The Rain and the Fine Weather

IN looking over my year-book, I find no entry recording a holiday spoiled by the rain, while numerous instances are noted of holidays gained from that source. Wherefore “ la pluie et le beau temps ” of the sweeping Gallic phrase are in my version freely rendered as equivalents ; or, at least, the rain is regarded as one phase of that fine weather which we enjoy the whole year round. How can I entirely sympathize with those who reckon their time by a sun-dial, and boast it as a virtue that they “ count the bright hours only ” ? The Sun-dial and the bright hours are well, but I should be loath to repudiate those gray and lowering hours, in which the countenance of our thoughts so easily outshines that of the weather,—some of the more radiant days being, perhaps, a trifle too vivid for our ordinary spiritual habit. If I keep a sun-dial, I have also a tower of the winds and a musical clepsydra, the latter propelled directly by the cascade from heaven : thus I think to deal equitably by all hours and seasons.

Our roof-trees grow dense and dark above us, every year more and more shutting off the prospect skyward. Thanks to the rain that we are occasionally called out to inspect the “brave o’erhanging firmament;" for who is not concerned to watch the arrival and unlading of the great galleys which bring us our fresh and soft water supplies ? Frowns and corrugations on the face of heaven shall succeed in commanding our attention, where ten days together of ethereal smiles and tenderness shall fail. There is one pleasure in the rain itself, and another in anticipating it by predictions. Distant be the day when the spectroscope, with its “ rain band ” indicator, shall come into general use, superseding oral prognostication. When this day arrives, it will be to the grief and confusion of those clever meteorologists who are found in every neighborhood. After all, will the gain in scientific certitude compensate for the loss of pleasure to be derived from pure speculation ? Notwithstanding the superior skepticism with which we meet the dicta of our familiar weather oracle, there is commonly a kernel of natural philosophy as well as natural poetry within the absurd envelope of vulgar tradition. Most of the twelve cardinal rain signs enumerated in the Georgics are still in good repute. “ Never hath a shower hurt any person unforewarned.” It took me some time to probe to the probable origin of the saying with regard to the new moon and the Indian’s powderhorn. Why, indeed, should that aboriginal worthy hang the powder-horn upon a dry rather than a wet moon ? The mystery was cleared up for me on my hearing a hunter express his preference for wet weather, as then the leaves on the forest floor, being moist, would not rustle under foot, and betray his presence to the game. Of course, the wood-crafty Indian knew this fact, and took advantage of it; he would, therefore, have his powder-horn in use during a wet time, but in the dry would naturally suspend it on the convenient lunar peg ! True, there are those who have no respect for this trite omen, having from their own experience evolved a more likely system of prognostics. I have a neighbor who asks no stronger argument in favor of rain than to see his dog eat grass. Another observer is specially in the confidence of the line storm ” agent, and has been assured that the direction of the wind during this period “ pretty nearly ” determines the direction in which we are to look for all the storms of the season following. Still another, unconsciously verifying the Emersonian maxim, hitches the wagon of his weather faith to a shooting star. A transcendental farmer he, whose vane is the meteor’s dart shot into the teeth of the approaching but yet invisible storm ; where the star falls, from that quarter he anticipates the next rough weather. This is the farmer who plants his apple-trees at a slight deflection from the vertical, so that their tops shall exactly indicate the “ two o’clock sun.” The trees are thus, as he argues, given a westing, so that all the strong prevailing winds from that quarter can do is to lift them to a perpendicular position, by the time they are full-grown. This system of planting, though it may be good arboriculture, would go far towards doing away with the picturesque wryness of the apple orchard.

It may be questioned whether the clouds of heaven have their favorite lanes and by-ways marked out on the map of the country over which they pass, yet I frequently hear that the rain “ follows the river.” If this be true, the rain has a sufficiently puzzling route, as the river in question abhors a right line, and delights to double upon itself as often as it can. It is to be remarked that the Lake (Erie), but a few miles distant, is not popularly held to have such a following as is claimed for its humble tributary. No local savant can satisfactorily apologize for the slight.

