Thanks to author Cynthia Barnett, we now know that it’s possible to write an entire book on the subject of rain.
“Rain: A Natural and Cultural History” crossed my desk a few weeks ago, as black clouds hung like Hindenburgs outside my fourth-floor office window and emptied torrents of water on the traffic below. It was the third straight day of rain — the yard so wet the night before that we had to turn up the TV to hear over the bellowing bullfrogs in my yard.
Eventually, I decided that the spectacle of the weather was probably more interesting than anything on Netflix or HBO, so my wife and I trekked to the front-porch rockers, getting front-row seats as the downpour hammered my tomato seedlings to pulp.
Those of us who live in Louisiana like to think that everything here is somehow more colorful or memorable than what can be found elsewhere, so my first thought, on opening Barnett’s book, was to learn how Louisiana fares when it comes to rain. I wondered, in fact, if a global survey of the subject would mention Louisiana at all.
I didn’t have to wait long. Louisiana figures in the opening chapter, which chronicles how rain might have shaped prehistoric Earth. Scientists figure that in the aftermath of epic meteor storms, rain “poured in catastrophic currents for thousands of years,” Barnett writes. That’s the picture painted by Stanford University scientist Donald Lowe, who’s had a lot of occasions to think about rain.
Here’s how Barnett describes Lowe’s research:
“He grew up in rain-starved California and lives there now, but he spent half his career at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, one of the rainiest cities in the United States. And so it is no surprise that he imagines the first rains like the gullywashers of southern Louisiana, so dense that motorists ease over to the side of the road to wait out the deluges that rap on their car roofs like a steel band’s drumroll.”
Barnett also mentions that spring rains have often brought flooding in Louisiana, which prompted the building of levees, which brought ecological and political problems the state is still grappling with.
That reality, says Barnett, stems from this region’s role as catch-basin for much of the country: “For millennia, the Mississippi has caught all the runoff from the broad middle of America — draining 42 percent of the United States in spring floods that inundate endless floodplains, bottomland hardwood forests, and tea-colored swamps.”
Prehistoric humans, says Barnett, slowly developed bigger brains as they figured out how to move where life-giving rain would support them. And so, in a very real way, rain made us think — and think better.
So, for that matter, does Barnett’s book. I plan to finish reading it the next time rain keeps me inside. It shouldn’t be long now.
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.