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.