Review: ‘Rain’ by Cynthia Barnett

Rain: A Natural and Cultural History. Cynthia Barnett. Crown. 368 pages. $25.
Rain: A Natural and Cultural History. Cynthia Barnett. Crown. 368 pages. $25.

The National Weather Service reports Miami has received just 68 percent of the average rainfall so far this year. March was a particularly dry month, even for what is our dry season, with just 38 percent of average rainfall in the counties that make of the South Florida Water Management District. Most of Miami-Dade County and all of Collier is in a moderate drought, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Parts of southern Miami-Dade are in a severe drought. What better time and place to read Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, by Cynthia Barnett?

Barnett sets an ambitious goal, making something so everyday interesting, even fascinating, and she accomplishes that with far-reaching research and lyrical prose, tracing rain through literature and myth, science and history.

“True, sun and wind inspire. But rain has an edge. Who, after all, dreams of dancing in the dust? Or kissing in the bright sun?” Barnett writes.

True to its title, Rain looks at the water that falls from the sky from every possible perspective. Barnett, an award-winning Florida journalist, explores how we have understood and misunderstood rain throughout history, the science of what rain smells like, the marketability of rain, strange rain phenomena and the future of rainfall patterns across the globe as the effects of climate change become clearer.

In a state where the governor has prohibited the discussion of climate change, Rain is as welcome as a summer afternoon shower on a hot day. Throughout the book, Barnett sets the record straight on rain beginning with the shape of a raindrop.

“We imagine that a raindrop falls in the same shape as a drop of water hanging from the faucet, with a pointed top and a fat, rounded bottom,” she writes. “That picture is upside down. In fact, raindrops fall from the clouds in the shape of tiny parachutes, their tops rounded because of air pressure from below.”

Barnett travels the globe to explore the rainiest place on earth and interview the Indian perfume makers who bottle the scent of rain. She discusses the way different cultures refer to rain and looks at historical phenomena like the rather sudden rise of witch trials through the lens of changing weather patterns.

Barnett is at her best when she’s explaining our often futile attempts to control the clouds. She spins amusing tales of 19th century rainmakers who managed to convince the non-scientists of the nation that explosions could bring storms. Even in the late 1800s, scientists knew there was no correlation between rain and the explosions of Civil War battles.

“But, then as now, Congress was less moved by its own scientists than by the influential uninformed — particularly some of the nation’s major cattle ranchers suffering in a drought,” Barnett writes.

In 1890, Congress funded a study involving homemade mortars and balloons, a technique championed by a retired Civil War general convinced that rain had followed artillery barrages across battlefields, ignoring the fact that the war was fought in the rainiest part of the country. The experiments failed, but that didn’t stop charlatan rainmakers from wandering the Great Plains, Texas and California, promising relief from drought.

Barnett details some of their more comic efforts, with secret formulas, mysterious chemical vapors and promises of a “good rain” in exchange for the pooled funds of desperate farmers. In a delicious twist of fate, one was even blamed for a catastrophic flood.

But while the rainmakers were clearly selling snake oil, Barnett shows that we do have the ability to change our climate. The scientific explanations in Rain for acid rain and cloud seeding are clear and interesting, and their implications are often frightening.

“Amid the mysterious workings of Earth and its atmosphere, one thing is clear — when we change one part of the rain cycle, we change another somewhere else,” she writes.

And cloud seeding isn’t the only way we have tinkered with the rains. Rain is, at its heart, a call to end the folly of our ways.

“While rain is one of the trickier parts of the atmosphere to measure and to understand, changing rainfall patterns are among the earliest and most obvious tremors of a warming globe,” she writes. “After thousands of years spent praying for rain or worshiping it; burning witches at the stake to stop rain or sacrificing small children to bring it; mocking rain with irrigated agriculture and cities built in floodplains; even trying to blast rain out of the sky with mortars meant for war, humanity has managed to change the rain.”

In a place that scientists say will suffer the earliest effects of climate change, Rain should be required reading, at least for the governor. He might learn something — and enjoy himself while doing it.

Susannah Nesmith is a writer in Miami.

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