Rain; A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett. Crown Publishing, 2015.
Cynthia Barnett’s wondrous book demonstrates the fact that a comprehension of natural phenomena such as rain can contribute to an appreciation of its beauty. A travelogue of sorts as she follows rain patterns around the world, her book also takes us back in time.
Barnett begins with her asking a geochemist to speculate on the “first rain,” perhaps better, the first recognition of the importance of rain falling from the sky. We Homo sapiens were around to see Earth subjected to periods of cooling, “ice ages”, when the land was covered by glaciers, followed by dramatic warming and greater precipitation. Early on we learned how to capture and use rainfall for our own purposes, but also to revere it as life-giving.
The Indus Valley Civilization (present-day Pakistan) may have been done in by dramatic changes in rainfall. It, like the civilizations centered in the Tigris and Euphrates Valley (Mesopotamia), may have succumbed to a period of desiccation. Both were rain-dependent agricultural systems; both stored rainfall. When the rains were late or even failed to come, or if there was too much rain, food shortages occurred. Barnett has recounted the failure or surplus of rain to cause substantial disruption of medieval economies as well. This alternation between rainlessness and flooding also resulted in the vulnerability of the medieval world to pestilence and plagues.
Rain is often associated with a male god, Jupiter in the Roman world; Earth with various goddesses. Thus rain becomes associated with semen. (The male role in reproduction was understood long before the female.) The rain god would, from time-to-time, bestow his blessings upon his devotees by sending rain, and his anger by sending too much rain. We know of the Biblical great flood, when a deserving family was instructed to build an arc and save both humankind and the animal kingdom. That myth is also told in the Epic of Gilgamesh from Mesopotamia dating from c.a. 2100 b.c., centuries before the Biblical account.
In early centuries holy men got credit for ‘predicting’ weather patterns. They claimed a hot line to the god that controlled rainfall and other weather phenomena. They likely supplemented that source with their own observations, the earliest weathercasters.
But these observations could be wide of the mark. During the American Civil War, Barnett tells us, it was observed that rain often followed a cannonade. Could it be that thunderous noises, in some unexplained way, brought about rain? Doesn’t rain follow thunder? (Barnett points out that most Civil War battles were fought in a region of more than ample rainfall.)
In the latter part of the nineteenth century, the U.S. Department of Agricultural got interested in rainmaking and took part in an experiment over a parched Texas prairie. A patent attorney, Robert St. George Dyrenforth, set out to prove that rain could be coaxed out of the clouds by firing off mortars. It was not a success, but other rainmakers followed with various schemes. The best time to try, they figured, would be days when rain was predicted. Of course. rain anywhere in the vicinity would be cited as evidence of success. Also one region’s rainfall was another region’s drought. And finally woe to the person whose firing into the air produced too much rain.
The U.S. military was also interested in the possibility of using rain as a weapon. Stop campaigns with mud. Cloud seeding was tried; it at least was backed with better physics.
The reader is allowed to enjoy the phenomenon of rain in all of its beauty and goodness before being taken through a discussion of climate change. Barnett includes the problem of industrial air pollution mixing with rainfall – those “pea-soupers,” as they are called in London; acid rain and its impact on plant and animal life. The present intrudes.
Cynthia Barnett’s Rain; A Natural and Cultural History was nominated for a National Book Award.