ProfessorRoush still, occasionally, reads the monthly Reader's Digest. Not as a regular subscriber, but in a spurious-purchase-at-the-checkout kind of way when I get captured by a headline about an uplifting story. Sometimes, it jumps into my hand when I just want to get tickled by "Laughter is the Best Medicine," or "Humor in Uniform." When it is in my hands, however, I always consume it word for word, except, of course, for the multitude of advertisements which I pass over like passing over sinners at the Apocalypse. The standard vocabulary/grammar column is one of my favorites, a momentary diversion in pursuit of a perfect grammar score, or sometimes just to catch a new word wafting around my native language.
So it was with "petrichor," defined in the 09/2017 Reader's Digest as "the way it smells when rain falls on parched earth." If there were ever a cromulent word created to express joy and seemingly made just for Kansans, it is "petrichor." The Oxford Dictionary goes RD one better, defining it as "a pleasant smell that frequently accompanies the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather." The word blends "petra," referring to "stone," with "ichor," or "blood flowing in the veins of the gods." Petrichor, most simply, is the scent of rain, although I prefer to think of it as the perfectly delicious scent of Mother Earth and the water that sustains her.
Petrichor is one of those words, in fact, whose exact origin is recorded. It was coined in 1964 by Bear and Thomas in the journal Nature. Their dry description of petrichor is not nearly so refreshing, attributing the odor to plant oils absorbed by clay-based soils and rocks and released into air during rain with another compound, geosmin, a metabolic by-product of actinobacteria. In other words, to climate scientists, petrichor is merely the aerosolized combination of plant droppings and bacteria poop. And we wonder what happened to romance in the garden?
This morning I woke early, in darkness to the pattering of rain on the window by my bed. Comforting, yet perplexing, no rain forecast nor any seen in quantity since September, I listened and drifted back off, safe in the warm cocoon of covers with the portly lump of Bella pressed against my side. As I woke later, an early dawn glance out the window confirmed, in fact, that moisture had fallen from Heaven down, enough to dampen the patio and evoke colors from the prairie grasses.
Close your eyes. Search your memories for the scent of petrichor. Does it smell different in the summer, warm rain on warm ground, musk and earth mixed in languid pleasure, than it does in the winter, cool and minty, clean and brisk? I think so. The petrichor of high summer evokes joy and dancing, and celebration of new life. It's a bouquet that tempts me to throw off clothes and feel the warm droplets on bare skin as I stroll through the yard and the neighbors frantically call 911. Petrichor in summer is the purest caress of nature to relieve all the parched and dusty cracks of living. In the winter, as this morning, it's still a welcome fragrance, but hardly as comforting. Metallic and chilling, without the overtones of life and sex, a brief passing promise unfilled. It has no power to draw me outside, it creates no inner urge to let the cold dampen the inner fire. It is merely there, stripped of promise, barren of life. I'll stay inside today, and allow my olfactory memory pretend that it is summer outside, the warm and cloying odor of rich earth all around me.