Rain: A Natural and Cultural History — Cynthia Barnett

Who would have thought that a book could be written about rain? And who still that an interesting book could be written about rain?

And yet that is what Rain: A Natural and Cultural History by CYNTHIA BARNETT is.

Over the course of several hundred pages, BARNETT explores the relationship that humanity has had with rain of all kinds. Not just science – although there is a significant amount of that – the relationship of drizzle and deluge to fashion, mythology, economics and many more related topics are explored.

Perhaps it drags out at the end a little, but nonetheless, here are some of my favourite moments.

Love this image of the rain that evaporates before it hits the ground:

Those suffering from ombrophobia—fear of rain—might consider settling in Yuma, Arizona. It seems unfair to label Yuma the driest city, straddling as it does a bucolic little bend of the Colorado River. But Yuma is the rain-scarcest city in the nation, averaging a three-inch trickle in a year. Not infrequently in the wide skies over Yuma and other parts of the arid Southwest, residents watch sheets of rain begin to unfurl from auspicious purple storm clouds, backlit by the sun. But the rain stops halfway, hanging mid-horizon like a magician’s trick. Known as rain streamers or by their scientific name virga, the half-sheets evaporate into the dry air before the rain can reach the ground. “Torture by tantalizing, hope without fulfillment,” Edward Abbey called the withering curtains in Desert Solitaire.

The gender of rain in classical thought:

When the Hebrew God was creating Earth, he divided the waters in the heavens above from those on land below. Jewish tradition identifies the upper waters—the rainfall—as male, and the lower—lakes, rivers, and springs—as female, citing the line in Isaiah, “Let the Earth open to receive, that it may bear the fruit of salvation…” 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.

A factually incorrect but frankly wonderful passage on the language of rain in modern usage:

Jonathan Swift is credited with the earliest published version of “raining cats and dogs” in 1738, though an English dramatist named Richard Brome had his dialogue raining “Dogs and Polecats” a century before. Some lexicographers suggest that, during bleak times, heavy rains might well have sent the corpses of drowned dogs and cats down streets and gutters—inspiration for Swift’s gruesome mock pastoral “A Description of a City Shower.” Cat-and-dog cloudbursts seem practically ordinary compared with “raining young cobblers” in Germany. It rains shoemakers’ apprentices in Denmark, chair legs in Greece, ropes in France, pipe stems in the Netherlands, and wheelbarrows in the Czech Republic. 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. Inexplicably the Portuguese also say it’s raining toads’ beards, and the Spanish: está lloviendo hasta maridos—it’s even raining husbands! Probably not what the Weather Girls had in mind with their 1982 hit disco single, “It’s Raining Men.”

A history of cloud nine:

On the 1896 list, the king of clouds—towering cumulonimbus—was listed number nine. This is why, when we feel the highest of high, we say that we are on Cloud Nine. As the British cloud enthusiast Gavin Pretor-Pinney* tells the story, scientists unfortunately rearranged the order in the second edition of the atlas, shifting mighty cumulonimbus to number ten. But the phrase “Cloud Nine” stuck.

China’s rain making budget:

China spends by far the most of any government on both actual seeding and research, with 47,700 employees on its weather-modification payroll, along with fifty cloud-seeding jets, 7,034 rocket launchers, and 6,902 mortars that look like Robert St. George Dyrenforth’s wildest dreams come true. China claims that 560,000 cloud-seeding missions in the past ten years helped release nearly 500 billion tons of rain, or twelve times the water-storage capacity of the Three Gorges Dam, which spans the Yangtze River.

And what is the petrichor (scent left after rain as coined in 1964’s Nature journal by Bear and Thomas):

Every storm blows in on a scent, or leaves one behind. The metallic zing that can fill the air before a summer thunderstorm is ozone (from the Greek verb ozein, “to smell”), a molecule formed when electrical discharges, in this case from lightning, break oxygen’s two atoms down to three. Likewise, the familiar, musty odor that rises from streets and storm ponds during an old-fashioned deluge is called geosmin. A by-product of bacteria, geosmin also gives beets their earthy flavor. But what’s pleasant in rain and root veggies can ruin a cool glass of water or a catfish fillet. Geosmin is the bane of urban water suppliers and freshwater fish farms. The two products don’t go over with too much gout du terroir, taste of the land. Rain also picks up odors from the molecules it meets. So its essence can come off as differently as all the flowers on all the continents—rose-obvious, barely there like a carnation, fleeting as a whiff of orange blossom as your car speeds past the grove. It depends on the type of the storm, the part of the world where it falls, and the subjective memory of the nose behind the sniff. City rain smells of steaming asphalt, in contrast—not always unpleasantly so—to the grassy sweetness of rain in the countryside. Ocean rain smells briny like Maine clam flats on a falling tide. In the desert Southwest, rare storms punch the atmosphere with creosote and sage. In the Southeast, frequent squalls leave the damp freshness of a wet pine forest. “Clean but funky,” Thomas Wolfe called the exquisite scent of the American South.

But enough of all that, I leave you with this poignant rhyme by Longfellow

Into each life some rain must fall
Some days must be dark and dreary.