In August of 2017, the Western United States was on fire. In my Seattle apartment, I would wake up to the stifling scent of smoke, and going to the window I had left open – for hope of fresh air – I would find white ash covering the sill. One afternoon, I took my finger and wrote “WHY” in the brittle bleached soot.
Fires raged in British Columbia, Washington State, Oregon, and California. Air quality plummeted; some mornings were so shrouded in the sickly hue that the sun sat in the sky like a reflecting stone beneath a murky pool. I was, in a word, despairing, that month and more. Those days creaked by, and dragged on and on.
But my growing sadness through that summer didn’t so much stem from the fire – it was barely the fire, that made me so sad. It was that for 56 days there had not been a drop of rain. And when it at last did come – the moment it fell – it was gobbled up and gone. The departed rain left a hole inside me. My heartbreak felt spiritual. That horrible parched summer, was also the summer I read Cynthia Barnett’s rich and deeply reflective book, Rain: A Natural and Cultural History. And it was Barnett’s winding and researched ode to the rains that got me through that dry summer.
A Pen Literary Award finalist, Rain: A Natural and Cultural History opens with genesis of sorts; Cynthia Barnett take us on a journey through deep-time at a breakneck pace. She paints a hellish dreamscape, angry and turbulent and hot, and through painstaking clashes and currents, that far and alien planet of distant past blossoms into a blue, rich world; we named her Earth, and it is our only home, and on this oblate ball that is full of life, it rains.
“Inside the fiery storms…was a lining better than silver. Virtually all of the rocks that made Earth had water locked inside. Water is a remarkable shape-shifter, able to change from liquid to solid – or to gas when it needs to make an escape. As meteorites crashed onto Hadean Earth and split apart, they spewed out water in the form of vapor. This was water in its gas form, no different from the steam rising from a boiling pot on the stove…
All that water vapor would prove an indivisible redeemer.”
Barnett in lyrical and poetic terms describes the rain as a liberator, raising Mother Earth out of her red, writhing infancy into wizened, calmed adulthood. From this point on, Barnett take us forward, breaking down this natural wonder into five parts: “Elemental Rain”, “Chance Of Rain”, “American Rain”, “Capturing The Rain”, and “Mercurial Rain”, before wrapping everything up in a heartfelt epilogue, where her thoughtful and compounding writing style reaches its peak.
This book is wonderful, stuffed to the gills with information both relevant and trivial. From how climate can affect the directions of nations, to Morton Salt’s ad turned adage, “When it rains it pours”, readers will surely be taken with something, and overall, through Barnett’s moving verse, the rain will take on new form. Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, really brings to the table the unrivaled importance of our planet’s rain. It is the lifeblood. The heartbeat. Without it, our beloved Earth would be a desert like Mars, or a runaway greenhouse like Venus. The rain gives us everything we have. Through these pages, Cynthia Barnett has one resounding message: Cherish the rain.
Today, as I type out this review in my apartment, the wind whistles. It has been raining hard on and off for several days now. The cloud fronts and storms blow in and out, unrelenting. I leave the deck door open at night, and hear the platter of drops in collective drumming. Petrichor, rain’s smell, spills in like a fog. It is a moment of being, felt in the chill and rhythm of a downpour. I can say, in my bones, I feel connected to rain. Its somber, ethereal body slips into my nooks – there is something about it that makes me stop: I stop to look at stars, I stop to gaze at trees, and I am stopped in my tracks whenever I feel the coming rain.
Five out of five stars for Rain: A Natural and Cultural History. And a special thanks to Cynthia Barnett, for saving me that summer, and for helping me remember why every so often, I go outside, and stand in the rain.