Two geologists made this word
from the Greek, petros for stone,
and ichor, for the liquid that flows
through the veins of the gods.
They wanted to name the scent
of parched earth after fresh rain:
The reconstituted redolence
of salted silt marbled
with terracotta. This old,
dry world brought back
to loamy life—another name
—“Petrichor” by Kathleen Brewin Lewis
I recently moved houses. For nearly a decade, I called the San Francisco Bay Area my home. But I recently accepted a new job sixty miles inland, so beginning in the spring, my wife and I slowly packed up our home in Berkeley to move.
I hate moving: the stress of packing all my stuff, finding a new place to live, the wide-open potential of new beginnings, but most of all: the goodbyes. So to bring closure to our time, I tried to notice something new about our home each day. Just as the character of Emily in the play “Our Town” attempts to do in her final moments on Earth, I wanted to see, hear, smell, feel, notice everything each time I left the house.
One day, after a spring rain, I decided to catalogue every scent I could detect. These were the combined odors of that day in Berkeley, after the rainstorm:
- Sea air
- Orange blossoms
- Cherry blossoms
- Freshly brewed coffee
- Hickory smoke
Recently, I was on vacation in the high desert of Nevada. A surprise thunderstorm came rolling in. The lightning cut through the air and gave the scent of ozone—clean and clear. Big, heavy raindrops splat onto the sidewalk, releasing that smell of petrichor again. The combined dust and essential oils of the sage and pine hit me with a pang of homesickness for Berkeley, and the day I smelled the scents of the city. But not just Berkeley: I was reminded of winter rains growing up, and muggy nights in college relieved by the tell-tale sign of thunder in the distance, getting caught in a storm on my way to a meeting during my first job. I thought about storms that have yet to come: ones that will bring new joys and challenges. And I was reminded why so many of our ancestors thought that scent to be holy and miraculous.
I hate moving, but I'm grateful that I made the attempt to notice and remember; to send myself a note for the future, written in familiar scents.
May we be open to receiving the simple gifts of life. May we find unexpected ways to remember where we came from and imagine where we may go next. May we find touchstones of our pasts, and may they become a foundation for the future.
"Petrichor" Copyright © 2015 by the Christian Century. Reprinted by permission from the Dec. 9, 2015 issue of the Christian Century.