Rain: A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett

Cynthia Barnett is an environmental journalist who has written extensively on water in locales spanning the globe.  Barnett has also written two prior books, including Blue Revolution, one of The Boston Globe’s top ten science books of 2011.  In Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, Barnett discusses the many misunderstood notions and unique backdrops for rain, covering everything from colorful anecdotes to historical tragedies where rain has played a significant role.  In exposing the factual, exciting, and sometimes humorous aspects of rain, Barnett breaks down the in-depth discussion of rain into five parts in thirteen chapters.  Each part possesses a unique theme that Barnett illustrates with numerous examples.

Part I, “Elemental Rain,” covers three chapters.  Chapter one, “Cloudy with a Chance of Civilization,” discusses some of the greenest, rain-soaked forests and preserves on earth.  Starting with the Hoh Rain Forest in the Pacific Northwest, Barnett paints a delicate picture of the forest with its majestic trees and foliage, down to the multitude of insects living throughout the wilderness treasure.  Traveling along the western coast, Barnett takes the reader to Seattle, pointing out that Seattle is hardly the rainiest city in the United States.  In fact, Seattle’s rainfall does not even compare to any city on the east coast.  Barnett then moves on to the life-sustaining monsoons in South and East Asia.  With over two-thirds of the world’s population relying on the monsoons for everything from drinking water to irrigation, monsoons are some of the most important rains in the entire world.  Finally, walking through a brief summary of human development, Barnett sets the tone for the rest of the book by reminding the reader that rain has been a central theme and component of human growth for our entire existence.

Chapter two, “Drought, Deluge and Delivery,” revolves around the central theme that the rain giveth, and the rain taketh away.  Beginning with cities in India and Pakistan over 4,100 years ago, Barnett discusses how rain has both provided life for civilizations and washed it away in a brutal, shocking minute.  Describing the growth of civilization over time, Barnett points out that sudden lack of rain has destroyed vast, developed civilizations such as Mesopotamia.  She then points out that while drought begets death, so does deluge.  Barnett notes that of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Death, Famine, War, and Plague/Pestilence; endless rains could presage at least three of them.”  Barnett discusses how, in the fourteenth century, great rains foreshadowed the Black Death.  Barnett concludes by describing how we know that rain, or the lack thereof, has exacerbated some of the worst tragedies civilization has ever seen.

Chapter three, “Praying for Rain,” delves into the notion of humans and their belief, or desire, to control the rains.  Beginning with nineteenth-century Texas and a prayer for rain, and then transitioning to recent governors of the very same state, Barnett shows that while some notions or traditions may change, many do not.  In fact, from hunter-gatherer culture in Mesopotamia to the present, humans have had an affinity for praying for rain.  The holy texts of the Abrahamic religions illustrate this fact.  Further, even scientists have sought to prove the historical truth of the great floods.

Part II, “Change for Rain,” encompasses chapters four and five.  Chapter four, “The Weather Watchers,” looks at the historical development of meteorology.  Beginning with Daniel Defoe and the first modern weather report, Barnett takes the reader through the development of one of the most important media components available today.  Moving to the 1800’s, Barnett notes the contributions of scientists, such as Luke Howard, in creating the International Cloud Atlas, and George Symons and his Monthly Meteorological Magazine.  Barnett also notes that Congress established a meteorology agency service in the 1870’s that continues its work today.   Finishing off with the explosive growth of the Weather Channel, Barnett shows just how far weather reporting has come in a little over two centuries.

In chapter five, “The Articles of Rain,” Barnett begins with a compelling story starting in the depths of South America.  Indigenous people harvested odd “goo”—what they called “latex,” and Latin for “fluid.”  Over time, various inventors and explorers learned how to refine the sticky, useful substance leading to the modern “Macintosh,” or the world’s first and finest raincoat.  An important staple of both fashion and practical uses, Barnett takes the reader through the historical development of the raincoat, its uses, contributors, and, ultimately, its lasting power.  Noting that other “articles of rain” such as the windshield wiper and galoshes have important uses, Barnett asserts that the articles of rain have contributed to both our wellbeing and fashion sense for as long as they have been around.

Part III, “American Rain,” begins with chapter six, “Founding Forecasters.”  The chapter starts with a description of Thomas Jefferson and his design of Monticello, Jefferson’s main plantation.  Monticello required well water, which proved to be a difficult proposition.  Barnett then moves on to discuss the historical settling of the United States, including Jefferson’s detailed investigations of rain and climate.  Ultimately, like so many others, Jefferson would build cisterns to hold water on his plantation, although the caverns rarely worked.  Barnett explains how cisterns were an ancient Roman idea, but the ancient Romans figured out how to waterproof, while Jefferson could not.  Barnett concludes the chapter by laying the foundation for chapter seven, “Rain Follows the Plow.”

