RHC 2018: Rain: A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett

Read Harder Challenge 2018

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2018 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a book about nature. 

I love rainy days. Obviously, there’s nothing like a downpour to compliment a good mope, but rainy days are wonderful for good moods too. Nothing short of winter precipitation makes an interior cozier than the sound of rain on the roof and the sight of it running down the window panes. Imagine the perfect summer afternoon spent with a favorite beverage and a good book and tell me it isn’t raining outside.

Cynthia Barnett’s book Rain is beautifully written, and I had the good luck of reading it during a very rainy early spring week. The book is organized into five sections – Elemental Rain, Chance of Rain, Capturing the Rain, American Rain, and Mercurial Rain. My favorite section was the first, particularly the chapter on rain in religion (“Praying for Rain”). It included all kinds of fascinating interpretations of rain, including a hilltop temple goddess whose three day period kicks off monsoon season. Crowds gather to dip cloth in her sacred menstrual fluids at the Ambubachi Festival. It’s wonderful to see a period get celebrated, you know?

That chapter also ends with a beautiful reinterpretation of the ark myth, updated for climate change:

Skeptics use the great climate swings of Earth’s history–the civilization-crushing droughts and whatever epic deluge that may have inspired our flood myths–to argue that the heat-trapping gases of modern life are not to blame for today’s global warming and the rise of extreme rains, storms, and floods. In fact, our past climate swings–and the flood myths themselves–give us all the more reason to overcome our differences and confront a new threat with the beams and braces of human ingenuity. The wisdom in the flood stories surely involves heeding the forewarnings from the skies; Noah and our other ark-building heroes have something to tell us about coming together to ride out stormier times. It is what we’ve done for thousands of years, rain unifying humanity from the deserts to the seas (67).

There is plenty of frightening information about climate change to be found here (because climate change is frightening and we need to be frightened). But there’s also plenty of poetry, trivia, and history that kept me from working myself into a panic.

Still, while the material about the thousand year rains that hammered planet earth before life existed or about the music (Chopin and Nirvana, together at last), poetry (Conrad Aiken, Emily Dickinson), and prose (Frankenstein, The Good Rain, Their Eyes Were Watching God) rain has given us were lyrical and entertaining, humanity’s efforts to force the rain to behave were frustrating, frightening, or at the mildest, hilariously misguided. River engineering resulted in massive flooding. The horrendous belief that “rain follows the plow” more or less caused the Dust Bowl. Attempts to create rain by firing cannons at the clouds… didn’t work.

And then there were the rainmaking charlatans. I do love an historical con artist, and I had no idea that for a brief time one could make a solid living by climbing water towers and launching a proprietary blend of chemicals into the clouds. If you were a savvy almanac consumer, you had a good statistical shot at being able to claim a reasonable success rate (unless, like this guy, your efforts are followed by a severe storm that caused deaths for which you got blamed).

[No, really, Hatfield’s flood is the kind of storyline I wish I had the skill to create. Hatfield wound up in a position where he could absolve himself of the deaths by admitting he didn’t cause the rain, in which case he would forfeit his fee, or he could claim the rain as his work, receive his fee, and then be responsible for 3.5 million dollars in damage. There’s a movie version and a Widespread Panic song that makes ample use of rain sticks, if you’re interested.]

I also learned that The Weather Channel is only one year older than I am. The Weather Channel felt as old and eternal as the hills when my brother, sister, and I sat glued to the scrolling text of the local forecast hoping for a snow day.

I wish I were a better nonfiction reader. I always enjoy knowing things I’ve read about, but it’s rare that I can sink into nonfiction quite like made up stuff. This was an exception, and left me feeling like I got to have my cake and eat it too by both entertaining me and leaving me smarter than it found me.


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