Hakai Magazine

Coastal science and societies

Cover image courtesy of Crown Publishing

Book Review: Rain

Since the first water fell and began to cool a fiery planet, rain has shaped our world. Writer Cynthia Barnett explores our relationship with rain.

Authored by

by Adrienne Mason

Article body copy

I am no stranger to rain. Where I live, in Tofino, British Columbia, skies are often leaden, a hard rain falls for much of the winter, and even summer days begin cloaked in fog. Cars left unattended grow a skiff of mold, sometimes even mushrooms. We wear “Tofino tuxedos” as a matter of course. We whine when the thermometer reaches the mid-20s (Celsius). Rain defines us and the place in which we live: it primes the coastal forest with over three meters of rain a year, a gift that keeps on giving as the forest steadily transpires, keeping the air cool and the ground moist.

So it is strange that I find myself living in drought conditions. Our town has been on restricted water use for over a month, gardens are parched, rivers are closed to fishing, and, even in this coastal “fog zone,” our evenings watching the sun set by a beach fire are clearly numbered. We need the rain, and lots of it. Since the real thing seems elusive, it made spending time in my cool basement with Rain: A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett even more of a pleasure.

Barnett, a science writer from Florida, had me from the beginning. Her precise, descriptive prose has left me with a book full of marginalia, underlined phrases, and scraps of paper with ideas to investigate more. I would regularly come to the office and share with my colleagues the latest gem from Rain. (Such as why the pads of our fingers and toes shrivel after a good soak. It’s not osmosis. Barnett cites the work of neurobiologist Mark Changizi who hypothesized that wrinkles are “rain treads,” an adaptation that helped primates and human ancestors grip. While “smooth fingertips … give humans the best grip in dry times … wrinkly ones might help us hang on when it’s wet.”)

In five sections, and a total of 13 chapters, Barnett guides us through the science of rain, from the shape of a raindrop to modern meteorology; introduces rain as a cultural driver, a literary muse, a plot device; and brings us to the reality of today, frighteningly rife with climate-change deniers in a world where rain is not falling where it should and falls too hard and too fast where it shouldn’t. “The strangest of rains are wrought by humans,” Barnett drives home. Rain, or the lack thereof, brings drought, flood, polluted runoff, and all manner of strife. But, as Barnett writes, there is nothing inherently destructive about rain, “only we have made it so.”

The subject matter is rich, and Barnett plumbs it well, from Ray Bradbury’s fictional Martian rains, to stories of charlatan “rainmakers,” even to the invention of windshield wipers, which Barnett calls rubber metronomes. In the genre of “biography of things” (think Cod and Gin and Longitude), there is a danger of the writer drowning in facts, in trying to cram every tidbit unearthed into the pages, but Barnett shines in her ability with narrative non-fiction: she introduces us to engaging characters, tells us stories, and takes us on trips, all the while brilliantly weaving together page after page that entertains, educates, and, most critically, makes us think.

Rain: A Natural and Cultural History
By Cynthia Barnett
355 pp. Crown Publishing