Few sights are prettier than hundreds of umbrellas held up against a gray sky, bright reds and polka dots glowing in that diffused light like a field of poppies. Also, there is the fun of galoshes, the way you can stomp through puddles like a little kid, the protection of their whimsy. They are worn to muck out horse stables or wade across creeks; they promise a good time.
Why, then, do spirits drop at the sight of gray, rainy skies? “During the rain there is a certain darkness that stretches out all objects,” wrote Joseph Joubert, a self-effacing French essayist whose Pensées were published posthumously. “Its effect on our body forces us to withdraw into ourselves, and this inwardness makes our soul infinitely more sensitive.”
Rainy days are pensive, quiet, thoughtful. They are made for us introverts, and we brew a pot of tea and settle happily into an armchair with a good book while the extroverts paw the ground, check their weather app, pace to and from the window. TV meteorologists always announce rain as though it were a defeat, something to apologize for, a thwarting of our plans, a misery to be endured until the little sun icon shows up on the forecast again. Yet these April showers are softening the ground, awakening roots, feeding thirsty plants long-dormant so they can explode in bloom.
Rain cleanses my mind, too, washing away adrenaline’s residue, reminding me that sometimes it is better to be still than to run around checking stuff off a list. Joubert claims that “the very noise rain produces, which the Latins called densissimus imber, continually occupies the ear, awakes attentiveness and keeps us on the alert.” Not me; I fall asleep to it. Even driving in a steady gray rain is hypnotic, and I have to blast Motown to stay awake. Is this because we are less sensitive to nature’s subtle percussions today, finding their softness soothing in a world of beeps and buzzes, blared horns, and profanity?
Drenched in rain, the grass sparkles. Limestone bluffs darken and granite shines. Animals take shelter, as do we, and the world quiets a bit, bidding us look, from our dry cave or window, and see it fresh. “All objects, closed up in this narrowed horizon, occupy a greater space and importance,” Joubert notes. The air is heavy with water, and it drenches our surroundings with significance.
But rain can also be merry, and Emily Dickinson knew it. “A drop fell on the apple tree/Another on the roof;” she wrote, “A half a dozen kissed the eaves,/And made the gables laugh.” What fun, to watch people in business suits or high heels run through a popped-up rainstorm, all pretense washed away. You cannot make one of those runs for shelter without laughing, clutching a bag over your head or your shoes in one hand, and people laugh with you, and everybody shrugs, because what are you gonna do? Nature wins every time.
And really, what feels better than coming home cold and soaked to the skin, peeling off the clothes, and sinking into a warm tub or wrapping yourself in a fluffy robe? Or, better, staying out in the rain and kissing somebody, feeling their body warm against yours, clothing’s starchy separation melted away. Propriety ceases to matter, as does the presence of onlookers. Your carefully arranged hair is a seaweed tangle, your mascara is smeared, your shoes ruined, and you no longer care. There is a sense of abandon when you let yourself get wet, enter the elements instead of barring them out.
Why do we speak of dramatic weather conditions as “the elements,” anyway? We name them with the same word we use for the basic chemical building blocks of the universe. In my mind, “the elements” were always a swirl of thunderstorms, tornadoes, hailstorms, and blizzards that looked like illustrations to William Blake’s poetry, but in fact, there is a more prosaic list of weather “elements”: wind, temperature, pressure, humidity, clouds, precipitation, visibility, sunlight exposure. They are ingredients, combining in different ways to create different weather.
That happens inside our bodies, too. Children are more likely to misbehave when the barometric pressure falls, perhaps because that can increase irritability. Cows and horses and dogs always know when a storm is coming. Overcast skies decrease serotonin levels, so we humans might be sad, angry, and craving a cookie. A study at Utrecht University found a group of “Summer Lovers” who were happier, less fearful, and less angry on warm sunny days and more anxious and angry on rainy days.
“Rain Haters” and “Summer Haters” also emerged in that study. The huge range of ways we respond to weather explains why we instinctively feel that it affects our moods, yet have trouble documenting a single pronounced effect. My reactions would cancel the quarter of the population that hates rain, and I would confound their joy at relentless sunshine. I am a Summer Hater, which feels like a confession, a countercultural act of treason. Summer is sweaty, forced fun, and if you do happen to feel sad, you are instantly at odds with the rest of the world. On a rainy day, you can feel a little melancholy or cozily content, but God help you if it is a gloriously sunny day and you secretly want to weep.
I often want to weep, when I look at what we have done to the planet. Google “rain’s effect” and instead of musings about soft gray days, you will receive pages and pages about acid rain. Remark on the force of rain’s deluges, and you will be told that in our warming climate, the air can hold more water, releasing it all at once, causing flash floods and giving the corn-rowed Midwest a new understanding of tropical monsoons. Because the ground cannot absorb so much water at once, the rush of stormwater picks up sediment, trash, debris, chemicals, heavy metals, and other toxins along the way, making clean drinking water harder to produce. We are fast going to need more rain barrels, rain gardens, permeable surfaces, and filtration.
And we might as well relax into those pensive rainy-day moods, because they will spell relief from a glaring sun.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.