I am assured by one living near the river that lightning strikes in its vicinity more frequently than elsewhere ; that the chestnut oftener than any other tree, except the hemlock, is the mark of the thunderbolt: and that the beech enjoys a singular immunity from danger, — so much so that my informant would not believe, on report, that a beech had been struck, but would require to see the mischief with his own eyes. It would be an entertaining, and perhaps not unprofitable, task to edit the science and pseudo-science in common circulation within the area of a single county, district, or township.

“ The former and the latter rains ” play the same part in the year’s tillage as they did when the first furrows were drawn in the earth. The spring still comes riding in on the moist surges of the south wind, and the departing summer, also, goes by water, embarking on the tumbling flood of the big September storm. Though one season indulges in a reckless expenditure of moisture, and another pinches us with drought, we are pretty sure that the account balances. If any region, formerly well supplied with rain, has come to suffer from aridity, it is probably because the forests, those natural well-sweeps connecting with the heavenly cisterns, have been cut down. A pity it is that their hydraulic action is not visible in some such way as the sun and his specious waterbuckets, so that man should be advised by self-interest to stay his inroads upon the sylvan territory. Is the rain sent alike upon the just and the unjust? There is one class of the unjust, namely, the timber destructionists, who are likely to bring about a reversal of the old benevolent decree.

It is a little strange that the poets, while so free to praise the summer rain, should have nothing to say about rain in the winter. Have they not heard the wild hunter, who, with his rattling shot, brings down the coveys of the frost, — the headlong charioteer cracking his thousand whips in the vacant air, unintercepted by leafy branches? How his lashes score and lacerate the earth ’s false cuticle of ice and snow, until the quick is reached, and dormant vitality excited! In every February rain faint vernal rumors are heard, and cipher dispatches are sent to the initiated. The rain in March brings overbold declaration for spring, afterwards diplomatically offset by an occasional demonstration in honor of winter. I am sorry for those who fail to perceive the honest stuff there is in March, who can never get along with his chaff and swagger. It must be that nature relishes the extravagant impersonations of this actor, else he would not be encouraged to remain so long upon the scene, or be so frequently recalled, — “ with hey, ho, the wind and the rain ! ” As yet, the skies are not blue, but only blue-eyed, the azure seen in glimpses through the clouds as through rough eye-sockets. The fields present an unfamiliar topography, all depressions having been filled up by the rain. A pool thus formed is a kaleidoscope of color and motion : the wind produces on its surface a veiny arabesque, and at one side of the margin the breaking of the ocean surf is imitated. Every gust darkens it most wonderfully, as though there had been thrown into the water some instantly dissolving pigment. This sudden depth of shade is due to the bulk of the water having been swept aside, thus destroying the glaze of reflected light, and revealing the dark bottom of the pool.

“ The river is bluer than the sky ” is good painting. Heaven, as seen in the watery mirror, is always deeper in hue than the actual sky. Whence is the mordant used to set this dye ? If there be any hair-line rift in the clouds through which a blue ray can fall, trust the rain-pool to detect and report it with liberal exaggeration. One will often be baffled in his search for the zenith to match the smiling under-heaven laid open in the transient perspective glass at his feet. With no small speculative delight have I seen the village, after an abundant rain, apparently built over a celestial abysm, and threatening every moment to fall and disappear over the frail earth-verge. The more frequent the pools, the more extensive the downward aerial prospect, and the more exquisite the sense of suspension between two infinities. To my surprise, the passers-by seemed wholly oblivious to the fine peril which threatened, as they plodded their way through the unsolid streets, grumbling at the inefficiency of the road supervisor.

April comes,

“ With bowariness and showeriness
And rare delights of rain.”

Mantling in the sun’s warmth, and daily replenished, the pasture pools are now, at the surface, rinks for the nimble gyrations of various water-flies, while below swarm the fairy shrimps, simulating the fin-waving life of the fish. In their green translucency they look not unlike animated bits of some pulpy, aquatic plant, so that the name of the order, phyllopoda, is well illustrated by this species. In one season of unusual mildness, I knew these creatures to make their appearance as early as the middle of February.

