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An essay by John Burroughs

Is It Going To Rain?

Title:     Is It Going To Rain?
Author: John Burroughs [More Titles by Burroughs]

I suspect that, like most countrymen, I was born with a chronic anxiety about the weather. Is it going to rain or snow, be hot or cold, wet or dry?--are inquiries upon which I would fain get the views of every man I meet, and I find that most men are fired with the same desire to get my views upon the same set of subjects. To a countryman the weather means something,--to a farmer especially. The farmer has sowed and planted and reaped and vended nothing but weather all his life. The weather must lift the mortgage on his farm, and pay his taxes, and feed and clothe his family. Of what use is his labor unless seconded by the weather? Hence there is speculation in his eye whenever he looks at the clouds, or the moon, or the sunset, or the stars; for even the Milky Way, in his view, may point the direction of the wind to-morrow, and hence is closely related to the price of butter. He may not take the sage's advice to "hitch his wagon to a star," but he pins his hopes to the moon, and plants and sows by its phases.

Then the weather is that phase of Nature in which she appears not the immutable fate we are so wont to regard her, but on the contrary something quite human and changeable, not to say womanish,--a creature of moods, of caprices, of cross purposes; gloomy and downcast to-day, and all light and joy to-morrow; caressing and tender one moment, and severe and frigid the next; one day iron, the next day vapor; inconsistent, inconstant, incalculable; full of genius, full of folly, full of extremes; to be read and understood, not by rule, but by subtle signs and indirections,--by a look, a glance, a presence, as we read and understand a man or a woman. Some days are like a rare poetic mood. There is a felicity and an exhilaration about them from morning till night. They are positive and fill one with celestial fire. Other days are negative and drain one of his electricity.

Sometimes the elements show a marked genius for fair weather, as in the fall and early winter of 1877, when October, grown only a little stern, lasted till January. Every shuffle of the cards brought these mild, brilliant days uppermost. There was not enough frost to stop the plow, save once perhaps, till the new year set in. Occasionally a fruit-tree put out a blossom and developed young fruit. The warring of the elements was chiefly done on the other side of the globe, where it formed an accompaniment to the human war raging there. In our usually merciless skies was written only peace and good-will to men, for months.

What a creature of habit, too, Nature is as she appears in the weather! If she miscarry once she will twice and thrice, and a dozen times. In a wet time it rains to-day because it rained yesterday, and will rain to-morrow because it rained to-day. Are the crops in any part of the country drowning? They shall continue to drown. Are they burning up? They shall continue to burn. The elements get in a rut and can't get out without a shock. I know a farmer who, in a dry time, when the clouds gather and look threatening, gets out his watering-pot at once, because, he says, "it won't rain, and 'tis an excellent time to apply the water." Of course, there comes a time when the farmer is wrong, but he is right four times out of five.

But I am not going to abuse the weather; rather to praise it, and make some amends for the many ill-natured things I have said, within hearing of the clouds, when I have been caught in the rain or been parched and withered by the drought.

When Mr. Fields's "Village Dogmatist" was asked what caused the rain, or the fog, he leaned upon his cane and answered, with an air of profound wisdom, that "when the atmosphere and hemisphere come together it causes the earth to sweat, and thereby produces the rain,"--or the fog, as the case may be. The explanation is a little vague, as his biographer suggests, but it is picturesque, and there can be little doubt that two somethings do come in contact that produce a sweating when it rains or is foggy. More than that, the philosophy is simple and comprehensive, which Goethe said was the main matter in such things. Goethe's explanation is still more picturesque, but I doubt if it is a bit better philosophy. "I compare the earth and her atmosphere," he said to Eckermann, "to a great living being perpetually inhaling and exhaling. If she inhale she draws the atmosphere to her, so that, coming near her surface, it is condensed to clouds and rain. This state I call water-affirmative." The opposite state, when the earth exhales and sends the watery vapors upward so that they are dissipated through the whole space of the higher atmosphere, he called "water-negative."

This is good literature, and worthy the great poet; the science of it I would not be so willing to vouch for.

