Thursday, July 9, 2015

Cynthia Barnett's "Rain: A Natural and Cultural History"

Cynthia Barnett is an award-winning environmental journalist who has written three books on water, including Mirage: Florida and the Vanishing Water of the Eastern U.S. and Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Thriving on Scotland’s rain and mist, the country’s abundant lichens are central to its textile history; the fawn colors (and slightly funky smell) of Harris Tweed come from lichens in the Parmelia genus. Most cudbear manufacturers used a Scottish lichen called Ochrolechia tatarea, but George Macintosh imported more-exotic types from the Italian island of Sardinia. In his twenties, Charles Macintosh traveled across Europe for months at a time to scout lichens, flowers, and plants for potential new colors and materials, or to meet with possible business partners. His surviving papers don’t indicate how long he had pondered waterproof cloth in the years or decades before his famous brainstorm. Perhaps it crossed his mind as he walked the puddled cobblestone streets of Glasgow, or in the spring of 1789, when he experienced a terrifying storm in the passage between Sunderland on the east coast of England and Rotterdam in Holland. On that trip he visited the Kingdom of Prussia to try to land the contract for dyeing the Royal Prussian Army’s uniforms blue. Macintosh always seemed more comfortable with the chemistry than the commerce. The Prussians turned him down. Surely he would have clinched the deal if he could have kept them dry as he perfected their blue hue.
Given that I spent far too much time fretting and sweating over each sentence in Rain, the Page 99 Test had a pretty good chance of reflecting the quality and spirit of the book. I think it does. In the past I’ve written some wonkier water books. With Rain I set out to do something completely different in an effort to reach readers beyond the environmental choir. This is essentially a biography of rain, weaving together not only science and climate history, but nature writing and compelling cultural stories. One of those is the quirky tale of the eighteenth century chemist who discovered waterproofing and gave the world the Mackintosh raincoat.

Page 99 begins with one of the weirder angles of the Charles Macintosh story: how his dye-maker father collected human urine from poor neighborhoods in Glasgow so he could extract ammonia. Many immigrants were crowded into the city at that time, fleeing the potato famine. They’d save up their pee in buckets to sell to the elder Macintosh’s collectors as they made the rounds. Mr. Macintosh used the ammonia to manufacture cudbear, a coveted red-purple dye made from lichens.

That background sets the stage for Charles Macintosh’s own nothing-wasted mindset and experiences that help lead to his invention of waterproof fabric. First, Page 99 goes on to describe Scotland’s lichens and their role in the textile industry, reflecting the book’s attention to natural history and the theme of how profoundly all life connects back to the rain.
Visit Cynthia Barnett's website.

--Marshal Zeringue