Since the “dark satanic mills” William Blake observed in 1808, writers have warned about the environmental consequences of industrialization. A lot of good those warnings did: Today a fast-warming world is upon us, and even if we ended global carbon pollution tomorrow, sea levels would still rise. What becomes of environmental literature, then, when writers must accept that apocalypse is already here?
Rain Comin’ Down is one answer. It’s the latest book by Robert William Sandford, the prolific author from Canmore who is also the EPCOR Chair for Water and Climate Security at the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health. Sandford has done his fair share of warning, with books such as Our Vanishing Glaciers and Storm Warning. But here he uses water to tell even deeper stories, pledging to help us “fully appreciate the beauty of the Earth System and understand how water and climate are interconnected.”
The book begins in Sydney, Australia, where Sandford watches comets and meditates on water’s role in the origins of the universe. Most chapters are named after rivers, which transport us from Alberta to the Tanzanian savannah, exploring our relationship to water, discussing glacier protection laws, international policy, biodiversity and more. Soon we’re in Gaziantep, Turkey. It’s a beautiful journey, as promised.
But Sandford also contemplates environmental catastrophe, overcome with despair: “I am finally finding words for what I have seen and what I need to learn, not just about water but about life. But what I am finding is that there is something increasingly missing: a reason to carry on.” Like the titular Creedence Clearwater Revival song, it’s a clue that Rain Comin’ Down isn’t really about the rain. It’s about the fall.
While admiring the Euphrates, Sandford wonders if what brought down the world’s first agrarian culture will bring ours down too. Chapter 7, “Rivers of Mercy,” grapples with extinction, and the final two chapters are about fire. In these darker moments are some of the most stirring passages. In one, he writes, “We float for eons as possibility only, then rise briefly, sleepwalking on the tightrope of time’s arrow through sunlight space till our consciousness contracts inward toward a black hole through which we are absorbed in death.”
Alternating between beauty and destruction, Rain Comin’ Down is an inspired book. “If we follow what is happening to our water, it will reaffirm the miracle that is the world,” he declares at one point. And that’s exactly what he does; the book enacts the miracle it describes. Maybe this is environmental literature in the Anthropocene—fewer warnings, more miracles.
—Robbie Jeffrey is a freelance writer in Edmonton.