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Rain: A Natural and Cultural History

by Cynthia Barnett

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5198745,067 (3.92)54
Cynthia Barnett's "Rain "begins four billion years ago with the torrents that filled the oceans, and builds to the storms of climate change. It weaves together science--the true shape of a raindrop, the mysteries of frog and fish rains--with the human story of our ambition to control rain, from ancient rain dances to the 2,203 miles of levees that attempt to straitjacket the Mississippi River. As climate change upends rainfall patterns and unleashes increasingly severe storms and drought, Barnett shows rain to be a unifying force in a fractured world.… (more)

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Longfellow also wrote what is arguably rain’s most famous refrain, the closing lines of “The Rainy Day”:
Into each life some rain must fall
Some days must be dark and dreary.

(Kindle Locations 2911-2913)

The best chapters:

After reading Rain there is nothing else to say about the rain (apart from going outdoors forgetting the umbrella).

Many archaeologists believe Homo sapiens built their big brain power during these rain-starved times, evolving speech to share what they knew about water and food to survive famine. (Kindle Locations 465-467)

In Sanskrit, the word for rain, varsha, is derived from the older vrish, which means not only “to rain,” but also “to have manly power” and “generative vigor.” Hindus consider rivers female, and sometimes describe those swollen with monsoon rains as pregnant. (Kindle Locations 879-881)

And the lives of gods including revered Krishna are intimately tied to rain. Krishna’s skin is storm-blue, and his name means “dark as a storm cloud.” Rain follows him from the day of his birth to a royal family in Mathura during a terrific storm. The tempest helps obscure a ruse when his father secrets Krishna across the Yamuna River (the largest tributary of the Ganges) to switch him with the newborn child of a cowherd couple so he won’t be murdered by Mathura’s wicked ruler. (Kindle Locations 933-936)

The Welsh, who have more than two dozen words for rain, like to say that it’s raining old women and walking sticks. Afrikaans-speakers have a version that rains old women with knobkerries (that would be clubs). The Polish, French, and Australians all have a twist on raining frogs; the Aussies sometimes call a hard rain a frog-strangler. Portuguese- and Spanish-speakers both might say it’s raining jugs. (Kindle Locations 1131-1134)

Rain can warp, swell, discolor, rust, loosen, mildew, stink, peel paint, consume wood, erode masonry, corrode metal, expand destructively when it freezes, or seep into every crack when it evaporates. (Kindle Locations 1870-1871)

Later in the 1920s, Wright’s cousin Richard Lloyd Jones Sr., publisher of the afternoon newspaper in Tulsa, Oklahoma, commissioned him to build a home there. Jones was worried about the textile blocks in an area with more rain than the West, and rightly so. Despite heroic waterproofing attempts, the home, Westhope, was perpetually damp. The roof leaked almost immediately after Jones moved in. He called in roofers to resurface, in vain. He went to his desk and placed a call: “Dammit, Frank—it’s leaking on my desk!” Wright calmly replied, “Why don’t you move your desk?” (Kindle Locations 1893-1897)

Rain “is a power which none but God can rule with justice. (Kindle Location 2384)

Now that modern humans could fly like the gods of mythology, could they also make it rain like Jupiter Pluvius? (Kindle Location 2601)

Perhaps more than in music or any other genre, rain, so fit for meter and metaphor, speaks in the language of poetry. Anthologies seem to have no end of poems titled “Rain,” or those devoted to April rain, May rain, August rain, September rain, summer rain, noon rain, night rain, and London rain—and all of that not even counting showers. (Kindle Locations 2903-2905)

In The Old Curiosity Shop, when Little Nell’s grandfather steals her savings, she rises from her bed in the dark night while “the rain beat fast and furiously without, and ran down in plashing streams from the thatched roof.” (Kindle Locations 2954-2956)

The American writer Edward Lewis Wallant, compared with Bellow and Roth before he died in his thirties, does it in his novel The Pawnbroker, foreshadowing a troubled young character’s redemption with a walk in a storm: “The fiery exultation of evil drained out of him then, and he walked home, all hunched over, nailed heavily to the earth by the torrential downpour.” (Kindle Locations 2990-2992)

