed dirt and dust and whipped it into massive, swirling, black clouds called “rolling dusters” or “black blizzards.” These dust storms often rose more than a mile into the sky. They could last for hours or days. Sometimes they blotted out the sun or produced a complete black-out with zero visibility. People wore wet towels over their mouths and goggles over their eyes. The dust invaded their houses and covered their food and their beds. It drifted against buildings and fences. Cattle, blinded and choked by dust, suffocated and died. People suffered a respiratory disease they called dust pneumonia, and for many, this disease was fatal.

In sum, this is a story of corruption, greed, misplaced confidence, and disaster.

Corrupt leaders sought to maximize profits, people confidently believed they could exert dominion over the environment, but in the end, disaster struck, and they found themselves living in a type of dust bowl hell.

What were Jesus’ words about the valley of Gehenna?

The word, “hell,” may provide a good description of what happens when people do self-centered and foolish things that lead to environmental disasters (such as the Dust Bowl or the future tribulations that will be produced by global warming). In English versions of the Christian Bible, the word “hell” is actually a translation for the name of place called the valley of Gehenna (also called the valley of Hinnom). At the time of Jesus, Gahenna was an actual, physical place located near Jerusalem, and it was understood to be a place that was very bad, possibly a place associated with human sacrifice by fire or a dump full of burning trash. There are almost a dozen passages in the Bible where Jesus is quoted as talking about “Gahenna,” which is translated as “hell” (and interestingly, these are essentially the only direct references to hell in the New Testament of the Christian Bible).

There are several ways that Jesus’ warnings about the valley of Gehenna (or hell) create a potent metaphor that is particularly relevant today when thinking about climate change and environmentalism.

First, regardless of how Jesus’ descriptions of Gehenna were originally intended, they certainly provide rich metaphors. In fact, given that Jesus’ statements about Gehenna typically occur in the context of parables and hyperbole, it is quite possible they were originally intended as metaphor. As metaphor, Biblical warnings about the Valley of Gehenna can be especially meaningful today because they create vivid images about the types of disasters that occur when people engage in careless, selfish, destructive behavior.

Second, Jesus descriptions of Gehenna (as given in the Christian Bible) appear to refer to a type of place on earth that causes people to suffer, and possibly to suffer a terrible death. Notably, this is probably different from the way most people understand the concept of hell today. These descriptions seem to describe Gehenna as a place that causes death, and not as some extraterrestrial or non-physical place where souls go after death for eternal punishment. In this sense, it is easy to draw parallels between the concept of Gehenna and human-caused environmental disasters. Both involve places on earth where there is great human suffering.

Third, Gehenna serves as a warning against the consequences of harmful, self-centered human behavior, especially by those in places of power. Again, this may be different from what is often taught in churches today. As quoted in the Christian Bible, Jesus’ statements about Gehenna seem unconcerned about religious belief, and instead they seem to be warnings directed at religious leaders who are hypocritical and fail to meet exceptionally high ethical standards. Given that Jesus lived and taught 2000 years ago, he certainly was not thinking about the modern issue of climate change, but his apparent warnings about the need for leadership integrity and about the need for people to meet challenging ethical standards clearly fit the modern context. These actions are quite difficult to undertake, but these difficult actions are required if people are to address the current trajectory of climate change. The path is challenging and consequence of failure is great.

For an in-depth discussion of the way hell is understood in the song, Burning Land of Flame, click the “Biblical Allusions” link below.

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