The poets, more perhaps than the scientists, have illustrated and held by the great law of alternation, of ebb and flow, of turn and return, in nature. An equilibrium, or, what is the same thing, a straight line, Nature abhors more than she does a vacuum. If the moisture of the air were uniform, or the heat uniform, that is, _in equilibrio,_ how could it rain? what would turn the scale? But these things are heaped up, are in waves. There is always a preponderance one way or the other; always "a steep inequality." Down this incline the rain comes, and up the other side it goes. The high barometer travels like the crest of a sea, and the low barometer like the trough. When the scale kicks the beam in one place, it is correspondingly depressed in some other. When the east is burning up, the west is generally drowning out. The weather, we say, is always in extremes; it never rains but it pours: but this is only the abuse of a law on the part of the elements which is at the bottom of all the life and motion on the globe.

The rain itself comes in shorter or longer waves,--now fast, now slow--and sometimes in regular throbs or pulse-beats. The fall and winter rains are, as a rule, the most deliberate and general, but the spring and summer rains are always more or less impulsive and capricious. One may see the rain stalking across the hills or coming up the valley in single file, as it were. Another time it moves in vast masses or solid columns, with broad open spaces between. I have seen a spring snowstorm lasting nearly all day that swept down in rapid intermittent sheets or gusts. The waves or pulsations of the storm were nearly vertical and were very marked. But the great fact about the rain is that it is the most beneficent of all the operations of nature; more immediately than sunlight even, it means life and growth. Moisture is the Eve of the physical world, the soft teeming principle given to wife to Adam or heat, and the mother of all that lives. Sunshine abounds everywhere, but only where the rain or dew follows is there life. The earth had the sun long before it had the humid cloud, and will doubtless continue to have it after the last drop of moisture has perished or been dissipated. The moon has sunshine enough, but no rain; hence it is a dead world--a lifeless cinder. It is doubtless true that certain of the planets, as Saturn and Jupiter, have not yet reached the condition of the cooling and ameliorating rains, while in Mars vapor appears to be precipitated only in the form of snow; he is probably past the period of the summer shower. There are clouds and vapors in the sun itself,--clouds of flaming hydrogen and metallic vapors, and a rain every drop of which is a burning or molten meteor. Our earth itself has doubtless passed through the period of the fiery and consuming rains. Mr. Proctor thinks there may have been a time when its showers were downpourings of "muriatic, nitric, and sulphuric acid, not only intensely hot, but fiercely burning through their chemical activity." Think of a dew that would blister and destroy like the oil of vitriol! but that period is far behind us now. When this fearful fever was past and the earth began to "sweat;" when these soft, delicious drops began to come down, or this impalpable rain of the cloudless nights to fall,--the period of organic life was inaugurated. Then there was hope and a promise of the future. The first rain was the turning-point, the spell was broken, relief was at hand. Then the blazing furies of the fore world began to give place to the gentler divinities of later times.

The first water,--how much it means! Seven tenths of man himself is water. Seven tenths of the human race rained down but yesterday! It is much more probable that Alexander will flow out of a bung-hole than that any part of his remains will ever stop one. Our life is indeed a vapor, a breath, a little moisture condensed upon the pane. We carry ourselves as in a phial. Cleave the flesh, and how quickly we spill out! Man begins as a fish, and he swims in a sea of vital fluids as long as his life lasts. His first food is milk; so is his last and all between. He can taste and assimilate and absorb nothing but liquids. The same is true throughout all organic nature. 'Tis water-power that makes every wheel move. Without this great solvent, there is no life. I admire immensely this line of Walt Whitman's:--

"The slumbering and liquid trees."

The tree and its fruit are like a sponge which the rains have filled. Through them and through all living bodies there goes on the commerce of vital growth, tiny vessels, fleets and succession of fleets, laden with material bound for distant shores, to build up, and repair, and restore the waste of the physical frame.

