It’s raining as I write this, a drumming, crashing downpour that sounds like it could float the house away. In central Texas, that’s exactly what it’s doing, in a record-breaking downfall that has caused catastrophic destruction and loss while simultaneously bringing relief to the area’s years-long drought.
Which makes it an appropriate day to be reading environmental journalist Cynthia Barnett’s captivating new microhistory, Rain: A Natural and Cultural History (Crown Publishers, $25, 368 pages).
In the British Isles, says Barnett, this type of torrential rain “[comes] down in stair rods.” In Denmark, it’s “raining shoemakers’ apprentices,” in Greece, “chair legs,” or “wheelbarrows” in the Czech Republic. Here in the American South, where there are more than 170 descriptions of rain, it might be “a tub soaker, log mover, a lighterd knot floater, a milldam buster, [or] a potato bed soaker.”
Whatever you call it, the vapor that fights to stay alive in earth’s fiery atmosphere in Rain‘s cinematic prologue survives to become a fascinating player in our global history. Barnett charts its effects on civilization from the rise and fall of ancient cultures to the climate shifts that brought plague and famine to Europe, from the origins of weather forecasting and “modification” up through America’s parched Dust Bowl years, and ending with the latest urban efforts to trap rain and purify it in an era of increasing shortages.
A veritable cloudburst of everything-you-didn’t-know-about-rain make this highly readable, science-laden biography anything but dry. We learn that the scent of rain comes from the “metallic zing” of ozone; that the familiar smell of earthy streets after rain comes from a compound called geosmin. Barnett traces the development of the mackintosh back to its beginnings as a fabric coated with a soupy mix of “shredded rubber [and] naptha,” and she profiles at length that most inventive charlatan, the traveling rainmaker of the drought-ridden 1930s.
In explaining climate extremes such as the five-century long “Little Ice Age,” she describes the gruesome fate of “thousands of accused witches” held responsible for “the devilish rains, snows, freezes, floods, harvest failures … and other miseries that plagued Europe” between 1560 and 1660.
And she sets straight our cartoonish grasp of rain’s appearance: It’s no drop of water hanging from a faucet “with a pointed top and a fat, rounded bottom,” but instead the reverse — shaped like a tiny parachute, its top “rounded because of air pressure from below.”
Barnett’s lyrical prose and journalistic sweep combine to great effect, resulting in a perfect mix of the classical and contemporary regarding everything rain. In a chapter about the arts, she speculates on how life in gloomy, rain-soaked cities shaped bands like the Smiths (Manchester) and Nirvana (Seattle), or writers such as Charles Dickens, Mary Shelley, James Joyce, and Seamus Heaney. “True, the sun and the wind inspire,” she notes. “But rain has an edge. Who, after all, dreams of dancing in dust? Or kissing in the bright sun?”
Firsthand accounts contribute to the book’s lively tone, with fieldtrips to a remote perfumery in India; the “cavernous library” at the Met, Great Britain’s national weather headquarters and archive; Kurt Cobain’s hometown of gloomy Aberdeen WA; and Miami, where “the blue-sky puff clouds of morning give way to the silver Rubens by midday.” Even Marietta, GA, merits a visit, to one of the largest U.S. developers of scents — a family-owned company that uses “between 50 and 75 different chemicals” to conjure just one smell: Rain.
Barnett, who lives and teaches in Gainesville, has written two previous books: Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis, and Mirage: Florida and the Vanishing Water of the Eastern U.S. Though Rain doesn’t clobber readers with it, the way humans have altered the weather patterns and the prospect of global warming are never far from Barnett’s sights, like the sound of thunder a mile away. “Climate change frightens and divides us,” she acknowledges, rightly, “to such an extent that many people refuse to talk about it at all.” (Hello, Governor Scott!) “But everyone,” she adds, “loves to talk about rain.”
How true. As I read, I felt like a kid who didn’t notice the spinach puree Barnett had snuck into my brownies. While enjoying her delightful chapter about Congress’s faith in the wacko solutions of rainmaking hucksters, I also gobbled up Barnett’s warnings about cloud-seeding and other forms of geo-engineering: “When we change one part of the rain cycle, we change another one somewhere else.”
California, where Barnett moved in 1977, and Florida, her home state, are living testaments to rain’s “subjugation and ultimate sovereignty.” Both coasts, during “the era of federal flood control profoundly changed the human relationship to rain” by rerouting and straightening rivers, building massive dams and debris basins. This sort of “building against rain instead of with it,” says Barnett, has “had devastating consequences for the coasts.” But she offers hope, not despair, when she provides examples of “street-greening projects,” river restorations, and other retrofits that can begin to undo decades of environmental ignorance and damage.
The story ends in the rainiest place on earth: Cherrapunji, India, average precipitation 470 inches a year. Residents note drastic changes since 1998, the result of “rampant water diversions, mining and deforestation.”
During Barnett’s stay, it’s hot and sunny and mostly dry. Further north, extreme rains caused “flash floods and massive landslides,” and entire towns and villages were washed away “while Cherrapunji pined for rain.”
A version of this review appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on June 7 2015.