Wednesday, June 29, 2011


Some of my earliest childhood memories are of smelling the moisture in the air after a rainstorm.

I grew up in the Oklahoma panhandle, where rainstorms were few and far between. However, most years around about the 4th of July, we would be treated to spectacular downpours, the product of cumulus clouds that would build and roil and form and churn about in the air above the high plains, then release torrents of water from the bottom of anvil-shaped monster-clouds, as well as not a little bit of hail, and occasionally a tornado or two.

But I always welcomed the rain--since I didn't have to worry about the hail denting the car or the tornado sucking the house away to Oz and perhaps, if you were lucky, dropping it on a politician: that's why God made fathers: to work to earn money to pay for the insurance.

The July storms were usually the first rain we'd had since spring, when after a dry winter we'd have maybe a week or two of gentle rains, and everybody would hurry out to Elmhurst Cemetery to harvest the asparagus that was frantically erupting from around every tombstone. My wife has similar stories of harvesting spring asparagus from the irrigation ditches on the farm in Boulder County, Colorado, where she kept her horse. Town boy that I was, I had no clue that you could find asparagus growing on the sides of irrigation ditches, but I learned early on that you could always find a healthy crop of it at the Beasley mausoleum after the first rain.

A few times, I was lucky enough to be on the edge of town after a rainstorm and find myself buffeted by the wind blowing the moist pollen from the fields of wheat that stretched away to the horizon. I'd go home later and find myself covered with the stuff; my t-shirt would never be the same again. But while standing at the edge of the dampened fields, I only cared for the smell of the wheat, driven by the still-moist breeze.

The smell of wet wheat is almost indescribable. For a boy growing up in the proverbial center of the Dust Bowl, I can only say that it smelled like "life."

Of course, I was born long after the Dust Bowl, but I remember my mother cursing and crying when the wind blew, telling the stories of her mother making her and her sisters lie on a bed with a wet sheet over them so they wouldn't breathe in the powder-fine dust and develop pneumonia from it.

Some of her anxiety undoubtedly rubbed off on me, but even in the early 60s when I was a child, it didn't take much for me to develop an appreciation for the blessings of rain.

You would think, given my childhood, that I would have fled to a humid climate and never looked back. In college in a damp climate, however, I discovered some of the unsavory things that moisture can do to skin, so it didn't take much to convince me that rain, like so many other blessings, is best enjoyed in moderation.

My godmother, a panhandle girl, followed her husband to a job outside of Charleston, South Carolina. True to her upbringing, she made him string a clothesline between a gum tree and a live oak growing in their back yard, then proceeded to set up housekeeping, hanging the sheets out to dry. Well, they didn't dry; instead, they developed grayish-green stains that spread exactly like mold on a petri dish.

So she made her husband go into Sears and buy her a dryer. Years later when she told me that story, I  could tell that she was ashamed of the fact that she couldn't dry her laundry outside. She never made her peace with the South. It irked her that the alternative to drying her towels in a machine was having mold turn them into gelatinous goo and that, if you were going to dry your sheets outside, you had to put so much Clorox in the water to kill the mold that if you perspired on the sheets during the night, you would wake up in the morning with little white bleached lines on your skin corresponding to the wrinkles in the cloth.

But I digress.

This post is really about the smell of nature after rain. Up here at the High Mountain Lodge, we don't have wheat, but we have acres and acres of pine trees. After a few clear days, the sun has toasted the pine pollen so that, when it rains, the air smells like tincture of Colorado. Of course, the rain will also precipitate the pine pollen out of the air and make yellow streaks all over your car.

You should feel privileged. For a few days, at least, your car will look like a local's.

Come visit us soon, and smell the air.

1 comment:

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