In chapter seven, Barnett winds the reader through history, telling the tale of the development of the American west, and how the rains both assisted and ruined settlements throughout the brand new country.  Using the story of Uriah Oblinger, a Midwestern settler in the 1800’s, Barnett takes the reader through first the wet, torrid rains of settlements in Nebraska in 1872.  Barnett then talks about how an amazing feat happened: as settlers moved out West, the rain followed.  This phenomenon led to the theory “rain follows the plow.”  Scientists began to believe that the more development that occurred, the more moisture in the air causing rain.  However, drought eventually hit, and it forced farmers to leave their claims.  Barnett talks about the horrific Mississippi floods of 1927, which cost hundreds of African American slaves their lives; a tragedy that still lives on in infamy.  To end the chapter, Barnett points to the Dust Bowl and the River Flood as two seminal times in American history both connected to rain.

Finishing with chapter eight, “The Rainmakers,” Barnett takes a fun look at some of the great fads of the United States.  Starting with the 1890’s, Barnett takes the reader through the history of “bombing the skies,” the theory that man can control the creation of rain.  Discussing theories such as a fireworks celebration causing sudden rains, and the still-current practice of “seeding clouds” (attempting to cause rain where there may be none), Barnett shows the reader the history of rain control in American science.  Showing that no matter how little or great success humans may have, Barnett asserts that controlling rain is a tradition as old as time itself, and will continue for years to come.

Part IV, “Capturing the Rain,” begins with chapter nine, “Writers on the Storm.”  Starting out with the story of Morrissey, lead singer of the rock band the Smiths, Barnett discusses the impact of rain on the cities where music genre, such as grunge, were borne.  From the musty English town of Manchester, to the rain-soaked streets of Seattle that brought us Kurt Cobain, the lead singer and guitarist of the band Nirvana, rainy cities have brought about some of the most depressing, yet widely identified music of our time.  Showing that rain impacts writing as well as music, Barnett reminds readers that Charles Dickenson wrote during a period called the little ice age, when the weather was some of the worst society has ever recorded.  Finally, reminding the reader of film classics such as “Singing in the Rain” that bring about passion and rain-soaked kisses, Barnett shows the reader that rain spans many displays of artistic talent, each with its own flavor.

In chapter ten, “The Scent of Rain,” Barnett describes an often overlooked aspect of the rain, its smell.  Using the unique and time-tested art of perfume making, Barnett goes to India and perfumers’ search of the “smell of India.”  The country’s dark earthen clay contains a special scent, encapsulated with the first rains of the season.  For centuries, people have sought after India’s mitti attar, a famous rain-scented perfume.  Its makers bottle the perfume with care in specially designed pouches.  Following one of India’s most prominent manufacturers of the product, Barnett gets a first-hand look at the “smell of rain” and is able to follow the production from harvest to sale.

Chapter eleven, “City Rains,” looks at the United States and its metropolitan areas.  Starting in Miami, Barnett provides a detailed description of the look and feel of a good Florida rainstorm.  Moving to runoff, Barnett highlights a serious issue facing many places today: pollution and management of runoff water.  For example, cars leave residue on the streets, and sewer systems do not filter this water during rainstorms in places like California and Florida. Florida also has issues with its management of runoff, issues that can lead to disease, pollution, and otherwise undesirable side effects.  Barnett then compares the dense rains of Florida to the 2014 California drought and the arid, dry plains of Tucson, Arizona.  Showing that each city has its own problems, Barnett highlights just how much rain touches even our most developed areas.

Part V, the final section, encapsulates the final two chapters of the book.  Chapter twelve, “Strange Rain,” is a unique look at some of the odder historical instances of rain.  Barnett explains that rains involving frogs, toads, fish, and colors of red, yellow, and black are all historical phenomena rooted in fact.  Barnett also tells the reader about the snakes, seeds, and shredded meat that have showered down on unsuspecting people.  Barnett then discusses such historical events such as the Greg Fog that killed 12,000 people, and acid rain that started with the unchecked pollution of the industrial revolution.

In chapter 13, “And the Forecast Calls for Change,” Barnett passes along a warning to the reader.  In the past, society has been able to use previous indicators to predict the future of rain.  We have been able to measure, gauge, follow, and predict rainfall and rain patters.  Climate change has changed the way society approaches the rain.  Barnett explains that past indicators are no longer future markers of success due to the recent change in rain patter.  Further, Barnett argues that climate is unpredictable, and asserts that if humans are to continue to benefit and enjoy the life-sustaining gifts of the rain, humans need to be mindful of nature and their past.  Using the Dust Bowl and the Great Floods as examples, Barnett reminds the reader that humanity does not always respond well to changes in rain.

In a final epilogue, Barnett travels to the rainiest place on Earth, Cherrapunji, India.  This beautiful, special place receives almost four hundred inches of rain a year annually.  However, this special place has not been immune from the changes in rain.  Barnett explains that as a place that normally sees almost one hundred inches of rain in June, last year saw only twenty-three inches.  Illustrating how dire the changes in weather can be, Barnett uses the example of Cherrapunji to show how special the rain can be, and just how important it is.

In conclusion, Rain: A Natural and Cultural History is not a book for the practice of water law, but a great illustration of the societal and cultural importance of rain and water, fundamental pieces of sustainable life and civilization. Providing an interesting, practical, and fun education on rain history and concepts, Barnett assists the reader in understanding the importance of rain, and how it can alter the course of nations, people, and, ultimately, history.

The featured image was taken in Joshua Tree National Park.  Jarek Tuszynski took the photo.  Use of this photo is not an endorsement of the Water Law Review.