Lifestyle & Culture

Weekend Reading: Rain

Rain. Too much, too little. We talk about it as we run to escape it. We see it “refracted” in poetry, hear it romanticized in pop songs. Yet American journalist Cynthia Barnett’s elegant Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, long-listed for the National Book Award, is the first to tell the story of rain, which she points out is “one of the last untamed encounters with nature that we experience routinely.” With her book available in paperback from Broadway Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, Barnett will share her stories at Kramerbooks, in Dupont Circle, next Wednesday, February 22, 2017, at 6:30pm. You can purchase Rain there, or online at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

FROM THOSE CATACLYSMIC torrents 4 billion years ago to the hydrologic cycle that slakes aquifers, soil, and rivers day after day, rain, as the source of Earth’s water, became the wellspring of life. “Sunshine abounds everywhere,” the American nature writer John Burroughs wrote in a paean that soaked nine pages of Scribner’s magazine in 1878, “but only where the rain or dew follows is there life.”

Life, and something more. Humans have a natural affinity for rain, grounded in its necessity for civilization and agriculture. Thomas Jefferson constantly watched the sky from his Monticello home in Virginia, where cerulean thunderclouds build along the Blue Ridge Mountains as if matched by Picasso. Jefferson fretted over cloudless days the way that all farmers do. He found relief when storms returned, carrying moisture from the yet-mysterious West. His letters often closed with a word on the rain—or the lack. “Not enough rain to lay the dust,” he would lament. Or he’d gratefully share news of “a fine rain,” “a divine rain,” “plentiful showers.”

Sometimes, after writing to his fellow statesman James Madison, who measured rain in a tin cup nailed to the front gate at his Montpelier estate thirty miles northeast, Jefferson would hold off sealing the letter until morning so he could report the overnight showers at Monticello. “The earth has enough,” Jefferson concluded after one such update, “but more is wanting for the springs and streams.”

Wanting is apropos, a hint at something more. For the story of rain is also a love story—the tale of “certain unquenchable exaltation” that the poet William Carlos Williams felt as he beheld his storied red wheelbarrow

glazed with rain
water.

And for all of history, it has inspired all the excitement, longing, and heartbreak that a good love story entails. The first civilizations rose and fell with the rain, which has helped shape humanity since our earliest ancestors radiated out of

Author Cynthia Barnett. / Photo © 2014 by Jennifer Adler.

Africa when the rainfall tapered off and the forests turned to savanna grasslands. Every culture had its own way of worshipping rain, from Mesoamerican cave paintings exalting rain deities to modern Christian governors who call prayer for a storm.

Rain and two more of its wondrous pride—clouds and rainbows—have inspired writers, painters, and poets for thousands of years. Homer’s Iliad is thick with clouds, as is much of the ancients’ poetry and prose. The modern poets wrote unforgettably of rain—what Conrad Aiken called the “syllables of water.” Other authors awakened in its absence: Mary Austin, Willa Cather, and Wallace Stegner all found their muse in thirsting lands. True, the sun and the wind inspire. But rain has an edge. Who, after all, dreams of dancing in dust? Or kissing in the bright sun?

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We long for rain especially when we’ve gone without. Rain is bliss when topsoil has turned to dust; when springs have vanished; when frogs have gone silent; when fish have rotted to eye socket on dry lake; when corn has blackened on the stalk; when fat cattle have shriveled to bone; when half a billion Texas trees have perished; when bushfires have incinerated Australia; when unthinkable famine has spread through North Africa.

And then, fast as hundred-mile-per-hour winds, a celebration of rain can turn to terror and the deepest grief. Consider the stormy evening of January 31, 1953, in the Netherlands. Dutch families in the coastal provinces of Zeeland and South Holland had gone to sleep in a festive mood. It was Princess Beatrix’s fifteenth birthday. Rain, wind, and waves drum-rolling into the jetties had amplified spirits.

By 2 a.m., the apocalyptic North Sea Storm was pushing floodwaters over dikes and wooden barriers “like boiling milk.” When it was over, when all the lost souls were finally counted, they numbered 1,835. Half a century later, another biblical flood, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, took 1,836.

Rain itself is seldom the deadly factor in a tempest; wind is often the most destructive force in storm disasters. But the North Sea Storm and Hurricane Katrina, like most every flood disaster in history, spun off an eternal human response: People viewed the flooding like an attack of nature, and vowed to fight back. Like every culture before or since, they convinced themselves that humans could ultimately master the rain.

