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The Scent Of Rain

By Ashleylister @ashleylister
Petrichor. What kind of word is Petrichor? If you look it up, you find references to the smell of rain, and an explanation of who made up the word, and what its parts mean exactly.
But what kind of word is it? Does it fizzle in your mouth when you say it? Melt on your tongue? Make you smile in the process of moving your face to articulate it? For me, it does none of those things. It seems to shut things down rather than open them up. It is a word followed by an awkward silence. For an English-as-a-second-language person, the next question is: how do I pronounce this correctly? If you are wondering the same thing, English-first-or-whatever number-language person, it seems that this is a question most of the sites in your internet search results want to answer, even if it is not the same answer every time. Without going into too much detail on the phonetics of the word, opinions are divided where to place the emphasis, on the ‘pet’ (first syllable), or the 'i'   (second syllable), and whether to pronounce the ‘i’ like an eye or like the vowel in ‘bit’. Either way, I think it is an awkward word, not many people know what it means, how to pronounce it, or spell it.
Looking at the meaning of the two parts of the word that the scientists who made it up used, ‘petr’ comes from the Greek word petra meaning stone, and ‘ichor’ is the life blood of gods and immortals (i.e. Zeus and the gang). Quite a long way away from scent, and rain, I think.
I was thrilled when I first learned that there was a word for that smell that you get after the rain, especially if it hasn’t rained for a while. The excitement even threatened to spill over when the word appeared on a list of themes for blogs by the Lancashire Dead Good Poets (as Steve R will be able to confirm). However, it was the idea that there is a word for an experience in which I delight, that I thought maybe I was the only person who notices and enjoys in quite an exuberant fashion (I tend to think that I am the only one with many things), perhaps more than the actual word. Hence this rather lengthy piece about why I don’t like the word itself all that much.
The Scent Of Rain
The experience it is supposed to describe, however, is quite beautiful. It is a scent that smells green to me, that embraces many things, from the scent of flowers that seem to be shouting ‘Over here!’ to the pollinators after the rain, to the feeling of cool and somehow clean air on my skin, after a long period of heat followed by a refreshing rain that washes away heat, and sweat, and dust. I always thought that the smell came from the volatile oils in plants, like the flowers of roses, or the leaves of evergreen trees and bushes. A simple natural distillation that involves heat and water, a little like the extraction of essential oils for aromatherapy. Not so. There are different chemicals and processes involved, oils that soak into soil during drought periods, plus other chemicals released by certain plants, and bacteria. (If you want to know more, the UK Met Office page on Petrichor is a good, relatively easy to understand starting point!)
Nature is amazingly clever. It has even given humans the ability to detect the scent of rain in incredibly small concentrations. No doubt very beneficial when our ancestors were roaming the landscape in ancient times, in search of water in order to survive. Water is still a precious commodity, after everything humans have done to the planet’s climate since those days.
So, if you’ve made it this far reading, here is a piece that I wrote about another precious experience with nature that happened recently, during this pandemic. I first wrote about it in a poem, or what I think of as a proper poem. And then I changed my mind, and wrote it like a story, only it’s true and I am in it and it really happened.
Since I have only recently started writing in this format (that I think is creative non-fiction), and want to write more like that, I would be grateful for your thoughts and feedback.
Petrichor Today, I stepped into the garden, and, ducking under the low-hanging, rain-heavy branches of next door’s willow tree that overhangs our patio, I discovered that on the inside, there is this space, surprisingly big, where even tall me can stand up without hitting my head. It is like the dome of a cathedral, reaching high up towards the light filtered by the verdant green of the willow leaves, a round space, evoking a memory of a white-domed, light-filled cathedral I once visited on a Mediterranean island. The dripping of raindrops is heard rather than felt, and the sound, or rather the far-away-ness of sound in here, makes me feel like I have stepped into a different place altogether. A place that protects and shelters me, and every being within it equally. I hear noises of little birds in the tree and around me, and I suddenly realize that not an arm’s length away, there is a small bird, perhaps a sparrow, sitting on a branch, looking at me. And then I hear a tschilp, and another, coming from high up in the cathedral tree, and that takes me back to what happened yesterday.
  The Scent Of Rain   Blazing sun, thumping music from the other neighbours, I stepped outside for some air (!), and out of the corner of my eye spot something in one of the tubs that we collect rainwater in, an old plastic washing up bowl, and I instinctively go to investigate and grab the round wet thing in there and scoop it out of the water in which it was almost completely submerged. While I feared that the bird that it turns out to be was dead, when I whisked it from the water, I feel it moving in my hands, the whole small body being rocked by a heartbeat that feels like it may explode the tiny bird. It must be a young fledgling that has fallen out of the tree whose branches reach to just above the rainwater tubs. I can see the perfectly shaped, elliptical breathing holes at the top of the beak where it merges with the head, just below the eyes which are covered in membranes with a distinctly sickly-looking, blueish tinge, that come up from the lower edge of the eyes. These inner lids are fluttering in the rhythm of the heartbeat, which is quietening ever so slightly, and the shivers in between the beats, and every now and then the membranes withdraw, revealing the eyes briefly, only to quickly cover them up again. The little bird’s feathers are clumped together, exposing pinkish skin on its body around wings and chest. I stand on the patio, holding it in my cupped hands, in the sun, while the bird grips on to my finger, surprisingly tightly, for what feels like a bubble of time that may have been seconds, or minutes, or something much bigger than that. The thumping of the bassline of the awful music from next door is deafening, and yet the bubble that I am in with the bird in my hands leaves even that noise slightly on the outside, while I am willing the sun to dry and warm and calm the little creature that is still shaking and so wet.   While I am waiting for the healing power of the sun to work its magic on the little fledgling, I call out to my husband who is working inside, and when he comes to see what is going on, he soon finds a box, and furnishes it with a puppy mat as carpet, and brings a water dish that we use to feed the resident garden hedgehog, and after I deposit the bird in the box, now all zipped up eyes again, I find some dried mealworms that we put out for the birds, to feed chicks in the nest. I knock on the beak, which is, like the eyes, firmly closed, with a mealworm, but no luck, the little bird just stands, wobbles, and shakes, keeping eyes and beak tightly shut. Now indoors, the bird moves on to slowly tip forward, resting its beak on the edge of the water dish, and when I start to panic that it is not getting better, and may never do, I decide to scoop it up once more, in the hope that the contact with my hands, will somehow magically heal the poor traumatised being. Alas! the bird instantly opens both its eyes, and swivels its head from side to side, like a boxer stretching her neck muscles, preparing to continue the fight after taking a punch, and it moves to grip a different finger of my hand.   The Scent Of Rain   And so I carry it back outside, to the tree that it probably fell from, shooing away the dog who desperately wants to sniff it, and the bird swivels to face me, releases its bowels on my hand, flaps its wings and flutters out of my grasp, landing on the ground under the bushes. I hear more than see it, moving further into the green world it came from.   This morning, standing in the cathedral dome of the willow tree, I imagine that it is the fledgling tschilping away in the top, while its parent is looking at me to let me know that its little one got home ok.   Thank you for reading. Stay safe, and look out for nature.   Angela McG Email ThisBlogThis!Share to TwitterShare to Facebook


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