Petrichor: The scent of rain on a dry land

jc-mg-200-names.jpgJon Christensen writes: Living in the American West, I've always celebrated the first rain after a dry spell, often by just standing in it long enough to get wet, face turned to the sky like a thirsty plant.

In her book Urban Tumbleweed: Notes from a Tanka Diary, Los Angeles poet Harryette Mullen writes:

"We smell rain coming, see dark clouds / and lightning before we hear thunder, watch / storms arrive, wait to get wet before running indoors."

rainshadow3.jpgThis time when it started to rain on Friday night, I went outside to make a "rain shadow," inspired by Lila Higgins, the manager of citizen science at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Higgins started making rain shadows earlier this year to mark the preciousness of water during our mounting drought. Whenever any little drizzle fell from the sky, she would rush outside, lie down on the ground, wait for enough moisture, pop up, take a picture, and post it on social media with the hashtags #rainshadow and #californiadrought.

A rain shadow evokes the snow angels with which we always celebrated the first snowfall when I lived in the "rain shadow" on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada. The mountains catch most of the precipitation on their western slopes, making the land to the east "the land of little rain," in the words of Mary Austin.

That lovely smell of the first rain after a long dry spell has a lovely name too, I recently learned. "Petrichor" is derived from the Greek word for stone, "petros," combined with "ichor," the blood that courses through the veins of gods. The term was coined in 1964 by two Australian researchers, who found the smell came from an oil exuded by plants and absorbed by soils and rocks -- and in the city, concrete -- sometimes combined with ozone and a metallic byproduct released by bacteria. It turned out the oil keeps seeds from germinating during drought. So its release into the air is literally, and not just metaphorically and sensually, the scent of life coming back to the land.

The rain releases other smells too. "Rainy, spicy leaves of the California laurel, / scented with a hint of cardamom, like /chewing gum I used to crave," writes Mullen in another tanka, a traditional Japanese form of poetry, like haiku, so well suited to such moments.

It's good to celebrate rain in a land of little, particularly before the inevitable onslaught of reminders that this doesn't mean our drought is over, and reports of accidents on the freeways, and floods and mudslides unleashed when Pacific storms crash against the steep mountains that hem in the Los Angeles basin and cast a rain shadow over the desert to the east.

Perhaps this year we'll get to that point that Mullen captures here: "Throughout the year we exist in dazzling drought. / When the rare cloudburst occurs, we complain / about getting caught and drenched in the rain."

And here: "I can't help feeling at war with the elements, / Under this fierce onslaught of rain, / with just a sad umbrella as sword and shield."

For now, though, we're back to waiting. As Mullen writes: "Looking up at the sky to estimate / my mood, as if to calculate the sum / of all clouds subtracted from the total blue."

And praying for rain.


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