To Sanjiv Chopra, the Indian American Harvard Medical School physician and author, like his younger brother Deepak Chopra, the loamy smell of long-awaited rains soaking India’s thirsty ground is “the scent of life itself.” (Kindle Locations 3161-3163)

Extracted from parched clay on the eve of the monsoons, and distilled with techniques dating to the Harappan, the scent of rain, in India, is known as Earth’s perfume. (Kindle Locations 3189-3190)

...humanity has managed to change the rain. (Kindle Location 3978)

In The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury wrote that the Martians “blended religion and art and science because, at base, science is no more than an investigation of a miracle we can never explain, and art is an interpretation of that miracle.” (Kindle Locations 4100-4102)
( )
  NewLibrary78 | Jul 22, 2023 |
Rain plays such a vital role in our lives. Perhaps the most vital role of all. Which allowed author Cynthia Barnett to examine this vitality from such a varied and fascinating amount of different perspectives. One of my favorite chapters was Writers on The Storm where Barnett examined the ways in which rain shaped and influenced such a wide variety of musicians and writers, featuring the likes of Morrisey, Kurt Coabain, Chopin, Isak Dinesen, Charles Darwin,Henry Longfellow, EmilyDickinson, Woody Allen,and Thomas Hardy, just to name a few.
I also thoroughly enjoyed the chapter The Scent of Rain where learn how the people of an Indian village have for generation after generation figured out a way to produce and sell the smell of rain from clay deposits located in their village. This scent is called the smell of India.Who needs perfume when you have the smell of fresh rain. Not me, that's for sure. ( )
  kevinkevbo | Jul 14, 2023 |
An enjoyably chatty journey through the phenomenon of rain, debunking a few myths (Manchester and Seattle aren't as rainy as they are made out to be, for example) and explaining a few puzzling details along the way. Nothing really earth-shattering, unless you have been living in a cave for the past fifty years and haven't heard about climate change, but presented in a reasonably straightforward way, without too much obvious dumbing-down. Barnett is from Florida, so the focus is inevitably on weather and water-management in the USA, but there are a few visits to Asia and Europe along the way too. ( )
  thorold | Apr 1, 2023 |
Pretty much exactly what it says on the tin. This is a history, not a science, text. But as a history of rain, it's 100% more interesting than a book on rain would generally sound. Filled with anecdotes that bring the history to life, and raise it a notch above a dry (ha!) academic narrative, once I got past the parts of history I always find slow (ie, any part we have to speculate about) I found it hard to put the book down.

The author tries tackle the subject globally, but generally, it's US-centric (which, if I remember right, she disclaims at the start). There's a certain amount of doom and gloom when she gets to present day human vs. rain (spoiler: rain always wins), but I was incredibly please and very inspired by the stories she told about how certain cities are learning from their mistakes. In a global culture that is so, I'm sorry, collectively stupid about climate change, it often feels like we're being beat about the head with it; we haven't yet figured out that, just as this tactic doesn't work on children, it doesn't work on humanity in general. But a story about people learning from the past and taking steps to remediate the problems - that's what, in my opinion - is going to inspire the long-term change we so desperately need.

She ends the book with the most telling irony - her trip the the rainiest place on the planet, Mawsynram, where she experiences 5 cloud free, sunny days, while back home in Florida her family lives through the rainiest weather in the state's recorded history.

A pleasant, informative and well-written read. ( )
  murderbydeath | Jan 27, 2022 |
This is the book for me. A scientific and cultural exploration of rain, which seems to be the most mysterious of weather. The writing is engaging and poetic. And the information is fascinating. ( )
  JessicaReadsThings | Dec 2, 2021 |
Showing 1-5 of 92 (next | show all)
Toward the end of her book, Barnett draws again from Ray Bradbury’s “Martian Chronicles.” Bradbury wrote that his imagined Martians “blended religion and art and science because, at base, science is no more than an investigation of a miracle we can never explain, and art is an interpretation of that miracle.” In essence, this blending is exactly what Barnett does for rain, merging religion and art and science to capture a gestalt, one best considered and appreciated somewhere less than dry, perhaps during a wet morning on a soaked trail, where printed pages can be baptized by the very substance that is their subject.
added by mysterymax | editNew York Times, BILL STREEVER (Apr 17, 2015)
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And who art thou? Said I to the soft-falling shower,
Which, strange to tell, gave me an answer, as here translated:
I am the Poem of Earth, said the voice of the rain,
Eternal I rise impalpable out of the land and the bottomless sea,
Upward to heaven, whence vaguely form'd, altogether changed, and yet the same,
I descend to lave the drouths, atomies, dust-layers of the globe,
And all that in them without me were seeds only, latent, unborn;
And forever, by day and night, I give back life to my own origin, and make pure and beautify it;
(For song, issuing from its birth-place, after fulfilment, wandering,
Reck'd or unreck'd, duly with love returns.)

