Perspective: A history as right as 'Rain'

Published October 2 2015
Updated October 2 2015

Even though her fascinating book Rain: A Natural and Cultural History covers its subject in almost every way imaginable, from rain's role in the formation of our planet and of human civilization to its interplay with contemporary politics, Cynthia Barnett regrets the things she had to omit.

"I hated to leave out the part about the chimpanzee rain dances observed by Jane Goodall at Gombe Stream Preserve," she says.

Despite the missing chimpanzees, Rain is on the long list for the National Book Award for nonfiction. (The winners of the awards will be announced in November.) When the 10-book list was released in September, Barnett says, "I actually heard about it on Twitter, before the normal channels. I was absolutely shocked."

She's grateful that the judges gave her book a close look. "I was afraid with that one-word title they would dismiss it as just another microhistory, one of those books about everything you ever wanted to know about oysters. I'm glad they saw it was about something larger: our relationship to rain and climate."

Barnett, who will be a featured author at the Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading on Oct. 24, calls the nomination "the most exciting thing that's happened in my 30-year journalism career."

That career included editing her Girl Scout troop's newspaper, earning a degree in journalism at the University of Florida and working on the Independent Florida Alligator there.

"I started work the Monday after I graduated at the Gainesville Sun. I was on the prison beat," says Barnett, a fifth-generation Floridian who still lives in Gainesville. She worked at several newspapers and magazines, including a stint as an investigative reporter at Florida Trend, a statewide business magazine owned by the Poynter Institute, which also owns the Tampa Bay Times.

"I started getting pretty obsessed with writing about water while I was at Trend," she says. "Even stories that weren't about water turned out to be about water, like stories about development."

While at Trend, she wrote two books related to water issues, Mirage: Florida and the Vanishing Water of the Eastern U.S. and Blue Revolution: Unmaking America's Water Crisis.

"After Blue Revolution, I quit my day job" at Trend, she says. "It was very hard to leave. I always thought of it as the best journalism job in Florida. But I had this dream of writing books, and writing full time on climate and water."

While traveling around the country talking about water after her first two books, she says, she noticed that "even audiences who didn't want to talk about climate change loved to talk about extreme weather, droughts, floods, hurricanes.

"I was sick of preaching to the choir. I really wanted to reach the general public, the average reader. So Rain is sort of a stealth climate change book."

Researching Rain took her four years, she says, "but I had been covering water for 10 years before that. All my work had been leading toward this."

The research turned out to be "full of surprises, from the micro, like the fact that a raindrop is not shaped as we imagine in our mind's eye, to the macro, like the witchcraft trials and executions in Europe during the Little Ice Age."

What does rain have to do with witches, besides that melting business in The Wizard of Oz? As Barnett recounts in the book, during five centuries of major climate shift and extreme weather, thousands of women were tortured and executed for "conjuring storms."

"It's a really telling story about what people do in desperate times — and why we need science."

With all her research in hand, Barnett needed an organizing principle for the book. She found it in human attempts to control the weather. "We've always tried to control rain, from our ancestors worshipping rain gods to the rainmaker con men in the 19th and 20th centuries, some of them financed by the federal government. Even now, we develop in flood plains and then are surprised when the floods arrive, or we develop in arid places and then are surprised when there's not enough water."

The current extreme drought and fire conditions in the American West are an example, she says. "In the course of human history, they're not extraordinary. What is extraordinary is this many people crammed into the arid West."

Those extreme conditions may be a new reality that people must adapt to, she says. "For all of human history, there's been a certain hubris, the feeling we could live in defiance of climate. In the end we have been able to change the climate — just not in a way we expected."

How well the human race adapts is the question, Barnett says. "Will we be guided by science, or will we listen to the influential uninformed?"

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.