Rain: A Natural and Cultural History
Author: Cynthia Barnett
Published: Broadway Books, 2015
Length: 292 pages
Memories of Taylor Swift songs, bare feet, and cold kisses. Perhaps the fragrance of steamy pavement, or the sense of renewal as if everything bad has been washed out to sea, leaving you free to lift your weighted chest up towards the sky. I once thought I knew the rain as an intimate friend, but now I must acknowledge our mere acquaintanceship, for Cynthia Barnett’s exhaustive examination of rain reveals that these associations form only the smallest part of her character. Years in the making, Rain: A Natural and Cultural History emerged in triumph, not only being long-listed for the 2015 National Book Award, but winning The Pen/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award. Its author is an award-winning environmental journalist and professor, who encourages her children to aim for mud puddles. This is privately why I like her. If Rain wasn’t a serious scientific treatise, I would easily call it a love letter to a mysterious lover, these pages speak with such lyrical passion and awe.
George MacDonald once called attention to the tameless nature of the wind: in equal strides it can caress or terrorize. So too with rain. Adorned with countless personalities, her smell, her feel, her mission, and her influence (for good or ill) vary as diversely as the plots of earth upon which she falls. A brief look at the table of contents reveals the incredible scope of topics Barnett addresses. She weaves rain’s story through the fascinating science one might expect: rain’s origin, evolution over the years, and phenomenon that still await explanation. Indeed, rain can be as strange and inexplicable as frogs falling from the sky. Charting it’s influence within history, Barnett shows how rain can change the course of marriages (Anna of Denmark to James VI), and influence historical matters for which it rarely gets credit (the Salem Witch trials). Those invested in religion, culture, or literature will find themselves touching hands with the rain. Even those interested in fashion will appreciate the long process of formulating rain-proof clothing, while the scentofile would do well to pay close attention as rain’s personalized scent is tracked from country to country. Besides all of this, a long chapter devotes itself solely to the history of weather-forecasting. More questions are answered than one might think to ask.
I grow easily weary of the blend of politics and personal world-views that seem always present in scientific books, even though science claims objectivity. Rain holds no exception as it takes an evolutionary stance, and platforms concerns about global warming and environmentalism. However, these remain a side-issue, only appearing in four chapters, as Barnett stays true to her focus of providing a deluge of fascinating information.
Overall, I found this book thrilling. It has lingered in my memory, enriching the way I experience rain drops and oil-swirling puddles, umbrellas and the weather forecast. Even though I basically re-counted the entire book to my husband over various car rides (it was that interesting!), I am anticipating a reread to scavenge any missed details. I adore the rain even more now, as I’ve glimpsed all of her faces. But I also possess a new respectful awe for her untamable potential and her wide-sweeping influence.
Thanks goes to Penguin/Random House for a copy of this book