Regarp Book Blog

Review of: Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, by Cynthia Barnett

I struck out my original opening line to this review, which went something like “We all take rain for granted–”  But having already read Cynthia Barnett’s brilliant and quirky take on this subject, Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, I was reminded that globally that proposition is entirely false: in the desert you might take the lack of rain for granted, or within the path of seasonal monsoons you might take the cyclical intensity of rain for granted, or in the Indian state of Meghalaya, the wettest place on earth, you might take the omnipresence of rain for granted. But farmers in every geography, who depend upon rain to nurture their crops, can never afford to take rain for granted at all. Of course, rain – in all its manifestations, or a lack thereof – is the common denominator, and that is the central theme of this fine book that is all at once a blend of science, history, culture, philosophy, and literary conceit.

Like most people, I suppose, I have been more or less agnostic on the subject of rain. I live in New England; it comes and goes. I don’t think about it much, one way or the other.  As a young man working in New York City, I wore a trench coat over my business suit and carried an umbrella, but for the several decades since I have mostly made due with a windbreaker and a cap during random showers. In the winter, of course, it often turns to the white stuff, but here again I simply don my fleece, wear a wool cap, and pull on gloves when it gets out of control.  I literally never pay attention to the weather report unless it forecasts the apocalyptic. Who cares about a little rain?

Well, it turns out that we should care. A lot. And for the skeptics out there, let me add that I was hardly an easy convert for Barnett, despite her fine prose and engaging style.  Early on, you might even say, I was downright hostile, when I judged her guilty of gross overreach as she attempted to tie the decline of multiple ancient civilizations to shortfalls of rain. At first. As I considered her thesis, I had to concede she was on to something.  With the benefit of paleoclimatology, the current generation of archaeologists and historians recognize, in a way that their predecessors in the field failed to grasp, that climate change probably played a far more significant role in civilizational decline – in the Near East, in the Indus Valley, in Mesoamerica – than previously credited.  And what is climate really but primarily (if not exclusively) a marriage of precipitation and temperature? Unlike the modern period where carbon emissions are producing rapid and dramatic global change through unprecedented warming, in the long era prior to the industrial revolution changes in temperature were mostly slow and subtle.  Not so with rainfall, ever unpredictable yet no less essential for the survival of traditional civilizations dependent upon consistent food production. As Barnett underscores in her careful analysis, too little rain translated into drought and crop catastrophe; too much rain meant flooding and devastation. Historians generally recognize that civilizations are fragile things; consecutive years of agricultural calamities can and indeed most certainly did create unsustainable tipping points that were simply not recoverable. Rain, it turns out, is vitally significant.

Once Barnett has convinced the reader of the vital role of rain for civilization, she goes on to explore how religion, magic, myth, science, and quackery have taken turns with both forecasting and rainmaking, with consequences that were sometimes whimsical but more often tragic. Students of American history will recall how the optimistic but no less fanciful maxim “rain follows the plow” fueled western expansion, only to breed disaster. Despite their best efforts, neither shamans nor charlatans have proved reliable rainmakers over the course of history. Twentieth century scientific techniques offered promise at first, but it turns out that while such efforts may increase the volume of rain, there is little evidence to suggest that these can actually generate rain with any sort of consistency. Forecasting, as brides and picnickers well know, is equally unreliable, although twenty-first century instruments and analysis have fine-tuned the science of meteorology to some sophistication.  Apparently, this is because weather exists as classic chaos theory, subject to something akin to the famous “butterfly effect,” so that even the best prediction can be overtaken by the unpredictable. On the other hand, we have a come long way in more critical domains: forecasting and monitoring of storm systems have dramatically reduced the number of lives lost on land and especially at sea.

The beauty of Barnett’s inspired narrative is the delightful way that she weaves a mosaic of overlapping themes without losing focus of the central pattern.  Most of it is truly fascinating. The reader is treated to a survey of rain in virtually all its manifestations, from its lofty perch in poetry and prose, to the glories of real world downpours in locales both ordinary and exotic. It turns out that reports of it raining frogs or fish are not entirely imaginative; a tornado-like waterspout can suck up aquatic life from ponds which may then rain down on astonished pedestrians miles from the source [p247-51].   She is a fine writer who clearly has a love affair with her subject, although it might be said that there are moments where her enthusiasm, generally contagious, can push the boundaries a bit: the chapter entitled “The Scent of Rain” seemed to go on forever. Still, this is a truly wonderful book with something of interest for just about everyone, especially for those, like myself, who never thought much about rain before.