What is Rain?

Bario Rain A

A woman gazes through a window at the Bario Asal Longhouse as rain pummels the area.

I started this post a few days ago, before this and this and this. Before nature smacked Colorado with a torrent of “biblical” proportions, a storm of the century, possibly the millennium. Here in New Mexico, too, we are seeing unprecedented rains, bulging rivers, and reservoirs filling fast (this, however, does not necessarily mean an end to our multi-year drought). Parts of Colorado had 12 inches or more of rain in 24 hours – half or more the area’s average annual rainfall in just one day.

Since our trip to Borneo, I’ve been thinking a lot about the definition of rain. Or, rather, our perception of it—how our ideas of rain depend on place; how context determines the language we use to describe precipitation. And how that precipitation, of course, defines what we eat and grow, how we spend our time outdoors. How we see our corner of the world.

We traveled through the Borneo highlands in the dry season, a season of no “rain.” Yet, locals told us, droplets of water typically fall from the sky an hour or so each day. Every day, this dry time of year. We drove 15 hours through the mountains on a slick logging road that turns to a river of muck when precipitation falls. But that wasn’t rain, our driver told us. All the while his truck—with three bald tires and 4-wheel drive he preferred not to use because he didn’t like the sound of it (!)—slipped and skidded sideways down the road, he said, that wasn’t rain. That wasn’t rain hitting the windshield and obscuring his view. When it rains, he said, the road turns dangerous. When it rains, he said, the logging trucks stop in their tracks and wait out the hours before it’s safe to move.

I started this post on Sunday night. We’d spent the afternoon cycling along the Rio Grande, a beautiful late-summer day with a crisp sky and still air. We crossed a bridge, then turned to gaze east toward the Sandias. There were pockets of rain in the distance, isolated sheets of gray, and a small rainbow arcing over the mountains. A beautiful sight.

When we returned home, I went to the garden, stooping to pull up tangles of bindweed and the long, seedy arms of arugula gone wild. I felt a splatter on my back—cold, welcome. The drops kept coming, plopping on broad eggplant leaves until finally there we so many, the ground began to puddle.

I kept working, drenched, harvesting the day’s yield—itself a rainbow of colors. I filled a giant tray, the sort used in Southeast Asia for winnowing rice. The rain continued to fall, but the sky grew luminous with a yellow slant of day’s-end light. Pearls of water collected on the vegetable skins.

Wet Veggies II

And I thought about rain, its shifting definitions from place to place. The skies indeed opened most every day we trekked through the Kelabit Highlands. But life went on unobstructed. Real rain, when it comes, will turn the trails impassable. The Kelabit world will flood. There will be rain and more rain and more rain for days on end—not the showers we saw, interspersed with long hours of drying sun.

Here in New Mexico, we get roughly 8.5-9.5 inches of rain in a year. In Borneo, the hilly slopes of the inland highlands get significantly more: in excess of 5,000 mm. That’s 196.85 inches.

All that rain feeds life. It fosters an incredible biodiversity in the Highlands we saw—the intact primary Borneo forest contains some 1,200 species of trees, 220 species of birds and, in just one village area we traveled called Pa Dalih, a documented 650 species of plants collected for food, medicine and materials.

One afternoon, we were caught in a non-rainy season rain in the Bario Asal Longhouse with its metal roof. I tried to interview some of the elders, but no human voice effectively could be heard amid that din. For more than an hour, water gushed and ears rang from the incessant noise. No one spoke. We just nibbled on taro cookies, drank sweet tea, and waited.

Bario Rain B

Rain falling off the roof of Bario Asal Longhouse.

Rain. Here at home, we are intimately in tune with its presence or absence. Like the Kelabits, we monitor our land and sky. Extreme environments, wet or dry, demand notice. In this house, we are a bit obsessive, checking daily forecasts and regular reports on the river’s ups and downs. When it disappears entirely, when the Rio Grande runs dry, a dismal fog veils our mood, if ever so slightly. But when it rains, we celebrate. Precipitation means hope.

I remember June, when there was no rain in this yard. That month, we’d watch clouds converge; they blossomed and grew, dense and dark. But then the winds would start, whipping in from the west. The sky went taupe in a sickly hue that meant neither rain nor reprieve. Instead, the earth became sky and air became grit. Fifty miles an hour, that noxious mess of sand and wind whipped across our yard and into our home. We rushed to shut the windows, but still it blew in. I felt it in my teeth and tasted its earthy, chalky flavor on my tongue.

There is no comfort in such extremes. This week, especially, as nature cascades through so many lives, it is hard to fathom, harder yet to accept. Still, as a lover of the outdoors, a gardener with too many weeds, a hiker with the remnants of leech bites on her heels and scrapes across her shins—there is something so potent in all that rain (or lack of it), so alarming in its enormity. Despite everything, we, as people, are tiny in its face.

What is rain to me? It is a power I will never control.

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