Then the rain means relaxation; the tension in Nature and in all her creatures is lessened. The trees drop their leaves, or let go their ripened fruit. The tree itself will fall in a still, damp day, when but yesterday it withstood a gale of wind. A moist south wind penetrates even the mind and makes its grasp less tenacious. It ought to take less to kill a man on a rainy day than on a clear. The direct support of the sun is withdrawn; life is under a cloud; a masculine mood gives place to something like a feminine. In this sense, rain is the grief, the weeping of Nature, the relief of a burdened or agonized heart. But tears from Nature's eyelids are always remedial and prepare the way for brighter, purer skies.

I think rain is as necessary to the mind as to vegetation. Who does not suffer in his spirit in a drought and feel restless and unsatisfied? My very thoughts become thirsty and crave the moisture. It is hard work to be generous, or neighborly, or patriotic in a dry time, and as for growing in any of the finer graces or virtues, who can do it? One's very manhood shrinks, and, if he is ever capable of a mean act or of narrow views, it is then.

Oh, the terrible drought! When the sky turns to brass; when the clouds are like withered leaves; when the sun sucks the earth's blood like a vampire; when rivers shrink, streams fail, springs perish; when the grass whitens and crackles under your feet; when the turf turns to dust; when the fields are like tinder; when the air is the breath of an oven; when even the merciful dews are withheld, and the morning is no fresher than the evening; when the friendly road is a desert, and the green woods like a sick-chamber; when the sky becomes tarnished and opaque with dust and smoke; when the shingles on the houses curl up, the clapboards warp, the paint blisters, the joints open; when the cattle rove disconsolate and the hive-bee comes home empty; when the earth gapes and all nature looks widowed, and deserted, and heart-broken,--in such a time, what thing that has life does not sympathize and suffer with the general distress?

The drought of the summer and early fall of 1876 was one of those severe stresses of weather that make the oldest inhabitant search his memory for a parallel. For nearly three months there was no rain to wet the ground. Large forest trees withered and cast their leaves. In spots, the mountains looked as if they had been scorched by fire. The salt sea-water came up the Hudson ninety miles, when ordinarily it scarcely comes forty. Toward the last, the capacity of the atmosphere to absorb and dissipate the smoke was exhausted, and innumerable fires in forests and peat-swamps made the days and the weeks--not blue, but a dirty yellowish white. There was not enough moisture in the air to take the sting out of the smoke, and it smarted the nose. The sun was red and dim even at midday, and at his rising and setting he was as harmless to the eye as a crimson shield or a painted moon. The meteorological conditions seemed the farthest possible remove from those that produce rain, or even dew. Every sign was negatived. Some malevolent spirit seemed abroad in the air, that rendered abortive every effort of the gentler divinities to send succor. The clouds would gather back in the mountains, the thunder would growl, the tall masses would rise up and advance threateningly, then suddenly cower, their strength and purpose ooze away; they flattened out; the hot, parched breath of the earth smote them; the dark, heavy masses were re-resolved into thin vapor, and the sky came through where but a few moments before there had appeared to be deep behind deep of water-logged clouds. Sometimes a cloud would pass by, and one could see trailing beneath and behind it a sheet of rain, like something let down that did not quite touch the earth, the hot air vaporizing the drops before they reached the ground.

Two or three times the wind got in the south, and those low, dun-colored clouds that are nothing but harmless fog came hurrying up and covered the sky, and city folk and women folk said the rain was at last near. But the wise ones knew better. The clouds had no backing, the clear sky was just behind them; they were only the nightcap of the south wind, which the sun burnt up before ten o'clock.

Every storm has a foundation that is deeply and surely laid, and those shallow surface-clouds that have no root in the depths of the sky deceive none but the unwary.

At other times, when the clouds were not reabsorbed by the sky and rain seemed imminent, they would suddenly undergo a change that looked like curdling, and when clouds do that no rain need be expected. Time and again I saw their continuity broken up, saw them separate into small masses,--in fact saw a process of disintegration and disorganization going on, and my hope of rain was over for that day. Vast spaces would be affected suddenly; it was like a stroke of paralysis: motion was retarded, the breeze died down, the thunder ceased, and the storm was blighted on the very threshold of success.

