Sunday, June 24, 2012

Failure of Petrichor

A woman wrote me from San Bernardino, California – how she found me I’ll never fathom; it was before the profiles of me in the popular press – and asked what I missed, “isolated as you are, millions of miles from Earth,” she said. To extend her letter, she included long lists of what she imagined I missed, from the sound of the breeze blowing through the leafy treetops to the weight of lose change in my pockets.

I banished her letter to the BLARGO BLOO where the scarecrow stands.

But long I pondered the question, even before it arrived.

What did I miss, marooned and alone on a dusty, walnut-shaped hunk of rock and ice circling the ringed planet in the solar system’s middle nethers?

Not the crowds, the cawing of crows, the rush of water either in stream or toilet; nor birdsong at dawn. Nor dawn itself.

Finally, I went back out to BLARGO BLOO, retrieved her letter, and responded:


She wrote back, said she would send me some beets.

No, I said, in response. Not beets.

Simple geosmin, C12H22O, mixed with the oils released by Artemisia tridentata.

The smell of rain blown in over the sagebrush steppe not far from the town where I was born.
Australains coined a name for it: petrichor, Greek for the stone and blood of the gods. Writers use the word, smugly, sending their readers to their dictionaries to say, “indeed, this writer is more clever than I.”

The word is wrong.

There are many smells after a rain, and I have catalogued many of them: That of cold concrete wet by summer rain and that of hot concrete wet by summer rain might both be called petrichor, but to the discerning nose, they are utterly different. Different still, the smell of rain bearing with it the resin of the sagebrush.

The smell of wet, warm concrete enters the nose as soft round balls, gently bouncing off the olfactory nerves, conveying the blackness of the sand grains in the concrete, they grey of the cement, the solidness of artificial stone to step on.

The smell of distant sagebrush wet by the rain bears with it the jagged lightning of summer, the wind-blown dust though the air is clear, the black tear of clouds on the horizon that never arrive yet push the odor eastward like a pleasant plague of Egypt. With it the nose is stripped of the mundane smells of the roses and the violets and is varnished and cleansed, like the palate of a Frenchman eating a delicate sorbet between courses. After the petrichor of the desert, that of sagebrush and lava rock and lichen and prickly pear and coyote scat and marmot holes and the cawing of crows that imitate ducks when they see humans about, you see the need for yet another word to describe the smell in the air after a rain.

I tried artesmichor.

But it cannot conjure the smell smelled sitting on that front porch with Dad there in his wooden shoes, staring out at the black clouds in the desert as the sun set behind them, the whirr of traffic on the highway, the hum from the overhead electrical wires, the bark of a dog, the scent of a cat marking its territory and that certain whiff of methane from the vent pipe on the septic tank.

Marcel Proust would fail to name it, fiddling as he does with his madelines.

Lewis Carroll would fail to name it, outgrabed mome raths notwithstanding.

I cannot name it. But in a letter far longer than the original from the woman from San Bernardino, I described it.

She wrote back. She did not know the smell.

But her father-in-law, who grew up on the sagebrush steppe of Sicily, knows it. And he knows no effort to bottle its essence should ever be undertaken.

“I smell it, once and a while, when I am out past Bakersfield, wandering,” he wrote in a shaky post-script to her last letter. “It makes me weep for home. I weep like a small baby. You are a cruel man to remind me of what it is I miss the most.”

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