(The precise aroma of falling rain is known as petrichor. It was coined petrichor by Isabel Joy Bear and Richard Grenfeld Thomas, two Australian mineralogists who blended the Greek words petra, rock, and ichor, the essence that flowed through the veins of the gods in Greek mythology.)
Smell. It is one of the strongest sense that connects us to a world of our past; powerful enough to bring with it long forgotten memories. From freshly baked bread to frying onions, or cinnamon to pear drops, from gunpowder to smoldering ash, or diesel fuel to rotten eggs, a tiny whiff is capable of bringing memories of old flooding back. And our brain allows us to distinguish between different smells and decide whether they are pleasant or nasty.
Walking through a shopping mall in the heart of a city, I kept a steady stride looking left and right, up and around, absorbing as best I could the sights and sounds of a busy metropolis. Suddenly a familiar earthy aroma of lush soil, fresh and green yet musky reached my nostrils. It was an elemental smell that I knew deep within me… a smell that I had missed over the long hot dry summer. It smelled of sweet petrichor, the scent of first rain that moistens the dry soil…piquant, mixed with a whiff of jasmine. It emanated from the fragrance boutique in front of which I stood. “Do you like it?” asked the man holding a spray bottle. “It’s their new fragrance…a hint of jasmine with a strong mix of the smell of wet earth.” No wonder it had arrested me. I have a special attachment to the smell that rises from the earth after the first rains. It evokes such memories of different places and different stages of my life. I asked to sniff other scents mixed with earth’s perfume, and the subjective memory of my nose behind the sniff, took me to different parts of the world.
I inhaled the aroma of summer rain falling on a long hot day in Budapest. It smelled sweet, like grass and the wind carried with it the scent of fir and willow. Definitely pleasing to the senses, yet it was different from the familiar scent of rain that fell on the red soils of Lebanon. There the earth carried with it the rich powerfully evocative aroma of pine, tree sap and bark. Petrichor! It is so emotive, stirring memories, sometimes of an apple orchard in bloom summoning recollections of a childhood run through my great uncle’s orchard; at other times a distinct petrol smell reminiscent of the baking sands that whispered secrets of the past as I’d roll down the towering dunes of dry Kuwaiti desert. In Utah, it was the scent of juniper. That scent was different from rain cooling a hot sidewalk in New York City, where the steamy asphalt and dusty smell rose from the concrete pavement to meet me. In Rome, it was the smell of limestone clay with an acidic – almost sweaty – hint. In the fields between Prague and Bratislava, petrichor hinted of wet hay and livestock. Whereas in Greece, the briny smell mixed with dry rock was almost a reminder of my connection to the salty earth.
How I love the smell of first rain on dry land! The Indians call it “Mitti Attar,” Earth’s Perfume, and knowing that it is linked with memory and the emotional side of our brain, they’ve been bottling it successfully since 1911 to mix with other scents. Perhaps that is why the perfume industry has been developing fragrances that seek to convey a vast array of emotions and feelings; from desire to power, vitality to relaxation, purity to wildness, delicate to overpowering. Scents that can make us salivate, attract us to a mate, change our heart rate, and provide umpteen sensory experiences.
I sniffed another. Nostalgia overtook my senses. “You really like this one,” he observed. “Yes, it’s like an ancient memory that I was already born with. I feel it. It’s in my genes,” I said. It had an oaky, wild pear bouquet, reminiscent of a forest. I thought of Jermuk, Armenia. There, the autumn breeze carries with it the scent of fallen leaves, and as the humidity shifts ahead of the first rain to loosen the metallic materials from the earth’s rich and fungal pores, it sends its pungency adrift. I felt it deeply. Perhaps just like my ancestors did as they breathed in the ripe air with the nectar of healing minerals …ethereal fluid, essence that flowed through the veins of my ancestors.
Next time, step outside after the first storm following a dry spell. The sweet, fresh, powerfully evocative smell of fresh rain will invariably hit you. You will relish the scent. Think of it as a cultural imprint, derived from your ancestors. Unconsciously, the scent with its magical aroma will conjure an ancient promise of plenty, of expectations and growth, of fruitful abundance, of change and positivity, of hope.
I long to breathe it deeply.