I suppose there is some compensation in a drought; Nature doubtless profits by it in some way. It is a good time to thin out her garden, and give the law of the survival of the fittest a chance to come into play. How the big trees and big plants do rob the little ones! there is not drink enough to go around, and the strongest will have what there is. It is a rest to vegetation, too, a kind of torrid winter that is followed by a fresh awakening. Every tree and plant learns a lesson from it, learns to shoot its roots down deep into the perennial supplies of moisture and life.

But when the rain does come, the warm, sun-distilled rain; the far-traveling, vapor-born rain; the impartial, undiscriminating, unstinted rain; equable, bounteous, myriad-eyed, searching out every plant and every spear of grass, finding every hidden thing that needs water, falling upon the just and upon the unjust, sponging off every leaf of every tree in the forest and every growth in the fields; music to the ear, a perfume to the smell, an enchantment to the eye; healing the earth, cleansing the air, renewing the fountains; honey to the bee, manna to the herds, and life to all creatures,--what spectacle so fills the heart? "Rain, rain, O dear Zeus, down on the plowed fields of the Athenians, and on the plains."

There is a fine sibilant chorus audible in the sod, and in the dust of the road, and in the porous plowed fields. Every grain of soil and every root and rootlet purrs in satisfaction, Because something more than water comes down when it rains; you cannot produce this effect by simple water; the good-will of the elements, the consent and approbation of all the skyey influences, come down; the harmony, the adjustment, the perfect understanding of the soil beneath and the air that swims above, are implied in the marvelous benefaction of the rain. The earth is ready; the moist winds have wooed it and prepared it, the electrical conditions are as they should be, and there are love and passion in the surrender of the summer clouds. How the drops are absorbed into the ground! You cannot, I say, succeed like this with your hose or sprinkling-pot. There is no ardor or electricity in the drops, no ammonia, or ozone, or other nameless properties borrowed from the air.

Then one has not the gentleness and patience of Nature; we puddle the ground in our hurry, we seal it up and exclude the air, and the plants are worse off than before. When the sky is overcast and it is getting ready to rain, the moisture rises in the ground, the earth opens her pores and seconds the desire of the clouds.

Indeed, I have found there is but little virtue in a sprinkling-pot after the drought has reached a certain pitch. The soil will not absorb the water. 'Tis like throwing it on a hot stove. I once concentrated my efforts upon a single hill of corn and deluged it with water night and morning for several days, yet its leaves curled up and the ears failed the same as the rest. Something may be done, without doubt, if one begins in time, but the relief seems strangely inadequate to the means often used. In rainless countries good crops are produced by irrigation, but here man can imitate in a measure the patience and bounty of Nature, and, with night to aid him, can make his thirsty fields drink, or rather can pour the water down their throats.

I have said the rain is as necessary to man as to vegetation. You cannot have a rank, sappy race, like the English or the German, without plenty of moisture in the air and in the soil. Good viscera and an abundance of blood are closely related to meteorological conditions, unction of character, and a flow of animal spirits, too; and I suspect that much of the dry and rarefied humor of New England, as well as the thin and sharp physiognomies, are climatic results. We have rain enough, but not equability of temperature or moisture,--no steady, abundant supply of humidity in the air. In places in Great Britain it is said to rain on an average three days out of four the year through; yet the depth of rainfall is no greater than in this country, where it rains but the one day out of four. John Bull shows those three rainy days both in his temper and in his bodily habit; he is better for them in many ways, and perhaps not quite so good in a few others: they make him juicy and vascular, and maybe a little opaque; but we in this country could well afford a few of his negative qualities for the sake of his stomach and full-bloodedness.

