Smelling the Petrichor


 

That afternoon, I watched the clouds start to move in, like soldiers in a parade.  First the thin wisps, string like, faint white against the summer blue sky that was the hallmark of our warm and dry summer.

The grass crunched under my shoes as I made my way out to my favorite chair in the front yard, the place of lemonade sipping, book reading, and enjoying the bees, birds and summer afternoons.  Even where we had watered, the leaves of shrubs and flowers looked thirsty, wilting and brittle.

I tried reading my book, but I was soon lost in watching the weather change, thin white streaks, then horsetail clouds, looking more like breaking surf at the beach.  Popcorn clouds came next, all in a checkerboard, neatly separated by the blue border of sky.

Something deep inside of me, something primeval, told me to focus, and pay attention to this change, this moment in time.

White gave way to shades of gray, as the checkerboard thickened, and turned into ropey strands, making a basket weave pattern across the western sky.  The bright summer sun dimmed, turning to silver, and then a platinum blue, behind the new curtain of clouds.

The wind stilled, then freshened, and changed direction, as the afternoon parade marched by.  Faint odors of cut hay, newly harrowed dirt, and summer dried forest spiced up the air.  Even a bit of salt from the ocean ten miles away caught my nose, reminding me the weather was changing, and rain was on its way.

The wind shifted again, and more open blue sky appeared above me, and then more of the checkerboard and then the ripples of an ever thickening cloud cover.

My chair was a good place to practice my guitar, serenading the hummingbirds and late summer robins and sparrows, and sometimes the neighbor’s dog, who comes by often to visit, and bark when I play Johnny Cash. Today, though, the guitar strings were fussy, needing to be retuned again and again, as the air pressure changed, making all my notes go flat. My wooden barometer was falling, and I had to readjust.

After dinner, I returned to my chair, to enjoy my book again in the falling light of the evening, and to savor perhaps what was the last dry evening of summer. I wanted the rain, yet I didn’t want to let the summer slip out of my hands.

When it was finally too dark to read, I abandoned my post as the weather watcher of the yard, disappointed that I hadn’t felt that first drop of rain on my arm and my face, alive, almost electric.  The clouds had thickened, gray turning to black.

Just before bed, I checked again.  Still no rain.  The yard was silent in anticipation.

I awoke at two, stirred by a sound, something new. I felt called, a muted voice telling me to check it out.  Something had changed. It was time to pay attention.

As I opened the door, my nose came alive with the smell I’d been yearning for.  Alive, yet with some musk, something smelling dry but damp, both stale and fresh.

Petrichor.  The name of that smell.

“…the term was coined in 1964 by two Australian scientists studying the smells of wet weather — is derived from a pair of chemical reactions.

“Some plants secrete oils during dry periods, and when it rains, these oils are released into the air. The second reaction that creates petrichor occurs when chemicals produced by soil-dwelling bacteria… are released. These aromatic compounds combine to create the pleasant petrichor scent when rain hits the ground.” (livescience.com, 2013)

 

The word petrichor is created from joining the Greek words for stone and the blood of the gods. It is a word that is conflicted, just like what it tries to describe.  Inert, yet alive. Solid, yet flowing.

 

Deep in the lower reaches of my brain, the place where my ancestors’ voices can be heard, where I think ancient memories reside, there arose a sense of familiarity and comfort. Petrichor.  My ancestors knew it well.

And it was raining and I was satisfied, relieved. The deck and the leaves of the roses were wet and shiny, even in the dim light of the night. Fresh and new, coming alive.

The arrival of the rains mark the new year for me. September is a time of great change. The cool, wet weather, the start of school, the approach of the fall Equinox, harvest time, historically the beginnings of war.

Now is the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashana.  It literally means the head of the year. This is the beginning of the agricultural year in the Mideast.  The tradition has been traced to the earliest times in Egypt.

The garden is alive again, leaves are full of moisture, the grapes are fattening and ripening in new found wetness. I’m coming alive, too. My creative juices are flowing, and I’m creating new art. The late summer doldrums are giving way to new energies and ideas.

It is time to grasp the possibilities of the new year. Have a good and sweet year!

 

–Neal Lemery, 9/13/2018

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