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Review: Cynthia Barnett's 'Rain: A Natural and Cultural History'

Without rain, we wouldn't be here, Cynthia Barnett tells us in her fascinating new book Rain: A Natural and Cultural History.

She's not just talking about the obvious fact that every life form on the planet needs water to survive, and rain is nature's way of spreading it around.

No, Barnett takes us back much further in Earth's history, to the Hadean era, some 4.6 billion years ago, when Earth was "a red-faced and hellish infant," part of the newly shed debris from the formation of the sun. In the beginning, three planets had water, but on Venus, closest to the sun, it boiled away, and on Mars it froze and remains locked in ice caps and rocks.

Only Earth, a planetary Goldilocks, was just right, with rains forming and falling for thousands of years. "Somewhere, sometime," Barnett writes, "the first rains helped lead to the first life."

That's only the beginning of this book's wide-ranging exploration of its subject. Barnett, an award-winning environmental journalist who lives in Gainesville and was formerly a staffer at Florida Trend magazine (owned by the Times Publishing Co.), translates her extensive research into the history, science, politics and myriad other aspects of rain into lively, clear prose that's always a pleasure to read.

She takes us back into human prehistory, when our ancestors may have learned to walk upright when droughts forced them out of forest habitat onto savannahs where they had to see over tall grass. The birth of agriculture, too, coincides with "a worldwide trend of miserly rainfall. ... Many scientists believe the faltering rains and worsening aridity clustered people along rivers, bringing smaller communities together to build irrigation systems and feed themselves and their neighbors." She catalogs great ancient civilizations that were brought low by yet another period of sustained drought about 4,200 years ago: the Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Harrapan empires, among others. She also recounts the experience of one 19th century settler on the Great Plains, who tested the then-popular belief that "Rain follows the plow" — that is, farming the arid wilderness would cause rain to fall. It didn't end well.

Floods, of course, have had just as much impact on humanity. Noah's deluge, described in the Old Testament, appears in the records and folklore of many other cultures as well. The Little Ice Age that gripped Europe for five centuries beginning in the 1300s brought downpours that continued for months, creating terrible famine and probably leading to deadly outbreaks of bubonic plague, not to mention the execution of thousands of women accused of being storm-brewing witches.

Barnett delves into other complex relationships between rain and religion. Historically, it seems that many monotheistic religions have been born in arid climates, while polytheism has flourished in wet ones. "The faithful pray for rain in every climate zone," she notes, whether it takes the form of the Prophet Muhammad raising his hands to the sky and turning his cloak inside out to pray for rain, or the Hopi tribe crafting musical instruments that "mimic the song of frogs to call home rain," or Texas Gov. Rick Perry's 2011 public call for three days of prayer for rain after a three-month drought and fires over 1.8 million acres.

Perhaps he could have used the services of Robert Dyrenforth, who in 1891 tried to create rain in Midland, Texas, by bombing the skies with a combination of 60 homemade mortars, huge electrical kites and 20-foot-tall helium balloons. "Not only that," Barnett writes, "it was all being bankrolled by the United States Congress." She tells us the intriguing stories of Dyrenforth and other rainmakers both fraudulent and scientific, including Project Popeye, a cloud-seeding operation in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in 1972 revealed in the Pentagon Papers. She describes a 1947 effort, launched from MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, to seed a hurricane in order to change its direction.

Barnett also celebrates the beauty of rain, whether it's her journey to a village in India renowned for its perfumes, one of which "captures the scent of rain," or a chapter on how rain has inspired writers and musicians, from Charles Dickens to Kurt Cobain and Morrissey.

As delicious as all this cultural history is, Barnett is not just sprinkling her pages with trivia. All of the various streams of her research come together in the present in rain as the manifestation of global climate change. "The atmosphere and its rain are one global system — everything connected to everything else, sometimes in ways we cannot imagine."

Human impact on weather has occurred for centuries, as she illustrates with the story of London's Great Fog in 1852, when the city was blanketed with toxic smog, caused by industrial pollution, that killed 12,000 people.

More recently, acid rain, also caused by pollution, has had a global impact — although it's something of a success story, since governments' efforts to control it have greatly reduced the damage. Not all stories end as happily; Barnett describes human attempts to control flood and drought and the unintended catastrophic results.

At the end of the book, she visits the rainiest place on Earth, the Khasi Hills in the Indian state of Meghalaya, where rainfall averages 470 inches annually. (The rainiest U.S. city, Mobile, Ala., gets 65 inches.)

There she discovers alarming change and transcendental beauty, all of it born of the rain.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

Rain: A Natural and Cultural History

By Cynthia

Barnett

Crown, 355 pages, $25

Review: Cynthia Barnett's 'Rain: A Natural and Cultural History' 04/15/15 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 15, 2015 10:26am]
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