The Power of a Single Word

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As a dyslexic, it took a lot of time and a lot of work to build my identity as a reader. And that identity has enriched my life in countless ways. Today I want to focus on one of the benefits of being able to read with understanding: the power to change my perspective and thereby, my mind.

Sometimes a single word can spark so much imagination, so much passion, and so much emotion that it can literally make my head spin. Let me explain.

To do so, I have to begin the story in an unexpected place: the weather. Stay with me, I promise it will be worth your time.

The weather in Texas in 2022 has been nothing short of tragic. I live in central Texas near Austin, and as of this writing, there have already been over 100 days over 100 degrees, many over 105. Additionally, there have been over 140 days since there was any measurable rain in my neighborhood. The drought and heat are so serious that the lake which supplies us locals with water is nearly dry, and rationing has been present for months. We’ve been living our own parched version of the movie Groundhog Day around here for months.

I reside in a lovely older neighborhood with mature trees and well-tended lawns, and it’s all dying. We are each limited to two short watering events per week, which is not sufficient to keep vegetation alive in this heat. Indeed, the water department drives our neighborhood twice daily to make sure no one’s lawn looks too green. Trees are dying.

Photo of a desert scene with mountains in the background. A photo of a woman is added to the scene, kneeling gratefully in a very localized shower of rain or a waterfall falling over her head only and making a puddle on the ground around her. The power of a single word: petrichor, fills me with hope and memories of rain during this parched summer.

To say this has been difficult and disheartening is an understatement.

Enter the power of a single word into my life.

As I have had months to think about and discuss with friends and family how much we all miss the rain and a more temperate climate, I have narrowed all the things I have missed this year down to one key thing.

The smell of rain.

The Power of a Single Word: The Blood of the Stone

Being the geek that I am, I discovered that there is a word that was coined by Australian scientists in 1964 that tells a whole new story about the smell of rain. Australians are folks, for those who don’t know, who have lived for centuries with some of the most extreme temperatures on earth and have on occasion gone 10 years or more without a drop of rain. Hat tip from me!

That word for the smell of rain is petrichor.

Two Melbourne-based scientists, Joy Bear and Richard Thomas, had been searching for ways to understand and describe the “smell of rain.” Their paper referred to earlier texts on mineralogy that observed “a peculiar and characteristic odor” when dry clays and soils were moistened with water. This odor wasn’t just noticed by humans. Also observed was the fact that “drought-stricken cattle” began to “appear restless” when this odor appeared.

The scientists gathered rocks and soil samples from arid regions and performed steam distillation on them. What was the result? A yellowish oil present in the rocks and soils that is only unlocked and released by moisture causes the characteristic smell we observe with rain.

They proposed “the name petrichor for this apparently unique odour which can be regarded as an ‘ichor,’ or ‘tenuous essence’ derived from rock or stone.”

Petra, of course, meaning rock, and ichor was the name for the “fluid that flowed like blood in the veins of the gods” in Greek mythology. Blood of the stone.

The Power of a Single Word: The Smell of Rain

Several curious factors align to give birth to this soothing, much-loved smell that rain produces.

Lightning strikes split diatomic molecules of oxygen and nitrogen to create ozone and nitric oxide. Ozone contributes another complex note to the smell of rain.

Actinomyces bacteria in the soil—specifically, its subgenus Streptomyces—secrete a compound known as geosmin. This geosmin is released as aerosol particles by raindrops.

During dry weather, plants release fatty acids into the soil, which accumulate and are released (again, as aerosols) by the impact of raindrops.

Here’s a helpful video describing how it all comes together: The Smell of Rain

Just like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day finally came to terms with what he couldn’t change and concluded that he couldn’t imagine anything better than “a long and lustrous winter,” learning about the miracle of petrichor has helped me reset my perspective on what has been a very trying spring and summer.

Photograph of rain clouds over a Mongolian desert. The power of a single word: petrichor, fills me with hope and memories of rain during this parched summer.

How many times in my life have I been privileged to experience the miracle of petrichor? Countless times. I know I will experience it again. And when I do, not only will it fill my soul with wonder at its presence, but I will appreciate it more now that I understand its essence.

Trees and lawns can be replanted. Fall will come, eventually. And with it, rain and its olfactory accompanist, petrichor.

It will be all the sweeter for its long absence, and I am grateful.

Thank you for reading about the power of a single word. Here are some links to references you might enjoy.
Link to Graphic: Petrichor the Smell of Rain
Link to Original Study: Nature of Argillaceous Odour

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One Comment

  1. Steve webb says:

    I enjoyed this very much

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