Rain: A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett (New York: Crown Publishers, 2015. 368 pp)

Cynthia Barnett is an award-winning environmental journalist who has reported on water from the Suwannee River to Singapore. She is the author of two previous books, Mirage and Blue Revolution, a Boston Globe top 10 science book of 2011. She lives in Gainesville, Florida, with her husband and children.

Joy of a Rainy Day

Rain represents a simple joy in life. I’m not talking a deluge. Not even a monsoon. Just the simple drizzle renowned in the Pacific Northwest. I find satisfaction in a book on the porch while the syncopated patter of the rain offers a soundtrack to whatever the current narrative offers.

Given my affinity, Rain sounds like a book for me.

With a subtitle defining the book as a natural and cultural history, Cynthia Barnett explores the science and the social aspect of the water that falls from the heavens.

What does it all mean?

The reader undergoes a journey through the many aspects of rain. We see poetic sequences describing rain itself.

“Today, at any moment, more water rushes through the atmosphere than flows through all the world’s rivers combined. The molecules speed around like pinballs, bouncing off one another, off other types of molecules, off dust and salt from sea spray. Only when the air cools do they slow and begin to stick together, latching on to the gritty particles. When billions of them have condensed, they form tiny liquid droplets. Billions of the droplets, in turn, become clouds in the sky. This is the beauty of water vapor: It falls back to Earth as rain” (3).

In Ancient Times

We explore the role of rain in our ancient narratives.

“But it is likewise full of stories of rain as God’s blessing—His ‘good treasure’ falling upon Israel and all of Earth: ‘The Lord shall open unto thee His good treasure, the heaven to give the rain unto thy land in his season, and to bless all the work of thine hand’” (59).

In Metaphor

We consider the etymological descriptions of rain.

“Cat-and-dog cloudbursts seem practically ordinary compared with ‘raining young cobblers in Germany. It rains shoemakers’ apprentices in Denmark, chair legs in Greece, ropes in France, pipe stems in the Netherlands, and wheelbarrows in the Czech Republic. The Welsh, who have more than two dozen words for rain, like to say that it’s raining old women and walking sticks. Afrikaans-speakers have a version that rains old women with knobkerries (that would be clubs). The Polish, French, and Australians all have a twist on raining frogs; the Aussies sometimes call a hard rain a frog-strangler. Portuguese- and Spanish-speakers both might say it’s raining jugs. Inexplicably the Portuguese also say it’s raining toads’ beards, and the Spanish: está lloviendo hasta maridos—it’s even raining husbands! Probably not what the Weather Girls had in mind with their 1982 hit disco single, ‘It’s Raining Men’” (76).

Rain presents a careful argument for the dangers of climate change. Rain engenders discussion around the ways we try to avoid it—side note, I never knew the Big Mac receives its name from the old-school MacIntosh worn prominently by Sherlock Holmes. Rain considers the ways in which society has attempted to create it.

You can hear the rain in that song

Interestingly, Rain also jumps into creativity, questioning why supposedly dreary places like Seattle and Manchester provide fertile ground for artistic creativity.

“Manchester lies in the northwest of England, and its rainy renown, like Seattle’s, is based more in cultural psyche than actual rainfall. Along with geography and grim skies, the two metros share similar creative contributions. It is perhaps no accident that the rain-famed cities of the United States and the U.K. birthed angst-filled independent rock genres: in Seattle, grunge; in Manchester, the moody indie pop of Morrissey’s band the Smiths, along with Joy Division, New Order, and others” (191).

Qualitatively, researchers have studied the works of Emily Dickinson and have found that although she wrote more poems in the summer months, her best work—defined by its addition to anthologies and collections—emerged in the rainy winter months.

We All Need Rain

A delicate balance, rain can be a refreshing shift to a dry season or an annoying continuation of a damp season. Mandatory for life, it can drown you just the same. We wait and watch the clouds and yet climate change can alter rain patterns throughout the globe.

For me, I’ll always think about the lazy weekend morning with a crisp drizzle and a whiff of geosmin to provide the start of a new day.

If you are the kind of person that enjoys the rain. Rain is your book.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5

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