We have such faith in the virtue of the rain, and in the capacity of the clouds to harbor and transport material good, that we more than half believe the stories of the strange and anomalous things that have fallen in showers. There is no credible report that it has ever yet rained pitchforks, but many other curious things have fallen. Fish, flesh, and fowl, and substances that were neither, have been picked up by veracious people after a storm. Manna, blood, and honey, frogs, newts, and fish-worms, are among the curious things the clouds are supposed to yield. If the clouds scooped up their water as the flying express train does, these phenomena could be easier explained. I myself have seen curious things. Riding along the road one day on the heels of a violent summer tempest, I saw the ground swarming with minute hopping creatures. I got out and captured my hands full. They proved to be tree-toads, many of them no larger than crickets, and none of them larger than a bumblebee. There seemed to be thousands of them. The mark of the tree-toad was the round, flattened ends of their toes. I took some of them home, but they died the next day. Where did they come from? I imagined the violent wind swept them off the trees in the woods to windward of the road. But this is only a guess; maybe they crept out of the ground, or from under the wall near by, and were out to wet their jackets.

I have never yet heard of a frog coming down chimney in a shower. Some circumstantial evidence may be pretty conclusive, Thoreau says, as when you find a trout in the milk; and if you find a frog or toad behind the fire-board immediately after a shower, you may well ask him to explain himself.

When I was a boy I used to wonder if the clouds were hollow and carried their water as in a cask, because had we not often heard of clouds bursting and producing havoc and ruin beneath them? The hoops gave way, perhaps, or the head was pressed out. Goethe says that when the barometer rises, the clouds are spun off from the top downward like a distaff of flax; but this is more truly the process when it rains. When fair weather is in the ascendant, the clouds are simply reabsorbed by the air; but when it rains, they are spun off into something more compact: 'tis like the threads that issue from the mass of flax or roll of wool, only here there are innumerable threads, and the fingers that hold them never tire. The great spinning-wheel, too, what a humming it makes at times, and how the footsteps of the invisible spinner resound through the cloud-pillared chambers!

The clouds are thus literally spun up into water; and were they not constantly recruited from the atmosphere as the storm-centre travels along,--was new wool not forthcoming from the white sheep and the black sheep that the winds herd at every point,--all rains would be brief and local; the storm would quickly exhaust itself, as we sometimes see a thunder-cloud do in summer. A storm will originate in the far West or Southwest--those hatching-places of all our storms--and travel across the continent, and across the Atlantic to Europe, pouring down incalculable quantities of rain as it progresses and recruiting as it wastes. It is a moving vortex, into which the outlying moisture of the atmosphere is being constantly drawn and precipitated. It is not properly the storm that travels, but the low pressure, the storm impulse, the meteorological magnet that makes the storm wherever its presence may be. The clouds are not watering-carts, that are driven all the way from Arizona or Colorado to Europe, but growths, developments that spring up as the Storm-deity moves his wand across the land. In advance of the storm, you may often see the clouds grow; the condensation of the moisture into vapor is a visible process; slender, spiculae-like clouds expand, deepen, and lengthen; in the rear of the low pressure, the reverse process, or the wasting of the clouds, may be witnessed. In summer, the recruiting of a thunder-storm is often very marked. I have seen the clouds file as straight across the sky toward a growing storm or thunder-head in the horizon as soldiers hastening to the point of attack or defense. They would grow more and more black and threatening as they advanced, and actually seemed to be driven by more urgent winds than certain other clouds. They were, no doubt, more in the line of the storm influence. All our general storms are cyclonic in their character, that is, rotary and progressive. Their type may be seen in every little whirlpool that goes down the swollen current of the river; and in our hemisphere they revolve in the same direction, namely, from right to left, or in opposition to the hands of a watch. When the water finds an outlet through the bottom of a dam, a suction or whirling vortex is developed that generally goes round in the same direction. A morning-glory or a hop-vine or a pole-bean winds around its support in the same course, and cannot be made to wind in any other. I am aware there are some perverse climbers among the plants that persist in going around the pole in the other direction. In the southern hemisphere the cyclone revolves in the other direction, or from left to right. How do they revolve at the equator, then? They do not revolve at all. This is the point of zero, and cyclones are never formed nearer than the third parallel of latitude. Whether hop-vines also refuse to wind about the pole there I am unable to say.