Rain in April! Who knows not the capricious, partial shower that runs out in shining array, under review of the sun, advancing a furlong or so, then stopping short, as though recalled by solar command ? Not a yard further will the precious moisture go, however the mouth of nature may water in expectation. I hear the ever-thirsty grass, with a slight, tremulous sigh, express its disappointment and sense of neglect. There is a copious drinker ! I almost think to measure the depth of the rainfall by ascertaining the liquid contents in the brimming tube of a blade of grass. In the space between morning and evening, it has plainly lifted itself higher, and acquired a livelier color.

After a parched interval, with what alertness we look and listen for indications of rain ! — not, however, forgetting to remind each other that “ all signs fail in dry weather.” We are fain to credit the “ more wet ” of the quail, the ceaseless trilling of the tree-frog, the chuckle of the cuckoo, and the shutting of various sunny eyes in the grass. We also take fresh hope when the trees that have so long stood sultrily immobile begin swaying tumultuously, uttering hoarse, delirious murmurs of anticipation. Yet we have often before seen this majestically looming cloud break and dissolve in gusty sighs, without showing any practical benevolence. We do not expect much from these sparse, loud-clicking drops, sown broad-cast, like a handful of pluvial “ small change,” or beggars’ pence, just to test nature’s alacrity in picking up alms. Falling in the fine dust of the road, they are at once absorbed, curiously dotting or stippling the powdery surface ; falling on the leaves, which the drought has rendered tense and crisp, like a sort of drum parchment, they beat a brisk, urgent tattoo ; the grass blades seem to dodge the sharp fusillade. The looming cloud, for once, does not disappoint us, but ascends, and spreads rapidly a gray, uniform canopy. When the lightning flashes, it advises us there is brilliant repartee in the heavens. What a keen jeu d' esprit was this last ! In the soul is a spark of venturous, fiery wit, which in spite of the mortal body’s fear starts up to fence with the lightning, singing, as the shaft flies past, “Strike me, and I strike back! ” Now comes the rain, a celestial ocean at flood-tide. It has its surges and billows, its mighty “ third waves,” its momentary lulls and recessions. How far is it through this liquid obscurity up to the azure and the sunbeam? We will walk abroad under the rain, like divers in the pearl gulfs ; we will take a surf bath, where nothing is lacking but the saline taste: for, if this be not a true sea in which we disport, it is at least the returning wave of sublimated lakes and rivers, the tribute of the naiads and of the earth now refunded.

Even in this temperate latitude we frequently have, at the beginning of a summer storm, an interval of elemental chaos that would do credit to a Central American temporal. The trees rock and bend, leaning to the leeward, with all their foliage blown out, like a garment, in one direction, revealing their lithe and robust anatomy. What admirable elasticity and dexterous trimming to the storm are seen among these hardy, long-disciplined Spartans of nature ! Occasionally, a young tree, deficient in athletic training, is snapped off at the ankle; and as though the storm carried a pruning-knife, and this were the month for pruning, numerous small branches, twigs, and single leaves are remorselessly shorn away and scattered to the winds. After a continued rain, such as in June lodges the crops, the infinite rank growth of leafage seems completely to muffle up the world.

“ The boweriness and floiveriness
Make one abundant heap.”

