In anticipation of the rain2 May 2018
Scent can be an evocative and defining sense. When we smell perfume we are reminded of a particular person. When we enter a new place we pick up on the different scents we encounter. Sometimes a scent can remind us of a particular place. I find that the faintest hint of warm eucalyptus takes me on a journey of reminiscence to past holidays, family picnics and camping.
Earlier this year I experienced a moment of clarity and insight that was unexpected and profound. After three days above 30 degrees, rain was on the way. Talking to my children as they bounced on the trampoline as asked, “Can you feel the rain in the air?” Although this caused some confusion I described this more simply, “Does the air feel sticky to you? Can you feel that the air is not dry like in the morning?” They all agreed that they could feel the rain in the air.
Then I asked them, “Can you smell the rain?” They were more confused by this than by the first question. The rain was still two hours or so away, falling around Ballarat, but where we were the only things that gave visual clues to the change in the weather were the clouds and the breeze. Although I tried to explain ‘the smell’, all of my descriptions failed. They could not ‘smell the rain’.
The scent of rain has a name: petrichor. The word describes the ‘pleasant smell that frequently accompanies the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather’. Although humans have known of the scent for eons, the mechanism behind the phenomenon was only discovered and a name given in the 1960s.
The Bible describes this smell, Psalm 135 tells us of God who ‘causes the vapours to ascend from the ends of the earth; Who makes lightnings for the rain, Who brings forth the wind from His treasuries’. The vapours that ascend describe the scent that announces the coming of the gift that is rain. It’s one of the gifts offered to us through nature that we can physically experience and enjoy.
The mechanism that offers the ‘smell of rain’ is due to the aspiration of various oils found in rocks, plants, road surfaces and the soil. We smell rain especially after a warm spell because these naturally occurring oils have been distilled. As the humidity rises in the atmosphere minute molecules of vapour are released, which ascend and are then detected by humans and animals.
The ability to ‘smell rain’ is hardwired in many animals, including humans. Rain is life giving. Although rain can seem to have a fickle personality, we notice it most clearly when we receive ‘too much’ or ‘not enough’. It falls when and where ‘it’ wants to, regardless of whether or not we feel we need it.
The Bible records many events where the coming of rain is joyous and an affirmation of God’s fidelity and love. To this day petrichor is still an exotic scent that brings forth vivid emotions and gratitude. The coming of rain after a dry period is joyous and is celebrated by all living things. Today as I observe my surroundings the grass seems greener, the birds although waterlogged are having a marvellous time and the children can’t help stomping in the puddles.
As I reflect on these things I recall the happiness of my children late last evening. As the rain fell on the warm road outside they could ‘smell the rain’. As I enjoyed this different, more powerful scent, in my mind I was reliving a moment of my childhood. For a few precious seconds I was back in primary school. Experiencing the joy of the schoolyard on a hot summer’s day and I could smell that wonderful scent of rain falling on the hot asphalt, releasing that unmistakable petrichor. Summer was ending and the scent that took me back to that moment announced the end of a hot spell and the return of life-giving rain and a few minutes of hedonism as my friends and I ran around as the warm fat raindrops saturated us.
As we continue to experience our prolonged ‘summer’ we know the rain must soon come. When it does I encourage you to head outdoors and seek this wonderful scent and the presence of God in our world. Petrichor is invigorating, evocative and transcendent, a gift that we can all experience in our daily life; if only we open the window or go outside.Brendan Nicholls is the liturgy coordinator at St Ignatius, Geelong.