All our cyclones originate in the far Southwest and travel northeast. Why did we wait for the Weather Bureau to tell us this fact? Do not all the filmy, hazy, cirrus and cirro-stratus clouds first appear from the general direction of the sunset? Who ever saw them pushing their opaque filaments over the sky from the east or north? Yet do we not have "northeasters" both winter and summer? True, but the storm does not come from that direction. In such a case we get that segment of the cyclonic whirl. A northeaster in one place may be an easter, a norther, or a souther in some other locality. See through those drifting, drenching clouds that come hurrying out of the northeast, and there are the boss-clouds above them, the great captains themselves, moving serenely on in the opposite direction.

Electricity is, of course, an important agent in storms. It is the great organizer and ring-master. How a clap of thunder will shake down the rain! It gives the clouds a smart rap; it jostles the vapor so that the particles fall together more quickly; it makes the drops let go in double and treble ranks. Nature likes to be helped in that way,--likes to have the water agitated when she is freezing it or heating it, and the clouds smitten when she is compressing them into rain. So does a shock of surprise quicken the pulse in man, and in the crisis of action help him to a decision.

What a spur and impulse the summer shower is! How its coming quickens and hurries up the slow, jogging country life! The traveler along the dusty road arouses from his reverie at the warning rumble behind the hills; the children hasten from the field or from the school; the farmer steps lively and thinks fast. In the hay-field, at the first signal-gun of the elements, what a commotion! How the horserake rattles, how the pitchforks fly, how the white sleeves play and twinkle in the sun or against the dark background of the coming storm! One man does the work of two or three. It is a race with the elements, and the hay-makers do not like to be beaten. The rain that is life to the grass when growing is poison to it after it becomes cured hay, and it must be got under shelter, or put up into snug cocks, if possible, before the storm overtakes it.

The rains of winter are cold and odorless. One prefers the snow, which warms and covers; but can there be anything more delicious than the first warm April rain,--the first offering of the softened and pacified clouds of spring? The weather has been dry, perhaps, for two or three weeks; we have had a touch of the dreaded drought thus early; the roads are dusty, the streams again shrunken, and forest fires send up columns of smoke on every hand; the frost has all been out of the ground many days; the snow has all disappeared from the mountains; the sun is warm, but the grass does not grow, nor the early seeds come up. The quickening spirit of the rain is needed. Presently the wind gets in the southwest, and, late in the day, we have our first vernal shower, gentle and leisurely, but every drop condensed from warm tropic vapors and charged with the very essence of spring. Then what a perfume fills the air! One's nostrils are not half large enough to take it in. The smoke, washed by the rain, becomes the breath of woods, and the soil and the newly plowed fields give out an odor that dilates the sense. How the buds of the trees swell, how the grass greens, how the birds rejoice! Hear the robins laugh! This will bring out the worms and the insects, and start the foliage of the trees. A summer shower has more copiousness and power, but this has the charm of freshness and of all first things.

The laws of storms, up to a certain point, have come to be pretty well understood, but there is yet no science of the weather, any more than there is of human nature. There is about as much room for speculation in the one case as in the other. The causes and agencies are subtle and obscure, and we shall, perhaps, have the metaphysics of the subject before we have the physics.

But as there are persons who can read human nature pretty well, so there are those who can read the weather.

