The generous people at Green Elk Rapids are offering up one of the summer’s finest events, and, BONUS: it’s free. Hear award-winning environmental journalist and author Cynthia Barnett discuss her book Rain: A Natural and Cultural History. Barnett’s book is a fun and wonderful exploration of what rain means to our world, our culture and our selves. Most enjoyable is Barnett’s ability to satisfyingly connect such disparate elements as rain-inspired poetry and rain-influenced classical music and early raincoat makers and modern rain-makers and so much more to convey a rich understanding of this life-giving force—water from the sky.

Jeff Smith, editor of Traverse Magazine/MyNorth, will introduce Barnett at the Elk Rapids event and invited her to answer a few questions about Rain.

Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, by Cynthia Barnett

Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, by Cynthia Barnett

Event details: 5:30 p.m., Thursday, July 6, Marina Pavilion, Edward C. Grace Memorial Harbor, 118 Bridge St., Elk Rapids. Free.

What fact about rain seems to surprise people the most?

The shape of a raindrop. From our earliest childhood drawings, we imagine that raindrops fall like a drip from the faucet – with a pointy top and a fat, rounded bottom. That image is upside-down. Raindrops actually fall in the shape of tiny parachutes, their tops rounded by air pressure from below.

As a topic, what drew you to rain in the first place?

Rain is my third water book, and each book has led to the next. As I would go around the country talking about my book Blue Revolution, it struck me that even people who don’t want to talk about climate change love to talk about the weather: extreme rains, epic droughts, whether or not storms are becoming more severe. I began to see rain as a sort of unifying metaphor; just as a deluge can bring strangers together to talk about the weather, this topic sparks conversations not only about climate change, but how we can live differently with water.

The more important part of the answer is that I’m absolutely crazy about rain. I find great beauty in storms and I love the drama that they bring to an ordinary day. Before this book, I didn’t realize how many other people feel the same way. There is a name for us—pluviophiles.

You’ve focused your reporting career on more investigative environmental journalism, but Rain is in the realm of explanatory science journalism, why the change? 

I realized that too often, I was writing for the choir. The people reading and responding to my books and articles were water professionals or environmentalists and I really began to question the value of that insular conversation. So I set out this book to write more lyrically, tell better stories and draw a broader audience that I think of as the “Caring Middle.” I kept a specific mantra in my mind and on a Post-It note on my office wall: Poetry over pipelines. I approach my talks the same way, so if your readers come, they’ll be in for stories about things like the weather-related witchcraft trials of the Little Ice Age and the shyster rainmakers of early American history. I promise to show no more than one rainfall graph, but that’s important too – it all comes together in our relationship with water and climate.

When you think back on your time traveling and researching for Rain, what moment, scene—a time, a place, something happening—floats to the top as far as really representing what you were hoping the book could convey?

I timed this huge reporting trip to the rainiest place on Earth—Cherrapunji, India—for monsoon season to experience the greatest rains of my lifetime. I bought rain pants and Rite-in-the-Rain notebooks and waterproof pens and all the rest. And this is a spoiler, but as you know [because you have read the book], it did not rain. Meanwhile my native state of Florida was experiencing the rainiest June in its history. I would have seen the greatest rains of my lifetime had I never left my home, where my husband was dealing with mildew on the side of the house and a dog that refused to go out to pee. The story represents rain’s capriciousness and the changing climate, a worrisome combination.

To research and write this book, you lived within the idea of rain for a couple of years, I’m guessing, did that affect your mood and spirit at all, in the way that our mood changes when a sunny day is suddenly cloudy and rainy, or vice versa, the way our spirit lifts when clouds clear?

The weather affects us all profoundly, but in very different ways. You may be lifted by a sunny day, but I am inspired by a rainy day and in fact my best writing flows on a rainy day. I wrote an entire chapter, “Writers on the Storm,” about rain as inspiration for creativity, clear in works as diverse as Kurt Cobain, Chopin and Emily Dickinson. I learned that artists can be just as inspired by their dislike of storms. Dickinson’s poem There Came a Wind Like a Bugle is a great example of the power of that gloom from imagination to page.

I have a lot of empathy for the gloom. I did quite a bit of research on Seasonal Affective Disorder, a form of depression not to be taken lightly or dismissed as the “Rainy Day blues.” I think some of this, too, has to do with geography. There’s a reason you Michiganders don’t come to Florida in the summer. The sun is oppressive. That’s surely why I get the “Sunny Day blues.”

For you personally, what is the coolest thing about rain?

Its mystery. The fact that, even in the age of precipitation-measuring satellites, Doppler radar and 24-hour weather streamed to our smart phones, rain can still catch a meteorologist by surprise.

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Photo(s) by Rimjhim Gogoi