The trees are heavy and torpid with moisture ; there is no motion in the foliage, except as some terminal leaf twinkles in discharging a drop larger than usual. The rain trickles down the rough, swollen bark, finding its way by casual channels, as the water from a spring drips through the loose black clods of a shaded hillside. A momentary jet rises wherever a drop falls on a hard surface. Well-washed stones become dark and semi-reflective, showing, like a roiled stream, distorted and indistinct images of surrounding objects. The long undulation of meadows and grain - fields, the liquescent greens of the landscape, faintly seen through the waving veil of the rain, suggest a submarine vegetation, swept by a gale of waters. When there is no wind, the rain is of such temper that we characterize it as “gentle;” it then comes serenely down by a direct path ; when set on by the wind, it drives in keen oblique splinters. Sometimes there is a crossing of lances, as though two rain armies were in the field. If the eye is rejoiced at the descending shower, the ear also has its share of pleasure. From all sides comes up the whispered acclamation of a million grateful leaves. We infer their gratitude, as, in any human crowd, we understand the drift of communication, though unable to distinguish individual voices. After listening a while to this comfortable susurrus of the leaves, we seem to hear a monotonous rhythm, to which we readily set symphonious words, or syllables, without meaning. Whatever the style of parley the rain may hold with the sea or with the open prairie, its loquacity must always be sweetest in a wooded country. The senses of sight and hearing are not the only ones regaled at this time. Before the rain comes the breath of the rain, bringing flavorous news from all lush places in the woods and pastures. Virgil’s farmer knew what it meant when he saw his cattle “snuff the air with wide-open nostrils.” In the first rain of autumn, after intense summer heat, the leaves of the maple give out a subtle aroma, as if the essential principle of the sap and tissues had been volatilized ; though already burnt in the summer’s censer, their ashes are fragrant when put in solution by the rain.

Nature is on good terms with her children on a rainy day, seeming to treat it as a dies non, giving herself up to their amusement. If we are not afraid of a wetting, we may meet some very pretty gossips abroad, since we are not alone in our enjoyment of the rain and fine weather. The robin shows himself preeminently a rain-bird. He takes a position as nearly vertical as possible, so as to shed the water, his plumage growing darker for the drenching, He has moistened his whistle (as the flute-plaver moistens his flute), and is now blowing out the superfluous drops in a series of mellow dissyllabic notes, somewhat more pensive and refined than his ordinary efforts. He sings the lyric of the rain. A “sprinkle” encourages rather than interrupts the chimney-swifts in their airy pursuit of food; and the more familiar sparrows dart under the eaves, into porches, even alighting on windowsills, in quest of insects that have sought shelter in these places. In the orchard the wren is on the alert, scrambling along the leaning trunk with the dexterity of the woodpecker or the creeper, and peering into every nook and cranny of the bark. He, too, is foraging, yet — that he may not be accused of being wholly absorbed in this sordid occupation — from time to time pipes a moist and rippling stave, whose “ expression mark ” might be allegretto grazioso. There is still another creature, from which, if gifted vocally, we should probably hear some thrilling wet-weather notes. At the first report of rain, our old doorside friend, the toad, exhibits all the delight possible to an organization so cold and phlegmatic. His yellow sides and throat seem to throb with excitement, as he comes out of his hermitage in the mould of a neglected flower-pot. As soon as wet, his spotted mosaic coat becomes brighter, resembling in color and markings some freaked pebble washed up by the waves. With an eye to business (he is possibly something of a savant, and counts upon the present atmospheric condition as favorable to his fly-catching enterprise), he gathers himself up and hurries into the grass, looping himself along by his long, ridiculous legs.

While these visible rillets of the rain are making their way, with much frothing and bubbling, to some permanent vein of water, one imagines the streams underground rejoicing, in their own dark, voiceless way, at the reinforcement they receive. For hours afterward I taste the river of heaven in water from the well. Some time ago I made the discovery of a music-box or whisperinggallery of the rain, which I had passed a hundred times without suspecting its musical capacity. It is entirely subterranean, with a tube or shaft connecting it with the surface. Laying my ear to this, I hear a succession of delicious melodies, abounding in trills, turns, grace-notes, and broken chords, in which the last fine high note is followed by an echo. It is Nicor, chief of watersprites, sitting in a cavern and playing liquid chimes, laughing to himself during the rests ! The mason who constructed this music-box with bricks and mortar thought only to produce a cistern, not dreaming of the acoustic luxury that should result from his labors. This is the clepsydra that keeps the rainy hours, dropping the minutes and seconds in a silver or crystal coinage of sound.

Edith M. Thomas.