It is a masculine subject, and quite beyond the province of woman. Ask those who spend their time in the open air,--the farmer, the sailor, the soldier, the walker; ask the birds, the beasts, the tree-toads: they know, if they will only tell. The farmer diagnoses the weather daily, as the doctor a patient: he feels the pulse of the wind; he knows when the clouds have a scurfy tongue, or when the cuticle of the day is feverish and dry, or soft and moist. Certain days he calls "weather-breeders," and they are usually the fairest days in the calendar,--all sun and sky. They are too fair; they are suspiciously so. They come in the fall and spring, and always mean mischief. When a day of almost unnatural brightness and clearness in either of these seasons follows immediately after a storm, it is a sure indication that another storm follows close,--follows to-morrow. In keeping with this fact is the rule of the barometer, that, if the mercury suddenly rises very high, the fair weather will not last. It is a high peak that indicates a corresponding depression close at hand. I observed one of these angelic mischief-makers during the past October. The second day after a heavy fall of rain was the fairest of the fair,--not a speck or film in all the round of the sky. Where have all the clouds and vapors gone to so suddenly? was my mute inquiry, but I suspected they were plotting together somewhere behind the horizon. The sky was a deep ultramarine blue; the air so transparent that distant objects seemed near, and the afternoon shadows were sharp and clear. At night the stars were unusually numerous and bright (a sure sign of an approaching storm). The sky was laid bare, as the tidal wave empties the shore of its water before it heaps it up upon it. A violent storm of wind and rain the next day followed this delusive brightness. So the weather, like human nature, may be suspiciously transparent. A saintly day may undo you. A few clouds do not mean rain; but when there are absolutely none, when even the haze and filmy vapors are suppressed or held back, then beware.

Then the weather-wise know there are two kinds of clouds, rain-clouds and wind-clouds, and that the latter are always the most portentous. In summer they are black as night; they look as if they would blot out the very earth. They raise a great dust, and set things flying and slamming for a moment, and that is all. They are the veritable wind-bags of AEolus. There is something in the look of rain-clouds that is unmistakable,--a firm, gray, tightly woven look that makes you remember your umbrella. Not too high nor too low, not black nor blue, but the form and hue of wet, unbleached linen. You see the river water in them; they are heavy-laden, and move slow. Sometimes they develop what are called "mares' tails,"--small cloud-forms here and there against a heavy background, that look like the stroke of a brush, or the streaming tail of a charger. Sometimes a few under-clouds will be combed and groomed by the winds or other meteoric agencies at work, as if for a race. I have seen coming storms develop well-defined vertebrae,--a long backbone of cloud, with the articulations and processes clearly marked. Any of these forms, changing, growing, denote rain, because they show unusual agencies at work. The storm is brewing and fermenting. "See those cowlicks," said an old farmer, pointing to certain patches on the clouds; "they mean rain." Another time, he said the clouds were "making bag," had growing udders, and that it would rain before night, as it did. This reminded me that the Orientals speak of the clouds as cows which the winds herd and milk.

In the winter, we see the sun wading in snow. The morning has perhaps been clear, but in the afternoon a bank of gray filmy or cirrus cloud meets him in the west, and he sinks deeper and deeper into it, till, at his going down, his muffled beams are entirely hidden. Then, on the morrow, _not_

"Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,"

but silent as night, the white legions are here.

The old signs seldom fail,--a red and angry sunrise, or flushed clouds at evening. Many a hope of rain have I seen dashed by a painted sky at sunset. There is truth in the old couplet, too:--

"If it rains before seven,
It will clear before eleven."

An old Indian had a sign for winter: "If the wind blows the snow off the trees, the next storm will be snow; if it rains off, the next storm will be rain."

Morning rains are usually short-lived. Better wait till ten o'clock.

When the clouds are chilled, they turn blue and rise up.

When the fog leaves the mountains, reaching upward, as if afraid of being left behind, the fair weather is near.

Shoddy clouds are of little account, and soon fall to pieces. Have your clouds show a good strong fibre, and have them lined,--not with silver, but with other clouds of a finer texture,--and have them wadded. It wants two or three thicknesses to get up a good rain. Especially, unless you have that cloud-mother, that dim, filmy, nebulous mass that has its root in the higher regions of the air, and is the source and backing of all storms, your rain will be light indeed.

I fear my reader's jacket is not thoroughly soaked yet. I must give him a final dash, a "clear-up" shower.

We were encamping in the primitive woods, by a little trout lake which the mountain carried high on his hip, like a soldier's canteen. There were wives in the party, curious to know what the lure was that annually drew their husbands to the woods. That magical writing on a trout's back they would fain decipher, little heeding the warning that what is written here is not given to woman to know.

