Night had fallen at six o’clock, as it does on every night of the year, and the stillness of the air had been broken with a roll of thunder. Standing at the door of the house, the flashes of lightning made a captivating show. The rain came with force, it hammered on the metal roof of the house. Off the concrete surface of the footpath, the rain bounced high in the air. In seconds, the rain drenched anyone caught without shelter. Rivulets quickly formed and merged into a stream flowing beside the road.
“Is it good to see rain?” I asked.
My African friend stood looking out at the deluge. “It is good to see rain, but this is not good rain. This rain will wash away the top soil. This rain will cause flood. Irish rain is good rain – it is soft and it falls slowly; it soaks into the ground. We could do with some Irish rain.”
It was late autumn back in Ireland. It was dark and cold and wet. After the worst summer in years, cattle had been brought early in from the fields, some farmers had started using winter forage in September, by the next spring there would be shortages of hay and silage and fodder prices would soar. At such a time, it was difficult to imagine many farmers would be pleased with more Irish rain, yet two weeks of dry weather in the spring and there would quickly be wishes for a few soft days.
Heavy rain, soft rain, flooding rain, penetrating rain, relationships with commonplace precipitation ebb and flow.
Problems can be due to the random variability of the elements and to human activity. The erosion of African topsoil by torrential rain has been accelerated by the deforestation of many rural areas, but the rainfall patterns have been interrupted by rising global temperatures. Worse than the deluge we had stood and watched that African evening have been the rainy seasons, that were awaited by farmers, when the rains did not come.
Flooding of farmlands has been exacerbated by measures to protect urban areas. Flood alleviation measures move water somewhere else, generally onto farmland. In England in 2014, the flooding of the Somerset Levels in 2014 was not an accident, but was a consequence of a deliberate government decision in 2008 to allow the areas to flood.
Soft rain is the answer, gentle falls in the right place at the right time. “A grand soft day,” an Irish friend once commented, “means the rain is coming down in stair rods.” Stair rods don’t bounce as high as African rain.