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Rain, Cynthia BarnettIt’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. (more…)

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