The Scent After the Storm
Since the early 20th Century in India there has been a perfume called ‘mitti attar’ meaning ‘Earth’s perfume’ has been a long standing classic there.
In the last few years two perfumers in the west – Christopher Brosius and David Seth – separately created perfumes called ‘Black March’ and ‘Pale Grey Mountain, Small Black Lake’. For Brosius’s ‘Black March’ he was trying to evoke ‘rain drops, leaf buds, wet twigs, tree sap, bark, mossy earth, and the faintest hint of spring.’
Seth was smitten by a walk in Northern Ireland who wanted to invoke the scent of ‘fog on stone’ as he described it.
I haven’t smelled any of these perfumes and I’m sure there are lovely but they just couldn’t be a great as the real thing, could they? Have you met any person who doesn’t love the scent after a storm? Or the scent of a storm coming. That fragranced rain-twin. In 1964 two Australian scientists named that scent ‘petrichor’ from the Greek ‘petra’ meaning ‘stone’ and ‘ichor’ meaning ‘blood of the gods’ – quite dramatic but the word has stuck since though perhaps it isn’t exactly commonplace.
Certainly the love of this scent must be ancestral. It would have meant food would grow, the promise of plenty, and an olfactory cue to the flourishing of life.
While the scent of the oncoming rains certainly would differ from Calcutta to New York City to the high desert of Oregon or the Shenandoah Valley the sweetness is a testament to something very basic and very refined happening.
In the animal world humans don’t tend to rank our noses very highly. Bloodhounds and dogs get good coverage. Bears do too. Sharks smelling blood miles away also get good press. Sharks can smell blood in that waters at one part per million.
The scent of rain, petrichor, has two main constituents with actual chemical names and origins – ozone (O3) and geosmin (C12H22O) and humans can sense it at 5 parts per trillion. Trillion! Which means that humans are 200,000 times more sensitive to smelling geosmin than sharks are at smelling blood.
Geosmin is made by the death of microbes in soil – usually the streptomycesbacterium.
How is it that death, something that we usually try to escape or forget about or not deal with if we can, literally smells sweet? That geosmin gets activated by the rain and suddenly opens up in our noses seconds later in the traces amounts.
Soil is mythically, poetically, and biologically all that has died before so that death might feed life. Life can’t feed life. Only death can. It seems to be a contradiction but here is this universally loved smell that is only possible because of death and decay suddenly making itself known to us when water strikes a dry patch of earth. If you have ever grown anything you know that you don’t plant a seed in another pile of seeds. No, you have to stick a seed in the earth. In everything that has died before for a chance that your seedling might grow. Add rain and you just might have a chance.
The smell of rain might be a reminder of all of that. Of all this.
We try to do the same here at Primal Derma. Make something beautiful and worthy and life affirming with a profound awareness of the death that has fed it. Planting ourselves deeply in that. To forget that might be the kind of forgetting of where you came from at all.
I’d pray that the next time it rains and you smell that version of storm that is local to your town that you remember that the scent is a sign of something very old and worth remembering is happening in front of you and it might be a sign of having one more crack at making green meaning and wild beauty with what you’ve been graced with.
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