photograph by Andy Toms

Petrichor, the smell of rain, comes softly but suddenly, almost like an idea. It rises from the cracks of city sidewalks, the damp straw floors of pine savannas, the blades of grass in suburban yards. It talks to you, tells you it’s just fine to slow down a minute, to roll over and tuck back in, because it’s going to be a while. 

When we smell rain, we’re not smelling actual raindrops. Instead, we’re smelling the natural world talking to itself. Between rains, as the earth dries, tiny bacteria turn to dust within it. Plants release oils into the ground around them, sending their seeds a message: “It’s not safe to grow now. The ground isn’t ready. Wait a little longer, if you can.” 

But then it rains.  

When it rains, those oils, the silent advice of plants and the last gasps of bacteria, rise from the muddying ground and fill the air. That’s petrichor. Or at least technically, that’s petrichor. 

Scientists captured petrichor in vials, ran it through complicated machines, labeled every molecule. They spied on it, took videos as it swelled and rose from the earth. They came to the conclusion that you came to as a child: Petrichor is sublime. It’s a relief. It is a smell, with feeling.

The word marries the Greek word petros, or stone, with “ichor,” the blood that flows through the veins of gods. The union of the ordinary and the divine. The grounding and ascending. The primordial understanding that raindrops on dry ground have always been a necessary step to begin righting living things. 

Other scents mingle with rain. The gentle almost-there of azaleas around our front porches, the steamy asphalt of city streets, the metallic iron of red clay, the green whispers of leaves, warm bricks, rocks — the building blocks of our homes, streets, memories. No rainstorm, and no place in the rain, smells exactly the same. Because of that, sometimes the rain comes and simply calms. Other times, it kicks up a breath of gardenia and zoysia grass, or the wet wood and peeling paint of damp windowsills, and we remember. 

The rain recalls those times as children when the most important thing to do was to press our faces to the screen door and watch the thump and splat of a cautiously budding world. To count the plinks on windowpanes and roofs and to have the time to wait them out. Without knowing it, we listened to the plants. We waited just a while. 

Some say we’ve felt grateful for the smell of rain since we were scratching charcoal animals on our caves’ walls. They say it calms us because it reaches deep into our cells, to memories before our own, when we understood that rain brings sustenance. It brings out the rabbit, the deer, the ripening berries, the reaching tubers. It brings cleansing, not with human soap and human hands, but with the natural way that life takes care of itself. So we listen to the advice of plants, hunker down, wait just a little while for the world to come forth. We feel life tremble, like the seeds underground, patient and ready. We wait for the signal, that rock and ichor, those kisses and long, easy afternoons, to give us permission to come ’round. 

Now is the season. The lush, verdant world is returning. The sap rises, the creatures begin to pip night songs beneath the leaves, and we wake feeling rested and ready, our bundled winter beds and dark mornings a cold memory. Now’s the time when it’s just warm enough that we, getting out of our cars one afternoon or walking to get the paper one morning, smell the first petrichor of the spring. 

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Eleanor Spicer Rice earned her Ph.D. in entomology at North Carolina State University. She is the author of Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Ants of New York City.