I love the rain.
I don’t mean I grudgingly appreciate its ecological necessity. I don’t mean I’ve learned to tolerate it. I don’t mean I wait it out, flipping through the calendar to see how many more pages until the sun might break through. I mean I love it.
I love everything about it. I love falling asleep under a down comforter in the dead of winter with the windows thrown open to the hiss of rain. I love awakening to the soft aqueous light that is a painter’s dream and listening to the rush of water in the culvert. I love the thrum of rain against the house on a dark afternoon with potato leek soup simmering on the stove. I love the fine mist on my face, the way my skin feels soft and pliant and new in the rain. I love the intermittent wipers on my car.
But it was not always so.
The first autumn I spent in notoriously soggy western Oregon was the second wettest in recorded history, or so I was told.
It started raining October first and by Halloween, the local newspaper was running out of meteorological bon mots to print by the side of the masthead. I cut out the one that said “the wet stuff again” and sent it to my parents in New York, where, despite notorious regional failings, it seems to know when to stop raining.
At first, I found the rain enchanting. It seemed to make everything greener than it already was, and green was why I was in Oregon, so greener was better. That thought sustained me for perhaps a week, which was probably the longest continuously drizzly period I had ever experienced.
But very soon the rain became an annoyance. The old, crumbling house I was living in began to leak at the seams. Rain inched in under the back door. Puddles collected on the windowsills in the kitchen. The soil in my little kitchen garden liquefied. When I ventured out, I walked with chin tucked, shoulders hunched, eyes downcast. I winced a lot, as if every raindrop left an indentation in my skin. It was Thanksgiving by then, and it had been raining, unabated, for 56 days.
I scanned the Guinness Book of World Records for climatic catastrophes to make myself feel better: the deepest snowfall (Japan), the largest hailstones (South Dakota), the worst mudslides (Southern California). I had lived through five Chicago winters, during which sheets of ice formed on the insides of my apartment windows, and my socks froze inside my boots.
I had weathered several hurricanes, one of which tore off most of the roof of my parents’ house. One summer when I was working in central Minnesota, I watched from the tiny basement window of a bank as a full-blown tornado spiraled down Main Street. Surely I could live through this. It was then just before Christmas. It had been raining for all or part of 79 days.
The sky seemed low enough to touch. Some mornings I thought the clouds would smoother me. I became obsessed with seeing the sun. One (rainy) day just after New Year’s, I borrowed a friend’s car. “I’m going to drive east until it stops raining,” I told him. I thought I might have to drive hundreds of miles, a thousand miles, maybe, back to the hard, cold Midwest where the trees were bare, and the wind was punishing, but the winter skies were often cobalt blue. As it turned out, I was in the car for barely an hour and a half. All I had to do was cross over the Cascade Mountain range to the cloudless high desert of central Oregon.
Now, almost three decades later, I am abashed at the innocent, thoughtless way I took rain for granted; the clueless self I was when I begrudged the sodden skies; the gross naivety of believing that drought was someone else’s problem.
It isn’t. It is my problem now. My previously soggy, showery Oregon, my greener-than-green home, is—like everywhere else on the planet—getting hotter and drier. This past summer more than 80 percent of my state faced “extreme” drought conditions. Wells ran dry. Pastures browned. Marshlands parched. Streamflows declined. Reservoir levels dropped. And dry lightning sparked hundreds of wildfires, one of which burned more than 400,000 acres (that is more than 650 square miles). It was still smoldering in September, three months later.
What about you? Where does your garden grow? Where do your chickens roost? This summer drought conditions prevailed from Maine to Minnesota, from New Hampshire to North Dakota. On Cape Cod. In the heart of Iowa farm country. In the hills of West Virginia. None of us are immune.
Before we humans understood–to the extent that we actually do understand–what causes drought, or really anything about the weather, we believed that rain and other natural elements were controlled by the gods. These gods, alternately benevolent and punishing, could be praised and prayed to, beseeched and appeased. Perhaps they would listen to us mortals. Perhaps not. Perhaps the crops, nourished by rain, would flourish. Perhaps, withered by drought, they would die. Zeus was the head honcho and go-to god in Greek mythology, but every culture had its own rain deity: Freyr, the Norse god of rain; Dodola, the Slavic goddess; Surupa and Varshini, the Hindu goddesses. The Australian aborigines looked to Wandjina, the rain and cloud spirits. The Bantu peoples of Africa had Bunzi, rain goddess; the Mayans had Chaac.
In China, there was once a widespread belief that dragons controlled the weather. One dragon in particular, Yinglong, was associated with water and rain. Like all fickle deities and spirits, Yinglong might provide enough rain to nourish the earth. Or, if the people did not honor him properly, he might withhold his favors. In a generous mood, Yinglong was said to have carved out riverbeds with his tail as a gift to humankind, to hold rainwater in between showers.
Dismissing the power of the gods and the folktales of the people, the
Greek philosopher (and father of botany) Theophrastus made sense of the mysteries of rain by declaring these predictions:
It is a sign of rain when a toad takes a bath.
It is a sign of rain when the ox licks his fore-hoof.
It is a sign of rain if a finch kept in the house utters its note at dawn.
It is a sign of rain if any pot filled with water causes sparks to fly when it is put on the fire.
What we know now is that it is the progressive warming of the earth and the subsequent warming of our oceans, not the actions of the toad or the ox, that predict how much or how little (or when) it rains. What we know now is that we humans have more to do with rain and drought—with sweltering heat, punishing storms, and all manner of weather extremes—than dragons and deities.
It is officially autumn, the season of rain, here in the Pacific Northwest. I look out at my brown meadow, the natural grasses so dry they crunch underfoot when I walk over to the pear tree that bore not a single fruit this year. I cannot believe I once chanted under my breath: Rain, rain go away. I walk back to the house over the parched meadow, past the coffeeberry bush I planted in the spring that died in the late summer gasping for moisture.
I have come to realize the privilege of rain. And I know that with great privilege comes great responsibility.
photo credit: Mitchell McCleary, Unsplash