The scent of new rain on dry earth or pavement. It’s distinctive. You know it when you smell it, yet it’s…indescribable. Try to. I dare you.
I find the scent pleasing and elemental: natural, environmental, atmospheric, essential.
When I catch the scent, no matter how briefly, no matter where I am, I’m instantly transported to my childhood, playing in the rain, not a care in the world.
There’s a word for the scent: petrichor. Oxford Dictionary defines petrichor as: a pleasant smell that frequently accompanies the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather.
The word is a recent (1960s) addition to the English lexicon, a combination of “petro” (pertaining to rocks) and “ichor” which is from Greek mythology and refers to the fluid that flows like blood in the veins of the gods.
Perfect. This is why I love words!
I got to experience petrichor this afternoon while walking in the valley with my dogs. After a morning of low motivation on my part (not theirs; they’re always raring to go), I decided we all needed some fresh air. I noticed rain clouds approaching from the south end of the valley but also some patches of blue in the sky to the north. I figured we had plenty of time for a walk before the rain made it overhead.*
We loaded up for the 1.5 mile drive to our favored short walk route. It was 65F and dry. As we started walking north, I felt a strong tailwind. I kept looking over my shoulder at those bands of rain at the south end of the valley. I hadn’t factored in the strong wind; the rain was fast approaching. It was clear we weren’t going to manage our usual two miles without getting wet, so about halfway along the northward leg I decided to turn back early (the feature photo was taken about then).
Within a minute of that decision the first drops started falling on us, the leading edge of the shower. Big fat raindrops, hitting with audible plops. Then more drops, coming more frequently, blown on the wind. Almost immediately the scent of rain on pavement wafted up from the road.
Petrichor. I love the smell. Brief, but intense, sparking good memories.
This afternoon, though, I wasn’t dressed for rain. “Let’s go, boys!” I said as the drops hit us in earnest and together we started jogging the quarter mile to the car. The boys thought, “Oh boy! We’re going running!” and gamboled joyously through the lengthening grass in the ditches alongside the road as I ran.
I actually like running in the rain. I don’t care how old you are, running in the rain always makes you fee like a kid again. Yet I usually avoid it. Today, though, I thought, I should do this more often.
Then suddenly I stopped running, wondering if I could somehow capture a photo of petrichor, or at least what causes it: the big drops of rain on the dry pavement. So I grabbed my camera and kneeled down as the rain pelted us, now coming straight into my face on the wind. I failed to capture the raindrops on the pavement – the road surface is too dark and uneven with chip seal – but I succeeded in capturing the joy of my dogs as we played in the rain.
Can you smell petrichor? I think Finn tasted it.
In the few minutes it took us to drive home, most of the shower had passed over, although I couldn’t have predicted that while we were walking. Spring weather here can be mercurial: clear skies, scattered clouds moving in, forming into storm clouds bringing rain and thunder and lightning, followed by clear skies and a gorgeous sunset, all in the space of a few hours. But sometimes the rain clouds settle in and dump their precious cargo for a few hours at a time.
The forecast calls for showers for the next several days, with some afternoon thunderstorms. Looks like the boys and I will get a chance to run in the rain again and if we time it right, enjoy petrichor in the forest.
*(I felt a bit sheepish about misjudging the weather. My father, a test pilot, had a life-long intimate relationship with weather. His safety and that of the flight crews often depended on “reading” the skies and avoiding hazardous weather conditions. Dad had a term for those bits of blue sky often seen between clusters of low white clouds on days of changing weather: sucker holes. “Why are they called that, Dad?” I once asked as a child. “Because only suckers look at the small bits of blue and think that means the weather’s improving and its safe to fly.” A good lesson, one I ignored today. But in my defense, we were never far from my car and unlike the Wicked Witch of the West, we don’t melt in the rain.)