                                                              Walt Whitman,
                                                   "The Voice of the Rain"
For Aaron
First words

The rain on Mars was gentle, and welcome. Sometimes, the rain on Mars was blue. One night, rain fell so marvelously upon the fourth planet from the sun that thousands of trees sprouted and grew overnight, breathing oxygen into the air.
Part 1
Elemental Rain

Cloudy with a Chance of Civilization

If you've ever admired a brilliant azure sky, and wondered how it was the heavens that day radiated such clear and dazzling color, you could probably thank a rain storm. Rain is Earth's great brightener, beginning with the sky. As fine dust, pollution, and other tiny particles build up in the atmosphere, our celestial sphere grows paler and paler, from blue to milky white. A good rain washes the particles away, shining the heavens to their bleu celeste best.
Through late April and early May, The Mississippi’s floodwaters rose phenomenally. In two separate waves, flood crests in the newly fortified river topped all previous records – approaching sixty feet above sea level. As John M. Barry explained in his chilling history of the 1927 flood, Rising Tide, the levees, built as high as forty feet, created a man-made catastrophe far worse than any natural flood could have wrought. “These heights changed the equations of force along the river.” Barry wrote. “Without levees, even a great flood- a great ‘high water’ – meant only a gradual and gentile rising and spreading of water. But if a levee towering as high as a four –story building gave way, the river could explode upon the land with the power and suddenness of a dam bursting.”
Levee by levee, the illusion of safety behind the government barricades began to crack. On April 15, the first length of levee, 1,200 feet long, collapsed just south of Cairo. Across the Delta, African American plantation workers and sharecroppers were forced to the levees to fill sandbags. Thousands of men worked desperately to save the levee at the Mounds, Mississippi, ferry. Held at gunpoint, black laborers had to keep filling sandbags when everyone could hear the warning roar of the water in their ears and feel the barricade shaking under their feet. No one knows how many were swept to their deaths when the Mounds levee broke. The Jackson Clarion-Ledger reported, “Refugees coming into Jackson last night from Greenville declare there is not the slightest doubt in their minds that several hundred negro plantation workers lost their lives in the great sweep of water.”
The muddy torrents crashed into the Delta with more than double the force of flood-stage Niagara Falls, and inundated more than 2.3 million acres. It was more water than the entire upper Mississippi had every carried, more than it has ever carried since. People scrambled onto the roofs of houses, then the houses washed away. They took refuge in the tops of trees, then the trees gave way. To take pressure off the levees protecting New Orleans, authorities dynamited a levee downstream in Caernarvon, Louisiana, which flooded most of St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes. The homes and fields of the poor living to the east and south of New Orleans were sacrificed for what the city fathers considered a greater good. (The dynamiting left scars so deep that many living in the Lower Ninth Ward when Hurricane Katrina barreled into New Orleans in 2005 insisted the levees had been dynamited once more to save the wealthier, whiter sections of the city).
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Cynthia Barnett's "Rain "begins four billion years ago with the torrents that filled the oceans, and builds to the storms of climate change. It weaves together science--the true shape of a raindrop, the mysteries of frog and fish rains--with the human story of our ambition to control rain, from ancient rain dances to the 2,203 miles of levees that attempt to straitjacket the Mississippi River. As climate change upends rainfall patterns and unleashes increasingly severe storms and drought, Barnett shows rain to be a unifying force in a fractured world.

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