Month: August 2017

The Smell of Rain

I am not a synesthete, a person who was born with a perceptual phenomenon in which the stimulation of a sensory or cognitive pathway leads to an automatic experience of a second sensation. I don’t see colors with letters or words, taste an emotion, or get an uncomfortable tactile response to hearing fingernails on a blackboard. However, I do share a cultural synesthesia with people who have a positive response to the smell of fresh rain, particularly after a prolonged dry spell, or the aroma of newly mown grass, particularly from a clover pasture or a Bermuda covered baseball outfield.

Isolated showers in Florida in the 1950’s were a very unique experience for me as a child because I clearly remember many times witnessing rain falling on one side of a street and not crossing to the other side or seeing a downpour approaching across a distant pasture that abruptly stopped before reaching me. The smell produced by those rain moments struck me as incredibly fresh and invigorating and seemed to emotionally lighten my mood no matter what I had been feeling prior to that natural occurrence. I do not witness those undefined barriers to isolated showers as often any more, but I do see the phenomenon along the Gulf of Mexico coast regularly. Storms appear on the horizon over the water, move shoreward, and dissipate without coming ashore, but that observation does not engender the same responses I had as a child on land. When I am on a golf course, showers do drift over fairways, but never really stop on one side of a fairway as if there is an impenetrable invisible wall prohibiting an advance. Did my childhood imagination create a more distinct sensation than actually occurred? I don’t believe so.

Petrichor is a word coined by two Australian chemists in 1964 for the earth smell produced when rain falls on dry land. That word does not evoke the aroma I’m familiar with at all, but I have found no better word for the physical experience either. Karl Smallwood contended in “What Causes the Smell After It Rains,” that “There are three primary sources of smells that commonly occur after rain. The first, the “clean” smell, in particular after a heavy thunderstorm, is caused by ozone. Ozone (scientifically known as trioxygen due to the fact that it is comprised of three oxygen atoms) is notably pungent and has a very sharp smell that is often described as similar to that of chlorine. Some people can smell ozone before the storm has even arrived. Before a thunderstorm rolls in, lightning can sometimes rip nitrogen and oxygen molecules in the environment to pieces. This can ultimate result in a small amount of ozone forming, which wind then carries down to ground level. Ultraviolet light in the atmosphere is also known to split O2 molecules, with the freed oxygen atoms sometimes joining with oxygen molecules for an ozone party.” His explanation has a ring of scientific truth but also doesn’t elicit my childhood memories.

From Chapter 1 of Growing Up Floridian:

Rain fell across the street, but not even a drop touched me. I saw concentric circles form as drops hit the surface of the water in the ditch 40 feet away. My five year-old mind had problems processing the isolated storm cell phenomena of Florida. I wondered if there was a barrier in the middle of the street. My family, my parents, my brother, and I, moved to Indiantown from Springfield, Massachusetts two weeks earlier after my father’s return from his tour of duty in Korea. I knew I wasn’t supposed to leave the yard, but Smokey was at school in the second grade and my mother was busy in the house. There was no one else at hand to ask why the rain didn’t come across the street. I looked both ways, saw no vehicles, and dashed to the other side of the two-lane road. The rain moved on into the woods behind the ditch and the barbed wire fence that bordered the property.

Red-tailed Hawks

After seeing two different magnificent Red-tailed Hawks on golf
courses last week being attacked by mockingbirds and crows, I was reminded of one of those spectacular moments in nature I have seen periodically throughout my life.

When I was twelve, my father, offered such a good deal that he could not pass on the opportunity, bought two horses. One, a tall rangy black gelding, he thought would make a decent roping horse, and the other, a seven-year-old bay mare, was designated as a horse my mother and I could ride for pleasure. In no uncertain terms, he said he expected me to be on the horse every day after school when my chores were done. After I milked our cow, I headed to the barn. Thrilled that the mare, Bailey, was almost mine, I dutifully saddled the horse, rain or shine, and rode the familiar pastureland of the Quarter Circle A ranch for an hour or two most days. I learned after one soaking to tie a rain slicker on the back of the saddle, and the adult size worked to my advantage by draping over the entire saddle, so I stayed quite dry even in the heaviest downpours.

As I rode back toward the barn one afternoon, I heard a high-pitched ki-ki-ki-ki overhead followed by a piercing scream and another scream a little farther off. I turned in the saddle to my right and caught three large blurs cascading through the sky going away from a stand of tall pines toward a section of flat open pasture. Two mature Red-tailed Hawks were attacking an immature Bald Eagle and driving the larger bird toward the ground. The loud screams came from the hawks, while the high-pitched chittering came from the eagle. I was surprised first by which bird delivered which sound because I had watched plenty of Western movies and Wonderful World of Disney television shows. I associated the louder voice with the eagle since that was almost always the sound played on a movie or television soundtrack immediately before or after an eagle flew overhead on the screen. The hawks were the screamers.

In the real life scene played out before me that day on the Manatee County ranch, the hawks force the eagle to land on the ground and dive-bombed the young bird for the next fifteen minutes while I sat on horseback mesmerized. The young eagle finally got enough confidence to take a couple hops and flew low over the ground before trying to ascend. Since the eagle was headed away from the stand of pines, the hawks seemed to be satisfied with letting their enemy get away but still took turns diving at the escapee until all three were out of my sight.

I rode over to the pines and found the source of the conflict. The Red-tailed Hawks had built a huge nest in the tallest pine, and three chicks’ heads peered out in different directions. The youngsters looked like they were only a few weeks old, were partially fledged, and clearly not capable of flight. I checked on the nest over the next two months and did get to see one young hawk take off on what might have been a final departure from the nest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From “One-eyed Buck,” in Growing Up Floridian:

 

Six months after my father’s lack of patience resulted in the loss of the horse he planned to train for calf roping, he made an unusual choice for a replacement: an American Quarter Horse that could only see out of one eye, his right. Given my father’s temperament and the six year-old horse’s high strung nature, the man seemed to be challenging his own self-control, but the roping partnership worked, and man and beast competed in local rodeos with some success. When the Quarter Horse was four years old, but already being trained as a competitive roping horse, the big buckskin refused to step up into a horse trailer. His owner at the time, Raymond Sinclair, had an Australian Shepherd dog that followed the man everywhere and was a great herder. When the horse would not do as he was asked, the dog ran up and nipped at the cowpony’s rear feet, causing the horse to leap into the trailer. A stiff wire that formed part of the air vent had been broken and bent in at just the wrong height and angle. The horse’s eye, injured in that accident, lost all sight as far as the veterinarian could tell.

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