We need rain, and sometimes we build our lives around it. Even if it means canceled plans and boring days indoors, we generally understand and accept the necessity of if, and to some degree are thankful for it. Early on, a child might learn the effects of rainfall, like that it makes flowers grow, or that some areas of the world get nearly constant rain while others rarely see any. My daughter, at four years old, knows that when it rains, “Daddy will have to mow the grass.” Rain excites her because she likes to ride on his lap when they use the riding lawn mower.
In most school systems, probably all of them, there is an elementary school science teacher who, at some point during the year, teaches the water cycle. The curriculum tells students that the water on our planet is eternally recycled through a process of collection, evaporation, condensation, and precipitation, possibly as rain. No matter when in the school year, or at what point in a child’s education this topic is taught, it will mostly likely include the following diagram. In the bottom right corner of the page, there will be a landform, maybe mountains or a valley, with a river flowing towards the left. There, in the lower left quadrant, the water is in a lake or an ocean, and tiny graphite dots meant to be water molecules travel up the page towards the sky, where, in the top left corner, they will become puffy, cotton-ball clouds. The imaginary wind, designated by arrows or curling lines, will carry these clouds to the top right corner of the sheet where they will turn into falling blobs of crayon wax that somewhat resembles rain. There will always be that one kid who gets clever and draws some other kind of precipitation, like snow or, even better, destructive hail. Whatever the form, the water falls back onto the mountains, completing the cycle. A series of arrows pointing clockwise remind the students that this is only a one-way cycle and that it never ends.
What the arrows don’t mean to imply, but do, is that the water cycle never actually began. But things without an ending still have to have a beginning. God’s kingdom is eternal—unending—but began with “a wind sweeping over the waters.”
There’s more to it than all that. Water couldn’t collect in oceans and lakes without the help of gravity and mountains. Similarly, if the temperature is not exactly right, ocean and lake water couldn’t evaporate into the atmosphere.
The cycle is never as simple as our elementary school teachers would have us believe.
Teachers might even show the clip of a desolate desert brought to life by a brief but fantastic rainstorm, with all the flowers suddenly blooming from plants that one could have sworn were dead. They’ll bloom only for a short time, and, knowing the rain will be gone for a long time after this, draw the moisture deep into themselves where they can ration it, and try to make it last inside their stems, even when the storm is clearly over.
It’s the first day of June and it’s rained all morning. I’m here because it rained. I had plans to lay out with my friend today at her backyard pool, but considering the weather, I assumed our plans had been canceled, so it was a perfect day to start writing again. It’s been years since I’ve written any new material, and without any solid ideas for writing, my husband suggested nature. The high today is only in the low-seventies. And I don’t live in a place where that type of weather in June might be normal; I live in the northwest corner of Middle Tennessee. On a two-dimensional map of the United States, it’s where the northern border of the state makes a little cubic hump. I used to make fun of my husband for describing it that way to people, but it’s the only effective way to tell them the precise location of a place so obscure. Summers here are usually hot and humid, and pop-up storms this time of year are a regular thing. It’s a rural town near a national park called Land Between the Lakes, a span of roughly 170,000 acres established in the early sixties as a national park by President John F. Kennedy that sits between Lake Barkley on the east and Kentucky Lake on the west—and so the name makes sense.
From where I’m sitting, though—a concrete picnic table at the entrance of a hiking trail at the South end of a long straight road that runs right up the middle of the park—I can neither see nor hear any large body of water. What I can see and hear is a lovely blues number—a series of minor piano rifts, Johnny Lang maybe—coming from two passing motorcycles. I can hear the wheels splashing through puddles with a sort of hiss, a rising “shhhh” sound that falls into the hum of pavement. A middle-aged couple, it looks like, and the one with the radio blaring is riding a bike that looks more like a motorized tricycle, with a wide rear end and two wheel hubs. Then again, they could be younger, their skin clearly aged by sun and wind and maybe thousands of insect collisions, now that I’m actually looking at them. I’m not a hundred feet from the parking lot where another adventurous, looking—but not in the way that they might ride motorcycles, more like they enjoy antiquing in unfamiliar towns and strolling through the well-marked areas of national parks—older couple, in their sixties maybe, investigate a map they’ve laid out on the hood of their very large pick-up truck. The map is picking up water droplets from the hood, and it appears they have given up on today’s cool, wet hike in favor of warmth. They barely get the map wadded back up before getting back in the truck to drive away.
I’m alone now, still sitting at this damp picnic table. I’m wearing long, camouflage hunting pants and a neon pink fleece Reebok hoodie that I bought to run in, but soon after decided I don’t like running. I never really planned on hunting in the pants. This morning’s rain is dripping from the leaves above me onto my notebook. A tiny black bug has landed on my pen and I immediately regret the slight panic that causes me to blow him away. I wish I knew more about nature. Like, what kind of bug was that? What kinds of trees am I looking at? Is there a word for the way the world smells after it rains? A deep, earthy smell that no candle company, despite their best efforts, can duplicate. What was the name of that blues number I heard earlier? These are all things I can look up later, if I want to fill in the gaps with specifics, but before that I might actually have to venture into the woods for some real observations about nature, despite my comfort level being admittedly limited to dictionaries and piano tunes.