Our only tent or roof was the sheltering arms of the great birches and maples. What was sauce for the gander should be sauce for the goose, too, so the goose insisted. A luxurious couch of boughs upon springing poles was prepared, and the night should be not less welcome than the day, which had indeed been idyllic. (A trout dinner had been served by a little spring brook, upon an improvised table covered with moss and decked with ferns, with strawberries from a near clearing.)

At twilight there was an ominous rumble behind the mountains. I was on the lake, and could see what was brewing there in the west.

As darkness came on, the rumbling increased, and the mountains and the woods and the still air were such good conductors of sound that the ear was vividly impressed. One seemed to feel the enormous convolutions of the clouds in the deep and jarring tones of the thunder. The coming of night in the woods is alone peculiarly impressive, and it is doubly so when out of the darkness comes such a voice as this. But we fed the fire the more industriously, and piled the logs high, and kept the gathering gloom at bay by as large a circle of light as we could command. The lake was a pool of ink and as still as if congealed; not a movement or a sound, save now and then a terrific volley from the cloud batteries now fast approaching. By nine o'clock little puffs of wind began to steal through the woods and tease and toy with our fire. Shortly after, an enormous electric bombshell exploded in the treetops over our heads, and the ball was fairly opened. Then followed three hours, with only two brief intermissions, of as lively elemental music and as copious an outpouring of rain as it was ever my lot to witness. It was a regular meteorological carnival, and the revelers were drunk with the wild sport. The apparent nearness of the clouds and the electric explosions was something remarkable. Every discharge seemed to be in the branches immediately overhead and made us involuntarily cower, as if the next moment the great limbs of the trees, or the trees themselves, would come crashing down. The mountain upon which we were encamped appeared to be the focus of three distinct but converging storms. The last two seemed to come into collision immediately over our camp-fire, and to contend for the right of way, until the heavens were ready to fall and both antagonists were literally spent. We stood in groups about the struggling fire, and when the cannonade became too terrible would withdraw into the cover of the darkness, as if to be a less conspicuous mark for the bolts; or did we fear that the fire, with its currents, might attract the lightning? At any rate, some other spot than the one where we happened to be standing seemed desirable when those onsets of the contending elements were the most furious. Something that one could not catch in his hat was liable to drop almost anywhere any minute. The alarm and consternation of the wives communicated itself to the husbands, and they looked solemn and concerned. The air was filled with falling water. The sound upon the myriad leaves and branches was like the roar of a cataract. We put our backs up against the great trees, only to catch a brook on our shoulders or in the backs of our necks. Still the storm waxed. The fire was beaten down lower and lower. It surrendered one post after another, like a besieged city, and finally made only a feeble resistance from beneath a pile of charred logs and branches in the centre. Our garments yielded to the encroachments of the rain in about the same manner. I believe my necktie held out the longest, and carried a few dry threads safely through. Our cunningly devised and bedecked table, which the housekeepers had so doted on and which was ready spread for breakfast, was washed as by the hose of a fire-engine,--only the bare poles remained,--and the couch of springing boughs, that was to make Sleep jealous and o'er-fond, became a bed fit only for amphibians. Still the loosened floods came down; still the great cloud-mortars bellowed and exploded their missiles in the treetops above us. But all nervousness finally passed away, and we became dogged and resigned. Our minds became water-soaked; our thoughts were heavy and bedraggled. We were past the point of joking at one another's expense. The witticisms failed to kindle,--indeed, failed to go, like the matches in our pockets. About midnight the rain slackened, and by one o'clock ceased entirely. How the rest of the night was passed beneath the dripping trees and upon the saturated ground, I have only the dimmest remembrance. All is watery and opaque; the fog settles down and obscures the scene. But I suspect I tried the "wet pack" without being a convert to hydropathy. When the morning dawned, the wives begged to be taken home, convinced that the charms of camping-out were greatly overrated. We, who had tasted this cup before, knew they had read at least a part of the legend of the wary trout without knowing it.

[The end]
John Burroughs's essay: Is It Going To Rain?