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In Praise of Rain

Bill Meredith

"The rain falls upon the just,
And also on the unjust fellas,
But mostly it falls upon the just,
ĎCause the unjust have stolen their umbrellas."
          Cormac McCarthy, The Stonemason.

(May 2012) If I were Ernest Hemmingway, I could write something like "It was May, and dry. And then it rained." I could stop there, call it my essay for June, and send it on to the Editor, and he would say I had captured the essence of reality with an economy of words that was the epitome of great literature. Unfortunately, Iím not, so I canít, for he wouldnít.

Itís hard to write anything interesting about common things, even when theyíre important. Rain is like that. Itís one of lifeís essentialsÖ right up there with solar radiation, oxygen, food and loveÖ but as long as itís behaving normally, we take it for granted. The only time it makes the news is when thereís a drought or a flood. Itís a bit like my wife; I really miss her when sheís away somewhere and I have to make my own meals.

Part of the problem with rain is that you can only talk accurately about it in the past tense. You can say with assurance that it rained last Wednesday, and if you wanted to go to the trouble, you could find records to show whether it rained the day you were born. But you cannot say with certainty that it will or will not rain next Wednesday. The Weather Channel will be glad to quote a probability for you, but they might get it wrong. Years ago when the Orioles were still playing in the old Memorial Stadium, we decided to take the kids to a game. There were a few broken clouds over Emmitsburg, but nothing really ominous, so we packed the car and drove to Baltimore. It got more overcast and drizzled a bit, and when we got to the old ballpark we found that the game had been cancelled, based on the local weather forecast; but when we got back home the sun was out again, and we heard later that there was nothing but a shower or two at the stadium. That was before they had invented the Weather Channel, but you get the idea.

If you want a better example, I can tell you with absolute certainty that it rained on September 14, 1966. I was in the process of completing my thesis research that summer, and I had built several wire pens in Toms Creek for the crayfish I was studying. There was a severe drought that summer, and the creek stopped flowing; water remained only in a few shallow pools. One of the two crayfish species I was studying dug burrows down to the water level, as much as two feet deep in the stream bed, where they hunkered down and waited for rain; the other species apparently didnít know how to dig, and they all dried up and died. Then, on September 14 we had 11 inches of rain. Emmit Gardens was under water, several local roads were washed out, and my wire pens were carried off in the general direction of Chesapeake Bay. Luckily, I had collected enough data to prove my theory about the way the two species adapted ecologically to the local environment, so I got my degree in spite of the flood. In the 46 years since then, we have had four or five more cycles of drought followed by floods, though none quite as spectacular as the one in í66. I am sure there will be more in the future, but I have no idea in which years they will happen. The crayfish donít know either, but theyíve adapted; droughts and floods are part of their normal environment. Itís the pollution that they have to worry about.

Rain is more than a meteorological phenomenon; it is also a literary device, a metaphor that helps us understand our lives. It can be the great equalizer to the just and the unjust for St. Matthew, or it can be a vehicle for cynical humor for Cormac McCarthy. Gene Kelly sang in it; the citizens of Johnstown watched in horror as it broke the dam and destroyed their homes. It can come in April and bring May flowers; it can come in June and ruin a ball game for Charley Brown. It can fall gently on our fields, as requested in the Irish Blessing, or it can flood our basements if the power goes off while the sump pump is running. At its best, rain can wash away the dust and cool the air on a hot summer day, and let you smell aromas you havenít experienced since childhood. You can sit on the porch and watch it, and think of things that a poet would be proud to imagine; or, if the time is right you can walk in it with someone and fall in love. And if youíre lucky enough to have a tin roof on your house, rain can give you the best nightís sleep you ever had.

A few weeks ago articles in the local papers were alerting us that rainfall was below the annual average so far this year, and pundits were speculating that we could be in for a dry summer, with restrictions on water use. At that point we were about four inches below average for that time of the year. Then, late in May we got over two inches of rain in one day, a good, soaking Farmerís Rain, steady but not violent enough to damage tender young plants. We got more over the next couple of days, until the ground was saturated; it drained off of the paved places until I expected to see gondoliers poling their boats down Lincoln Avenue. The lower third of our garden took on the texture and appearance of the Great Grimpin Mire, and for a few nights my wife was sure she heard the Hound of the Baskervilles prowling about in the woods behind the houseÖ. But then things returned to normal, as they always have. Things dried out, the soil smelled fresh and felt warm on my hands, and I filled the rest of the garden with tomatoes and peppers. Maybe the summer will be too dry and everything will wither away; maybe it will be too wet, and things will rot. But maybe it will be just right, like Goldilocksí porridge. As Grandma taught me, Iíll take whatever comes.

I donít know if children nowadays learn the jingle about April Showers, or if they can sing "Rain, rain, go away, come again another day" before theyíre old enough to go to school. I hope they do. And I hope they come to understand that even if "Into each life some rain must fall," thatís not necessarily a bad thing.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith