The Smell of Rain


Petrichor: (n) a pleasant smell that frequently accompanies the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather.

Granddaddy would stand up straight suddenly and wiped his forehead with a threadbare white handkerchief that was always tucked into his back pocket.  He’d breathe in deep through his nose with his head lifted and turned to the wind.  With a nod, and a thoughtful frown he’d say, “Gonna rain ‘fore long.  Better get these beans picked.”

And, more often than not, he was right.  Within an hour or less the clouds would roll in, darken, and let loose with anywhere from a sprinkle to a torrential downpour. 

I can remember being seven years old and in awe of how my grandfather could magically read the weather and predict the future like that.  He was way more consistent with his predictions than any of the “weathermen” on TV seemed to be despite the fact that he would never attach a number or percentage chance to his predictions.  Granddaddy could read the clouds, catch a whiff of scent on a breeze, and even watch ants sealing up their anthills to make accurate predictions about how and when a storm would hit.  Just as often, Granddaddy would look at a dark and imposing bank of clouds on one of the horizons around the farm, shake his head, and keep right on working as if nothing were out of the ordinary.  Thunder would roll in the distance for a while, and the clouds would eventually roll on past the farm without a drop of water.

When I was young, I would accept Granddaddy’s predictions as gospel truth, and they often turned out to be just that.  As I


Garden before planting

grew older and moved along through school, I began to have my doubts, though.  After all, if the best computer modeling systems, radar tracking equipment, and college education money could buy was, at best, 50% accurate with the weather prediction business then how could a simple farmer with an eighth grade education compete?  By the time I was in high school, I had formed the “educated” opinion that Granddaddy was probably just luckier than most with his predictions and he had to be wrong more often than not…I just wasn’t there to see those mistakes.

What I didn’t understand at the time was that Granddaddy’s predictions were based on a lot of different things, but luck just wasn’t one of them.  He was making predictions based on a lifetime of experience and wisdom that he accumulated in the fields of Harnett County.  When Granddaddy came home after marching through half of Europe during World War II, he took up the family business and became a farmer.  In the beginning he and my grandmother worked land that they didn’t even own, saving a little bit at the time to begin purchasing land that they could call theirs.  Although Granddaddy and Nanny didn’t start out with anything but faith, determination, and each other they built a life together, and more….they had a family, grandkids, a farm of their own, and blessings beyond measure.

Granddaddy built this life with understanding, knowledge, and experience completely divorced from the “conventional” sources of such learning that have come to be generally identified as “credible.”  Granddaddy didn’t have a degree in meteorology or even agricultural sciences.  He didn’t know how to solve a differential equation or any other advanced calculus to explain the thermal and fluid motion of water vapor through various layers of the atmosphere that combine to create weather systems and patterns.  He couldn’t tell you why the chemical composition of the soil demanded this fertilizer composition or that one…. Granddaddy’s knowledge and his deep wisdom were completely disconnected from textbooks, teachers, and classroom exams.  Instead they were the products of a lifetime of real world experience gained through years of hard work, trial, and error.


Zucchini, cucumbers, cantaloupe and a row of beans planted next to them (not sprouted yet)

A few years ago, I helped kick off the community garden project at my church.  So far, it’s been pretty varied as far as success.  My first year gardening, I was able to grow a good number of cucumbers, beans, zucchini, squash, and a few successful peppers.  In the two years afterward, I’ve had much less success.  A combination of poor timing for planting and a fundamental lack of experience when it comes to many of the vegetables I’ve tried to grow have basically resulted in failed crops.  This has given me a whole new and profound respect for the way Granddaddy seemed to just know what to do and when to do it.  He never made growing a bountiful garden and profitable harvests for the farm seem like anything other than the easiest thing in the world to achieve.  I now understand that it is this apparent lack of effort in success that marks a true master of his craft.

I’ve also learned that what Granddaddy did when he smelled the rain on the wind was no magic trick, and it was far from luck.  Petrichor is the scientific name for the warm, thick smell that you get from hot dry fields right after a hard rain.  When a

storm kicks up that smell, it typically has a strong gust front that precedes it.  That wind will pick up the smell of the rain-soaked earth and carry it ahead of the storm.  If you know what you’re smelling, and how to read the wind and cloud

formations around your area, you can combine those two elements to make a relatively solid and dependable prediction about a coming storm.  I can remember Granddaddy making predictions like that about rain, snow, thunderstorms, dry spells… he even accurately predicted a severe ice storm one winter by watching a group of cows graze as we drove past them on the highway.  I suspect that most of those feats, if explored deeply enough, would have some nugget of what biologists and ecologists like to term “observational data” (aka stuff you see and interpret).

My youngest son and I worked for a few hours in the garden this past weekend.  We set out sixty (yes, that’s 60) tomato plants that we picked up from the Farmer’s Market the week before (big thanks to Bud’s Nursery and Garden).  We had Bud's bus cardalready set out a row with zucchini, cucumbers, and cantaloupe as well as a row with about 40-50 hills of Blue Lake green beans.  Next will be the hot peppers and bell peppers with maybe a little room left over for a few rows of heirloom corn.  Working in the garden is hot, it’s dirty, and there are enough mosquitoes to carry off a full grown cow if they’d work together.  My son doesn’t always enjoy it…in fact, most of the time he looks pretty well miserable.  I can’t help but smile at that because I remember being ten and eleven and resenting the hours I spent sweating in the fields with my parents and grandparents.  I can only hope that he will find himself twenty years down the road inexplicably drawn to a field of freshly plowed earth with a hoe in his hands and seeds waiting to be planted.

Yesterday, I didn’t go by the garden to water it the way I usually do after work, and instead went straight home.  About an hour after I got home, the sky opened up and unleashed a brief but intense downpour that lasted nearly a half hour.  I called Connor over and said, “This is why I didn’t go water the garden today.”

He nodded and asked, “Did you see it on the weather that it was going to rain today?”

 I just shook my head and smiled.  “Nope,” I answered, “I smelled it on the wind.”


Tomatoes in the ground…all 60!

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