21 April 2015
Book Review: "Rain" by Cynthia Barnett
By Cynthia Barnett
Published in 2015 by Crown Publishers, New York
Buy this book at Amazon.com
Full disclosure: I received an unsolicited advance copy of this book for free in exchange for nothing, just because the author likes me. I've written and posted this review because the feeling is mutual.
There is something to be said for interpretations of the world from a singular point of view, such as the many recent popular histories of various commodities (Salt, Cod, Spice, etc.), food and drink (A History of the World in Six Glasses and more), and other perspectives. Some view them as reductionist, but I think these approaches allow the author to dive deep, bringing to light often forgotten episodes from social, economic, and political history. Lateral connections with other subjects may be brought into the story (and the best are written as stories, as I’ll reiterate below) where they bear on remarkable events and changes in the course of history. The trade histories of commodity spices, tea, coffee, cocoa, and tropical fruits as exotic items in Europe and North America are closely intertwined with each other and with the deep socio-political roots of global exploration, religion, colonialism, slavery, capitalism, commerce, displacement, disenfranchisement. The best histories weave these aspects of the larger world into their stories and build signposts from which the reader can depart for further study to their heart’s content, and provide directional notes should we choose to follow one tangent or another.
All of these elements are at work in Ms. Barnett’s Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, her third book on the wet parts of our natural world and our human place in it. Precipitation, and particularly rain, as a fundamental component of the water cycle is here the springboard for Ms. Barnett’s exploration of the many ways that we humans have understood, explained, described, influenced, received and disposed of these waters (among other things) that fall from the sky. From the great floods of the Judeo-Christian Bible and The Epic of Gilgamesh to Thomas Jefferson’s cisterns, to the advanced technology of weather and climate modelers today, we are treated to the roles and treatments of rain. The Indian monsoon, linked so closely with the evolution of trade in tropical commodities and South Asian colonialism, is visited more than once here. So also do we get a lesson on the lesser-known North American monsoon, which has contributed to numerous floods along the Rocky Mountain Front Range that this blogger swam through, watched and studied on my academic path.
At the opposite extreme, Ms. Barnett explores the greatest droughts of American history, from touching stories of a young couple’s attempts at homesteading during the 1930s Dust Bowl, to very recent accounts of drought in California, especially from the water blogger Emily Green. Ms. Barnett’s writing is certainly equal to the task of history and travelogue, with an honest “I wonder where that came from” investigative attitude and a “Hey, this is really neat, did you know…” enthusiasm. However, at its best, Rain is the story of Ms. Barnett’s search for connections with the people who are affected by, and indeed make their living on, the subject at hand: the fellow writer struggling for some natural harmony in California’s browning proto-desert; the perfumier extracting the very essence of petrichor from India’s clay soils; the weather forecasters who deal in probabilities day in and day out; the hopeful resort owners in what may or may not still be the world’s rainiest place.
Agriculture and industry, music and politics, art and science all incorporate the rain. We take it for granted until our lawns and crops wither, our forests flame up, our reservoirs run dry. We take the rain for granted until our city infrastructure is tested, our rivers run foul with sewage overflows and agricultural wastes, our homes and lives are washed away in torrents. When everything is “normal” we take the rain for granted. We buy a new Mackintosh or bespoke umbrella, crank up some vintage Morrisey (or Nirvana, depending on your taste), page through a volume of Emily Dickinson, and go on about our daily lives. When things get extreme, however, we wonder what we’ve done to deserve this.
Religion has for a long time provided the easy answer: it’s the wrath of our deities, however many they number. Too little rain is wrath, decimating crops and people as the desert swallows whole civilizations. Too much rain is wrath, cleansing the Earth of the evil and the wicked. It’s easy to lay blame elsewhere rather than recognize that, more and more, we ourselves have turned natural processes and cycles into unnatural disasters, catastrophes on superhuman scales. We dredge channels and build levees, dam and reroute rivers, pave over streams, and deprive flood-mitigating wetlands of their lifeblood. John McPhee’s long-form essay “Atchafalaya” remains among the best writings on what we have done to the natural systems around us, originally published in New Yorker and included in a collection aptly titled The Control of Nature. Ms. Barnett appropriately draws from John Barry’s Rising Tide, another of my favorite rainy histories that examined the socioeconomic ripples of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, one of the historical anchors for Mr. McPhee’s essay.
We’ve now done worse, and not just on the lower Mississippi: the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta is among the most fragile coupled natural and human systems (to borrow a turn of phrase from the National Science Foundation) in our country today, and sits at the hub of the California water system; the lower Great Lakes and our eastern and southeastern estuaries suffer agricultural runoff and industrial pollutants; our major rivers are dammed to within an inch of their lives, and some like the Colorado River are consistently stretched beyond. John Wesley Powell warned that the southwestern territories, with their distinctly sparse and seasonal rains, could not support agriculture on the same scale as the eastern states; hubris overruled him. Wherever humans decide what to do with the rain, there’s no apparent end to the conflict and contention. When things inevitably get extreme, before we ask what we’ve done to deserve it, we might consider what we’ve done to shape it, and remember who’s really in charge.
Rain is one of those things that we talk about when we’re actually talking about climate. In Ms. Barnett’s penultimate chapter, she recounts starting a conversation about rain with a National Weather Service forecaster, only to have the topic of conversation turn squarely around to climate change. We continue to alter the chemistry of our planet’s atmosphere, and thus its climate, changing where and how we experience the rain (or, in many places, the lack thereof). But climate is often too unwieldy for daily and casual conversation, while we constantly wonder “What can one person do to make it better?” Instead we retreat to what we see on a daily basis: it’s warm today, getting cloudy, I wonder if it will rain.
Our conversation needs some elevation and some humility: Nature is always in charge; our decisions come back around, eventually. For an interval, the prose in Rain reaches the heights of lyrical appreciation and persuasion that propelled Blue Revolution, Ms. Barnett’s previous book (also reviewed on this blog). Rain extends that exploration to our daily lives, what we experience and remember, the rain that permeates our streams and gardens and literature and music. Overall, Rain is a worthwhile follow-up and a welcome extension of Ms. Barnett’s body of work on the most fundamental of our natural resources. We must keep in mind that water and climate have intertwined far longer than we have attempted to maintain the fragile infrastructure, wealth, and culture of human civilization. As our appreciation of these connections deepens, our decisions can certainly improve.