Wandering through a downpour of rain-related art

Image courtesy of Caspar David Friedrich via Wikimedia Commons.

It has been raining a lot as of late, a sign of the changing seasons as warmth leaves us until May (except for the odd warm day that seems to pounce on us all every once in a while). With the onset of chilly wind and the frequent rain of all shapes, sizes and ferocities, I have found it nearly impossible to write about anything else but the rain and its general posey of associations. Rain is a subject both easy to write about and difficult to fully capture; its brush upon our lives is, at times light and at others, torrential. Rain has that sublime power similar to that which is gazed upon by a 19th century man gazing into the vast sea (“Monk by the Sea,” Casper David Friedrich), but it can also fade into the background of the scene, inviting itself into our moods and subconsciouses (“Blade Runner”).  

There is at least one obvious explanation to why I leap to write about the rain: It completely dominates the scenes of our lives; on rainy days we either exist under it or we are hiding from it. From the basement of the Art Library I peer out the ground-level window and watch raindrops pool together; I gather my thoughts and write about the only thing that could possibly be worthy of writing about in that moment: the rain. Even when hiding from it I yearn for a feeling of it; I draw phrases of W.S. Merwin’s “Rain Light;” I solemnly stride to the Deece with misty shoegaze in my AirPods; I crack open a friend’s window to smoke and catch raindrops in my palm. 

Perhaps this awe of the rain is instinctual; rain after all, is the bringer of life as much as the sun is. Humans, and all living things, really, need rain to survive—the fact that some of the earliest recorded deities in human history are rain deities demonstrates that the importance of rain is perhaps intuitive. Human nature, so to speak. But I’m no biological anthropologist, and I’m far more intrigued by the downpour of rain-related media since it feels far closer to my own life (I’m not growing food for my own survival). 

Bob Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm” is a great piece of rain media, an exemplary “rain song.” It plays on this escape from a muddied world, one where “nothing really matters much/ It’s doom alone that counts.” Rain takes on the wet stains of the world, it’s “old men with broken teeth/ Stranded without love,” it’s a relentless release of coldness, something to run from. But when Dylan, and the rest of us, run from the storm to find shelter, we often find warmth we weren’t expecting. The unnamed female character in the song calls to Dylan; she promises shelter from the storm that ravages the outside world. This becomes literally an under shelter/in the storm distinction, but it also mirrors the tumultuous feelings that may exist within Dylan and the storm of emotions that explode outwards. Like any celebrity subjected to endless press and criticism, Dylan was notoriously stormy to critics and the press. Only by retreating into the shelter of another person, perhaps a lover, is Dylan able to remove his protective raincoat and “open up.”  “She walked up to me so gracefully/ And took my crown of thorns,” Dylan writes. While a storm is brewing outside, shelter, which we are lucky enough to be under, gains new importance and so do the people whom we share it with. There is something heartwarming about spending time with loved ones during a storm–we realize we are lucky to be where we are; not out there under endless skyfall. 

Portlanders know the rain like a best friend, one that perhaps overstays its welcome but is loved nonetheless. I personally know many Portlanders who are in tune with the rain, one of which informed me that Mark Rothko is also native to Portland. She pointed me to Rothko’s “Blue Green and Brown,” a painting that seems to be drawn from rainy weather. The work mirrors a landscape painting, one where the land is dampened, made of pure form and utterly immersed in the storm. The deep blue forms in the painting mirror misty clouds, and we become immersed in the swirl of mist and rain in a fashion akin to the most devoted Rothko fans who claim that upon viewing his works, they feel spiritual sensations arise. While I can’t claim Rothko made the piece about rain, I can say that with rain on my mind I see the same storm in “Blue Green and Brown” as I do out my window. 

Rainy days also make us strangers to those whom we may pass in full visibility on dry days; that is to say that in my experience, strangers we see at a distance become ever more estranged from us when we only see them under deep raincoats with their heads hanging low. On rainy days people tend to scurry from place to place; time may slow down for the person sitting by the window, unaware of the hour, but it gains a certain urgency to anyone out there in the downpour. We zoom by each other, our rain gear like tinted car windows. Bon Iver feels like a proper rain artist, one that strikes the chord of rain-induced loneliness, particularly “Flume” from “For Emma, Long Ago.” The somber tone, the deep dive into old memories and the lonesome nature of one man and his guitar point to obvious associations with rainy days, but more impressively, the song itself begins to sound like rainfall. Very few songs lean on ambiance as much as “Flume” does: quivering guitar strings, the continuing drumming (strumming) of three cords—it has an eerily interiorized sound. 

Adjacent to the feeling of estrangement is the feeling of solemn calm which tends to drizzle into the psyche of people living under the rain. It is as if the rain has numbed all that was twitchy, drummed so loud that it becomes hard to hear one’s own thoughts. Many people need rain sounds to fall asleep; it drowns out those thoughts that keep you up at night. This is because rain sounds produce something that lulls brain activity called pink noise, which honestly sounds pretty much like white noise (though there is some scientific categorization of difference). 

I realize my drizzle of thoughts has left out many iterations of rain. Missing is rumination on the thunderclap release of energy that rain can also bring. You haven’t lived if you’ve never felt the allure of a rain adventure, the affirmation that what you are adventuring for is so worth it that you’d trek in the rain to get there. There is also the frightening power of rain, the catastrophic effects that both a lack of rain or an excess of it can have, especially for people living in places with underdeveloped infrastructure. With the rapid arrival of severe climate change, shifts in weather patterns will continue to haunt the human psyche in the near future. 

To attempt to come to any end of this storm (essay) would be difficult. Rain deeply affects our psyche and echoes across countless pieces of media. At times, it acts as a mirror to our interior feelings, an expression of our feelings in the world. It also plays upon our own mental states, invoking feelings of loneliness, comfort, adventure and more. And rain can change character as rapidly as any person can: One moment we may find elusive mist hovering on indecision, and minutes later thunder could leap forth with an outburst of angry hail. It’s elusiveness; it’s sublime power and intimate reckoning; it’s coming and going; the rain is an accompaniment to the entire range of human emotion. From the time storm clouds gather, to when the clouds finally part for the sun, all I can write about is the rain. 


Image courtesy of Rowland Scherman via Wikimedia Commons.

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