Book Review

Rain: A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett

Weather is hardly a topic I would go for in a book, unless it was in a geography textbook. Much less would I read a book about such a trivial topic as water falling from the skies.

Rain: A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett is the book that changed that. It is beautifully written, nothing like a science textbook filled with jargon and words of a science teacher coaxing me into memorizing the water cycle. In fact, Rain is not a science book—but it has science, enough for a scientific fact addict like myself.

Rain begins four billion years ago with the first drops that fell from the sky and filled the oceans and takes us on a journey through time to explore our relationship with rain and our modern dilemmas with climate change. Indeed Cynthia Barnett’s book is a travelogue taking us throughout the world detailing anecdotes of how Kannauj villagers in northern India dig up the scent of the earth after the monsoons to make mitti attar, or rain-scented perfume.

Rain-scented perfume? Yes, Australian scientists in the 1960s linked the scent of rain to the terpenes that build up on the land over time, Barnett talks about that. It’s astonishing to realize that Kannauj villagers knew about the scent of rain long before science could explain it, but as you read on Barnett explains that every culture has had a story or a myth for explaining the natural phenomenon of rain.

As Barnett closes in on modern times, you realize how that relationship changes. If you are going to talk about the history of human adaptation to rain you should talk about umbrellas, and raincoats, and why we get wrinkly fingers and toes with long periods of exposure to water.

Rain is, at its essence, the study of our attempts (and failures) of summoning or thwarting rain as needed. For example, for the Beijing Olympics, China tried to blast rain out of the sky by firing over 1,000 rain dispersal rockets before the opening ceremonies. The creativity is definitely in us for trying to control rain!

Cynthia Barnett is an award-winning environmental journalist and author of Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis. and Mirage: Florida and the Vanishing Water of the Eastern U.S. Recipient of the national Sigma Delta Chi prize for investigative magazine reporting and eight Green Eyeshades, which recognize outstanding journalism in 11 southeastern states, she teaches environmental journalism at the University of Florida.

I encourage you to read Cynthia Barnett’s interview at the World Science Festival where she talks about California’s rain problem, cloud seeding, the creation of the modern raincoat, and the scent of rain. You can also find there an excerpt from her book.

Disclaimer: I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.