Saturday, July 4, 2015

Rain and More Rain - a book review

I live in the Sonoran desert, and I have a garden; consequently, I am obsessed with rain. As an undergraduate, I majored in anthropology with a minor in history. So of course I was drawn to Cynthia Barnett's Rain: A Natural and Cultural History. I was hoping for something like Mark Kurlansky's Salt: A World History and Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, two books I found enormously entertaining and enlightening. (I've also learned that Kurlansky has written a book on oysters, and I'm looking forward to reading it, too.) Rain, I thought, is far more central to life on the planet and occupies more important places in human life and consciousness, and so Barnett's book should be at least as compelling as Kurlansky's works. And at least in some places, it is.

      She begins with a beautifully written recounting of Ray Bradbury's description of the rains of Mars in The Martian Chronicles, then segues into the history of water on our planetary neighbors, Mars and Venus, Earth's exceptional good fortune in still having water, and the history of water on our planet through the various geologic ages and throughout human history until today. I learned about the pluvial or wet periods in which our earliest primate ancestors lived and how climate shifts, from rain forest to open savanna, likely triggered later ancestors' transition to bipedalism. I learned about the famines that resulted during excessively pluvial periods of the Middle Ages, and about British meteorologist Luke Howard's early 19th century classification of cloud types and the origin of the phrase "Cloud Nine" (the towering cumulonimbus clouds were number nine on his list of ten types, and even though they were later shifted to number ten, the phrase remains as a reference to the highest, thickest, arguably most dramatic and beautiful of clouds, a place of ultimate joy). Barnett writes about railroad promoters who in the 19th century encouraged pioneers to settle in the arid West with the claim that "rain follows the plow." (It didn't.)

       Unfortunately, the book bogs down in the middle and becomes more than a bit of a slog, as if in approaching the more pedestrian and prosaic present she can't help but succumb to a certain pedestrian style herself. She does, however, make a clear and cogent argument for the reality of climate change and self-serving, willful ignorance (or outright lies) of those who argue against the scientific evidence, such as U.S. Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, "perhaps the most prominent national opponent of meaningful legislation to reduce fossil fuel emissions, [who] has said that humans cannot possibly control the climate because only God can do that." Of course, "[i]n addition to his [alleged] religious convictions, Inhofe has a sense of duty to the energy sector, the largest industry in Oklahoma" (273-4). The information in the bulk of the book is as important as what comes before, but the writing is less compelling than in the earlier chapters, though she periodically gets her mojo back for short stretches, as when she returns to Bradbury and his observation that "the Martians 'blended religion and art and science because, at base, science is no more than an investigation of a miracle we can never explain, and art is an interpretation of that miracle'" (276).

       Despite the "Accolades for Rain" cited on the back cover, Barnett's book is mostly the "investigation" though occasionally she approaches the "interpretation," and it is in those latter instances that her prose soars. It is a good book, or rather, a good-enough book that, as is evident from the early chapters, could have been much more.

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