Friday, July 10, 2015

Book Review: Rain: A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett

Rain: A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett

I thought I knew rain. I’m not too proud to admit I cower in a corner during hurricanes. You try keeping your cool when screeching winds blow raindrops sideways from the sky. Seriously, sideways rain. I swear during the last storm there were whitecaps in my toilet. Now, that’s rain.

However, storms are only a small part of rain’s mystique. Cynthia Barnett, an award winning environmental journalist, gives a fascinating account of rain’s cultural, historic, scientific, religious, and, yes, even musical effect on humankind. There’s a surprise on every page, beginning with the shape of a shower. Rain is not a conglomeration of droplets. Instead it falls like “tiny parachutes, their tops rounded because of air pressure from below.” Since there is no standard global measurement for rain, its description is often personal. That’s why it rains cats and dogs here, but “shoemakers’ apprentices in Denmark, chair legs in Greece, ropes in France, pipe stems in the Netherlands, and wheelbarrows in the Czech Republic.”

Barnett describes the important roles rain has played in such far flung topics as presidential elections, human evolution and fashion design. She even tackles the effect of a wet versus dry climate on spiritual development. Monotheistic religions were born in the arid climates of the Middle East while people of damp rainy lands worshiped many gods. In the dry desert it made sense that a god could create something out of nothing. While in rain-soaked lands, where flora and fauna abounded, life was seen in a continuous circle of birth, death, and rebirth.

The best writers on nature and the environment weave words with a lyrical skill. Barnett is no exception. You will never hear a rainstorm the same way again after reading her description of a walk through the Hoh Rain Forest in western Washington State. “Drops strike a muffled plunk in the moss, a gentle splat on the muddy trail, a solid thwack against the mammoth logs and tree roots, a quiet pluck on fern fronds, and a louder snap when they hit the maple leaves scattered on the forest floor.” Nice, huh? Makes you want to ditch the umbrella.

Good science books are not dull and preachy recitation of facts. Barnett comes across with a cheeky sense of humor. (Global rain patterns are described as Mother Earth’s Bikini.) An entire chapter is even devoted to rain’s effect on entertainment; from the artistic use of rain wands in movies to the development of grunge rock. Could Kurt Cobain have written Nirvana’s angst-ridden songs in sunny Miami Beach? Would there have been any grunge rock at all if Seattle’s climate wasn’t so dreary. Barnett argues convincingly that rain “can create a mood and inspire a melody.”

This is a lovely book with an ecological lesson that falls as gently as a summer shower. Humans plow native grasses and settle in floodplains and expect rain to behave. Instead of craving mastery over the elements, it’s time we learned to live in harmony with them. I highly recommend this book. Save it for rainy day and you’ll never look at the sky the same way again.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

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