“Rain: A Natural and Cultural History,” by Cynthia Barnett

Rain CoverGraph of Rain in Las Vegas

“I, Rick Perry, Governor of Texas … do hereby proclaim the three-day period from Friday April 22, 2011, to Sunday, April 24, 2011, as Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas.”

Thus at a time when more than 8,000 wildfires burned across the Lone Star State, destroying more than 400 homes, engulfing 1.8 million acres and bringing about business failures, the governor responded to a drought that rivaled the 1930s Dust Bowl by calling for Easter weekend prayers.

My how far we have come from the days of rain god worship.

It is the subject of countless poems and paintings; the top of the weather report; the source of the world’s water.  Yet this is the first book to tell the story of rain.  Rain and mankind’s fate are inextricably linked.

April-Showers-Bring-May-Flowers
April Showers Bring May Flowers

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Author Barnett relates 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.  Then there is the human tendency to ignore the realities of rainfall by doing such things as building on flood plains (I’m looking at you Las Vegas) and growing water-intensive crops in the middle of the desert (Arizona’s rice and cotton farms).  Why is it that man appears determined to live in conflict, rather than harmony, with the Earth’s hydrologic cycle?
  2. Barnett divides the story into five sections. In Elemental Rain, she shows how rain helped in the creation and destruction of civilizations.  Many early and great civilizations met their demise at the hand’s of changing rain patterns (e.g., the Mayans).  Before civilization, approximately 70,000 years ago, homo sapiens almost went extinct (some believe we were down to forty breeding pairs), after a massive volcano eruption (Mt. Toba), dramatically changed weather patterns.  There is no question that weather is pivotal to the nature and quality of human existence.  Given this, why do we tend to focus so little on the importance of rain and weather patterns?  
  3. The American Rain section offers us tales of the first weather forecasters, how weather influenced the fulfillment of Manifest Destiny, and how when rain disappeared or diminished to normal patterns rainmakers gained traction despite the skepticism of scientists.  Why do humans seem so ready to believe fanciful claims such as “rain follows the plow” or still ascribe, as evidenced by the Governor Rick Perry quote, to supernatural solutions to climate problems?
  4. In sections such as “Writers on the Storm,” Barnett explains that rain, usually in tales of flood or scarcity, is part of the central narrative of many culture as well as many of their everyday conversations.  She borrows phrases from Helen Keller, Mark Twain and Isak Dinesen; to Emily Dickinson, Charles Dickens and Daniel Defoe. She quotes Longfellow and Aristotle and Swift to demonstrate the importance of rain in literature.  Even Woody Allen movies illustrate the power of the imagery of rain.  Is it surprising that rain plays such a pivotal role in art?

Signing in the Rain

5.Finally, a book on the topic of rain could be deemed, at first consideration, to be uninteresting and dull.  Was the book dull?  Did you learn anything interesting?  Would you recommend the book?

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