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Naming the rain: mizzle, drizzle, drencher & more

Photo by Andrea Bello Rain clouds are pictured rolling in.

The American culture, for better or worse, in whatever form, is young. As I write articles, I am often left searching for a word that doesn’t exist in our lexicon. Usually it is a complex thing or feeling that requires it, and occasionally I stumble across them. Perhaps you have, as well. One of the first ones I remember is petrichor, which is the smell that the air has just before or after it starts to rain. Everyone knows that smell, and I’m glad that I discovered a word for it. The word for the sound that the leaves make as the wind moves them is psithurism. Fernweh is the feeling of longing for a place you’ve never known, while hiraeth (a Welsh word) is the longing for a place or time that no longer exists or never did.

These are complicated things, and it takes time to care about complicated things enough to give them a name. Children are taught the simple words first, before they learn the synonyms, and long before they learn the subtleties. I wonder if America is too young to name the complexities, the difficult things, the feelings that fall outside the known. We are, after all, only a few hundred years old, which is certainly just a teenager, if not a child, in the history of human culture. I was thinking about this the other day as I drove for a couple hours through the rain.

Because while it was all rain, it wasn’t the same kind of rain. Sometime it was a furious onslaught that obliterated views, while other times it was just barely rain at all, seemingly suspended as if water and air were one, heavier than mist, but not quite falling rain. At times I could see on the horizon where it danced in curtains, swirling and descending, rising up to come drifting down.

And we all know that there is calm rain, when it comes straight down in a steady form; angry rain that tears at leaves and roofs and rattles windows; sad rain that has a weight to it far greater than the water it carries. There is rain that comes off the lake (lake-effect rain, very descriptive), rain that comes from the south, rain that smells like salt, or smoke, or summer. Yet we have no words for that. It is all just ‘rain,’ with some adjectives or other description tacked on.

Robert Macfarlane is a favorite author of mine, his writing is alive with language that fills the voids in the stories I want to tell, the feelings that I want to share. He is British, and this is why I think age of the culture has an impact on the language of the culture. Older cultures seem to have richer, more complex vocabulary. I just read a fabulous piece he wrote about the British holloways, which are ancient paths, most no longer travelled, but once were so often travelled that they might lie 15 feet below the surface grade from the erosion of thousands of feet, hooves, and wagon wheels. They are miniature valleys, and havens for wildlife and imagination. He also wrote a book called Landmarks, and in that book I was introduced to the idea that those who live in England and its surrounds have more than 100 words for rain.

One that we use at home now – the roary bummlers – are the fast-moving, ever-changing storm clouds. They may pass by without dropping their burden, or they may not. We watch them approach on the hill, over the valley, and there is something so much more satisfying, and accurate, in saying ‘the roary bummlers are on the horizon’ than saying ‘a storm is coming.’

And mizzle, drizzle, drencher, and harle are so much more accurate than rain. A misty, light rain versus a light rain without the mist; a hard, heavy, steady, but short-lived rain; a rain driving in from the sea — that’s what you can say in a word. This is just rain, think about all else we need to express, could express, if we let ourselves see and feel the complexity of the world. I wonder if, in order to gain such a catalog of authentic words, we must slow down, and give ourselves permission to experience things.

After all, if we don’t go out in the rain, how will we know that some rain comes down so hard it feels like a solid object hitting your skin, not a liquid? (It’s raining chair legs.) How do you know that some rain seems to bounce when it hits the ground if you never take the time to watch it? (It’s stottin’.) And if you don’t try to go out and get your work done in the rain, how would you ever know that there is rain so hard it makes working difficult? (It’s letty.)

Is there a word for the trance you enter when you sit at the window and watch the rain hit the glass until there seems to be an otherworldly space that exists in your mind? Perhaps it is the portal to a secretive part of your brain or soul – older, farther away, instinctive. Or it is the power of water and weather and patterns of wind that we used to understand and long to listen to? What is it called when the weight of the water falling from the sky seems to drown you, even as you’re inside the shelter of your home? Rain that shifts between fluid and frozen must have a special name, one that embodies its essence of neither this nor that.

There’s been a bit of rain lately, and there’s more coming, I’m sure. I bet there are 100 words for snow, too. I will watch as the October squalls roll in, waffling between crystal and liquid form, and try to name the rain. The rain that lifts the leaves to the sky and scatters them helter skelter. The rain that comes in strong or cold and knocks the apples to the ground. The rains that bolster the migrating birds on their journeys, and the rains that stop them as surely as a wall. There are the rains that warn of what’s to come, and rains that tuck those starting to slumber into a deep and peaceful rest. And then as the snow starts to fly, I’ll let myself feel it, try to understand it, and perhaps if I have enough time and insight, name it.

Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk and birds of prey can be viewed anytime the trails are open. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.

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