This is a deconstruction of an essay piece that affected me deeply, picked from 2018’s edition of Great American Essay. “Rain Like Cotton” is a piece by Jennifer Kabat, an accomplished writer and awardee of the Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant.
Jennifer Kabat’s exploration of time and space in Rain Like Cotton lays Mankind’s vanities bare. Through the comings and goings of ice, water, sand and man, Kabat shows us how the march of time strips everything away, leaving behind only what it wants.
Reading this story is like following a grain of sand through the annals of time. Like sand, this story slips away from a reader’s mental grasp. However, something magical happens once we let go: The story takes us on an odyssey, with all of us just barely hanging on.
Kabat uses an immense scale of time to tell the stories that have transpired on one piece of land, demonstrating the temporal nature of everything. Her vivid descriptors make readers feel the ice that “licks down in lobes” and how the earth’s mantle “bows and breaks”, emphasizing the harshness of change. Kabat’s also drives home the desolation of a barren wasteland, giving it the aptly human subtext of “nothing of value, no crops”, calling it “a dump, a trailer park, sold off in schemes and scams”. She makes it feel like nothing good ever came out of this place, and nothing good ever will.
There is a gnawing, black hole of emptiness when Kabat shows us how man’s progress is thwarted time and again on this piece of land. It is almost a microcosm of mankind’s combined time on earth. Like how empires have risen and fallen, the Natives, the Shakers, Karner – they all came and left. Even Christ Incarnate would not survive change on this land. The “barren” nature of this piece of land does not relate solely to its physical features. Instead, it is an all-encompassing metaphor for the place. When Kabat points out the Shaker signs on the road, the land felt deeply devoid of life. The use of these relics, signs of the “fragmentation” of a culture or era in time, deepen the sense of echoing emptiness. Her coup de grâce of desolation is the way she describes seemingly innocuous trash. Trash does not simply move in the wind here. Trash billows. That’s how full of nothing this place is.
Kabat constantly leans into the idea of the next change. At both the beginning and the end, she mentions climate change, a purposeful bookending of her windswept tundra of an essay. At the beginning, it changed the very complexion of the land she spoke of. At the end, it seems to be changing the very lives that we lead. The line “The flood 13,000 years ago looks like prologue or prophecy”, clearly foreshadows a cataclysmic form of change that as unstoppable as the progress of time itself.
As she leaves us with a fatalistic inkling of the change that is yet to come, Kabat bides us to treasure our fleeting, miniscule existence, calling on us to “touch the sand, drive the road, go to the mall”, before time’s inexorable march leaves us all behind.