Ancient Rome had its rain god, Jupiter Pluvius. During drought-induced famine, Aztecs sacrificed some of their very young children to the rain god Tlaloc. In Europe during medieval times, when the extreme rains of the Little Ice Age led to crop failures, starvation, cannibalism, and other horrors, religious and secular courts stepped up hunts, trials, and executions of witches, accused of conjuring storms.

America’s natives spun in rain dances with tiny bells attached to belts and walking sticks. Their jingling was soft compared with the cannon blasts of the late 1800s, when some settlers were convinced that firing cannonballs, setting enormous fires, or cutting tracts of forest would yield rain. These and other foolhardy schemes helped lure thousands of naïve homesteaders to try to farm some of the driest land in the new nation.

Quackery ultimately gave way to science and birthed the field of cloud-seeding, a chemical milking of clouds. Today, seeding projects continue in the American West and many other parts of the world. The largest efforts take place in China, where government scientists say they coax showers in arid regions by firing silver iodide rockets into the sky.

If cloud-seeding were a real solution, of course, China’s Yangtze River would not be drying up, along with nearby lakes, reservoirs, crops, and livelihoods. Parts of the United States would not be in the grip of the most severe drought since the Dust Bowl—Colorado River drying, California’s reservoirs dropping, lush croplands turned to dust.

Even as much of the nation suffers drought, other parts endure increasingly extreme rains, and ominous superstorms such as Hurricane Sandy, the largest Atlantic hurricane on record when it slammed into the Eastern Seaboard in October 2012. Yet we carry the presumption of Jupiter Pluvius, strong enough to erect colossal storm barriers to push unwanted floodwater away in times of too much, clever enough to design enormous reservoirs to store precious rainfall in times of too little.

It will turn out that humanity did, in fact, manage to alter the rain. Just not in the ways we intended.

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Wrapping our bodies in Gore-Tex and our cities in giant storm gutters, humans crave mastery over the rain. Yet even in the age of precipitation-measuring satellites, Doppler radar, and twenty-four-hour weather streamed to our smartphones, rain does not give up its mysteries.

Hundreds of tiny frogs or fish sometimes fall in a rainstorm, as they have since the beginning of recorded history. Despite forecasting supercomputers that crunch more than a million weather-data observations from around the world each day, rain can still surprise the meteorologist and catch the otherwise elegant bride cursing on her wedding day.

We misunderstand the rain at the most basic level—what it looks like. We imagine that a raindrop falls in the same shape as a drop of water hanging from the faucet, with a pointed top and a fat, rounded bottom. That picture is upside down. In fact, raindrops fall from the clouds in the shape of tiny parachutes, their tops rounded because of air pressure from below.

Our largest and most complex human systems often have the rain wrong, too. In the wettest parts of the United States, we construct homes and businesses in floodplains, then lament our misfortune when the floods arrive. In the driest regions, we whisk scant rainfall away from cities desperate for freshwater. Amid the worst drought in California history, the enormous concrete storm gutters of Los Angeles still shunt an estimated 520,000 acre-feet of rainfall to the Pacific Ocean each year—enough to supply water to half a million families.

These paradoxes could not be more urgent today, as we figure out how to adapt to the aberrant rainfall and storm patterns, increasingly severe flooding, and more-extreme droughts wrought by climate change. Globally, the continents recently drew the two heaviest years of rainfall since record-keeping began. Scientists are bewildered by the controversy over whether human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are to blame for the precipitation extremes. Increased greenhouse gases push temperatures higher. Higher temperatures cause greater evaporation—and therefore greater rainfall—where water exists. They make it hotter and drier where it does not.

Climate change frightens and divides us, to such an extent that many people simply refuse to talk about it all. But everyone loves to talk about the rain. Too much and not enough, rain is a conversation we share. It is an opening to connect—in ways as profound as prayer and art, practical as economics, or casual as an exchange between strangers on a stormy day. Rain brings us together in one of the last untamed encounters with nature that we experience routinely, able to turn the suburbs and even the city wild. Huddled with our fellow humans under construction scaffolding to escape a deluge, we are bound in the memory and mystery of exhilarating, confounding, life-giving rain.

—Cynthia Barnett

Reprinted from Rain: A Natural and Cultural History. Copyright © 2016 by Cynthia Barnett. Published by Broadway Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC, New York.

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