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. It offers a glimpse of our "founding forecaster," Thomas Jefferson, who measured every drizzle long before modern meteorology. Two centuries later, rainy skies would help inspire Morrissey’s mopes and Kurt Cobain’s grunge. Rain is also a travelogue, taking readers to Scotland to tell the surprising story of the mackintosh raincoat, and to India, where villagers extract the scent of rain from the monsoon-drenched earth and turn it into perfume. Now, 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 finally managed to change the rain. Only not in ways we intended. 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. Too much and not nearly enough, rain is a conversation we share, and this is a book for everyone who has ever experienced it.
Though this pluvial microhistory is not all that long -- just under 300 pages -- there is certainly a wealth of history and social commentary packed into this book. There's so much info packed into the prologue alone! Barnett starts pretty much from the birth of our planet and takes us right up to modern times. The fact that she satisfactorily covers this much history in so few pages is quite the feat!
Much of the early part of this book focuses on the historical significance of rain (or lack of it). Barnett examines events such as Waterloo, hypothesizing how the outcome might have differed had there been less rain on those pivotal days. She also speculates at the correlation between the end of major civilizations such as Mesopotamia, the Mayans, and the Sumerians and how their departure lines up with times of an extreme drought that spanned 300 years. In the 1300s, too much rain ushered in the Great Famine and the Black Death that ended up taking the lives of millions people across Europe, Asia and parts of Africa. Then that period was followed by yet another period of extreme drought. Barnett also suggests that a period of strong rains might have helped push through the first Homestead Act (1862).
Rain's temperament can mean the difference between food and famine, health and plague, social unrest and national content.
It's not just the rain itself Barnett investigates though. She also looks into the development and history of waterproof clothing and accessories, with a special focus on umbrellas of course :-) I especially enjoyed the look at Jonas Hanway, an 18th century British social reformer who tried to get Brits to quit drinking so much tea. Clearly that idea didn't really take, but Hanway also became known for being pivotal in popularizing the use of an umbrella, not only for function but also fashion. Prior to Hanway consistently rockin' one with his outfit every day, most men of the era found the idea of having to hold their own umbrella too effeminate to even consider. Hanway's influence was bolstered by the publication of Daniel Defoe's novel, Robinson Crusoe, where the main character, stranded on an island, crafts an umbrella to protect him from the sun and claims it as the most important tool he has next to his gun. Guess put next to a gun, it didn't strike men as quite so girly and therefore okay to openly embrace the use of the umbrella. :-P
Barnett also gets into the somewhat controversial topic of the government experimenting with developing technology -- known as "seeding" -- to control and even create weather, some of these tests carried out by brothers Bernard and Kurt Vonnegut (yes, that Kurt Vonnegut) at GE's research lab in Schenectady, NY. It's not only the US who's experimented though, seeding has also gained popularity in Thailand, China and Indonesia. Even though many of the test results of seeding (in general) have proven largely inconclusive, the Indonesian government is still using the technology to try to get the worst of monsoon storms to fall over the ocean, to avoid the death and millions of dollars of destruction that can often follow a monsoon season.
Probably no surprise, but my favorite unit in this book was "Writers On The Storm" which looks at how rain has been featured in music, movies and literature throughout history. It was interesting to learn that both actress Raquel Welch and tv journalist Diane Sawyer both started out as weather girls -- Welch in San Diego, CA, Sawyer in Louisville, KY.
Being quite the pluviophile myself, this was one of my most anticipated reads this year and I was SO wanting this to be a solid 5 star read for me. Alas, it was not, BUT! it was a 4 star read for me! I couldn't quite make it a 5 as there were a few sections that did drag for me a bit, mainly the bit on the development of meteorological technology and some of the sections on drought periods vs flood periods in the American West. The reading of these sections just seemed more slow-going for me than much of the rest of the book. Though with the section on the American West, I was moved by the story of Uriah and Mattie, their story of struggle.
Since author Cynthia Barnett is an environmental journalist by profession, one could possibly argue that there is a slight agenda to this book, as she often mentions "cringing" or "wincing" whenever she hears someone say they don't believe in climate change / global warming. I'd say though, whatever your stance on that topic is, there is still, as I said earlier, a wealth of entertaining and thought-provoking history to be found in this book. If you happen to be a fan of the books of Mary Roach, you may want to try Barnett's work out. I could see similarities between her writing style and Roach's, as far as the easy, conversational way of sharing a topic. That said, though Barnett does have a subtle humor to her work that had me grinning from time to time, I do tend to get stronger laughs from the works of Roach. Laughs or no, read this and you're bound to come away infinitely more informed on an important topic.
FTC Disclaimer: BloggingForBooks.com and Broadway Books kindly provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own.