For some people, there are magenta Tuesdays, tastes that have shapes and wavy green symphonies. David Eagleman, “The Secret Lives of Brains”
I wrote this while it was raining. The welcome moisture was no small thing for September in the drought-stricken, wildfire-riddled state of California. My dog curled up in her faux fur bean bag. She hates going out into the rain. But she loves the smells after rain, and I do as well. The air smells of bay laurel and sage and rich, dank earth as if the soil has animated, releasing an ecstatic scent dancing on the damp air. As if to say, ‘remember me?” Dirt is far from inanimate. Rather, it’s a collective verb of lichen, fossilized snails, damp sea lettuce, dust from exploded stars, lava from long ago volcano eruptions, wild animal scat rich with the fur from their prey and even tiny spores of mushrooms. Earth's skein is a jumble of minerals and bacteria from our biosphere. During rain, certain bacteria produce spores, and these are suspended in the air by moisture, so we smell them on the fresh, post-rain air. And when there have been periods of drought, that scent seems so much more magnified.
According to the fascinating, slim book, “Scent and the Scenting Dog” by William Syrotuck, smells have their own molecular structure or shape. Musky scents are disk-shaped. Floral scents are discs with a tail, they resemble a sperm or tadpole. Like lock and key, our olfactory system has a follicle-covered space concave to receive the convex of the scent. He explained that our skin has the same bacterial content as the soil. Our own personal scent comes from our DNA, and from bacteria that are constantly breaking down the dead cells on our bodies; scent is the continual process of life and death – taking place all around us, and on us. We are more like fungi than plants, in both the way we decompose and our stench as we decompose. This is related to our personal scents while alive - dead bacteria rafts up from us, creating our unique body perfume. So when we smell the damp, rich earth after a rain, we are also having an experience of ourselves, our deep interconnectivity with all living creatures on planet earth. “For you are dust. And to dust you shall return.” Yet when dust has turned to mud from a good soaking, all our cells awake.
Collectively, this sense of well-being from a rain after a drought has been coined “cultural synesthesia”- a blending of different sensory experiences. According to an article in the Smithsonian, Diana Young, an Australian anthropologist, observed that Australia’s Pitjantjatjara people, “associate the smell of rain with the color green, hinting at the deep-seated link between a season’s first rain and the expectation of growth and associated game animals, both crucial for their diet.”
For mushroom foragers, the smell of rain triggers an array of sensory experiences - the sighting of golden chanterelles, the taste of savory porcini, and
the maple-sugar scent of candy caps. During a pause in the rain. I took my dog out. And we both sniffed the air until our noses ached and hearts swelled with all the shades of green.