The bug is back, or some bug if not the same one, and I’m resisting my instinct to swat it away. It behaves strangely, like it’s tasting my pen, then rubbing it’s two front legs together—like a person might do with his hands—before raising them up to scream “Hallelujah!” in its little bug voice.
Schoolteachers in elementary school teach us what rain is—what it’s made of and what it does and what its practical uses are. What they don’t teach is what rain means. It’s possible that that isn’t a teachable factoid, and so it gets skipped by the curriculum developers.
My husband and I watched a movie last night called It’s Complicated with Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin playing a divorced couple who, decades after the split, have an affair with each other. Baldwin’s character ends up wanting to get back together with his ex-wife, but Streep’s character isn’t so sure. Spoiler alert, in the end, on a morning filled with heavy rain, she begins the new addition on her house that she’s wanted for years—and she’s alone. Rain means cleansing, and it’s such a common, clichéd motif that it warrants top hits in a Google search. For Noah, it meant the same thing—a cleansing of the Earth, but also a new beginning for him and his progeny. But Noah’s story only has a happy ending because we are the benefactors of the disaster. It’s a tragedy for those washed away.
In war, rain can provide easy cover for an ambush while making it nearly impossible for the ambushed to retaliate—good news only for the winning side.
It was devastating for Baldwin’s character.
I learned somewhere that if you sit still in the woods, it takes twelve minutes for nature to forget you’re there. The moment I dot the period at the end of that sentence, my phone rings. It’s the friend I stood up today. We didn’t actually talk about the plans changing, but I wasn’t going to day-drink by the pool in a sweatshirt and jeans, which completely defeats the purpose of laying out. I silenced the call without answering and let it go to voicemail. I’ll swing by her house later and explain with great enthusiasm that I finally came up with a plan for writing again, and that the inspiration was just too great to ignore. She’ll understand.
I’m sure this time that it’s a different bug. Its wings are spread, and it’s far less enthusiastic—like the previous bug went up to him and was all, “Dude! There’s this creature holding some delicious stick of awesomeness, and you absolutely MUST go try it out!” and the other one was all, “What? You’re crazy. Fine, I’ll go,” really just trying to get the other one off his case. So now this bug is just here because of some friendship obligation to try out my gray and white thingy, which he doesn’t find delicious at all. A drop of water lands on us before I can make any actual observations about this new bug.
It’s about noon and the sun is trying in vain to come out through the clouds. And here I am exploring this lovely concrete picnic table and water droplets and bugs and blues tunes coming out of motorcycles—which, whether or not it really was Johnny Lang, has put his song “Still Rainin’” so deep in my psyche that I’m humming without even realizing it, and so it will be twelve more minutes before anything probably won’t change anyway. I stuff my pen, my keys, and my cell phone into my pocket, and I’m thinking about leaving the phone in the car so I won’t even be tempted to play Candy Crush or check my Snapchat while I’m supposed to be communing with nature, but what if I get lost—or worse, what if I get hurt? Nature is scary business and I would need to call for help or use my GPS to find my way back through the heavily marked trails to the parking lot.
This is where I stopped writing in the notebook and started snapping pictures with my phone so I could remember the walk later from the comfort of my couch. The next morning, and it’s still wet and cold outside, more like fall than the early days of June. I’m sitting on my reclining leather couch with a fleece blanket draped over my legs and a lap desk holding up my computer. It doesn’t smell like dirt in here, but if I open a window I might catch a whiff. I’m not going to do that though. Instead, I’m sipping tea listening to birds chirp off my back deck and the news on the television in my husband’s and my bedroom. I have a cup of Earl Grey tea, and I start flipping through the pictures from the day before.
The first picture is of a sign—a bulletin board with a Plexiglas covering and a quaint shingled roof over it—that has emergency numbers and a map of the entire park. There’s illegible graffiti on the Plexiglas, and the map is faded to the point where it’s impossible to distinguish the once green land and what I assume use to be the blue lakes. Both are a sort of faded brown-beige. The lettering is gray. I remember that at this point, just past the entrance on the first few feet of actual dirt trail, the smell intensified. I get up from the couch and walk out onto my back deck to try to refresh the smell in my memory, but it only smells like the remnants of my neighbor’s bonfire. I start up a search engine and type in “smell after rain.” The first few sites describe it as a “pleasing aroma” that is “particularly prevalent in arid regions” and “associated with the first rains after a period of drought.” The word is petrichor. It was coined in the sixties by some Australian scientists, and was studied more recently at MIT, where it was discovered that the smell is caused by tiny bubbles of “aromatics and possibly other things, such as viruses and types of bacteria” trapped in dry soil being released by rain droplets. Even potentially harmful things are inspiring when the world has been stagnant for so long. It takes a long dry spell for things like that to build up, which is why the smell doesn’t happen if it’s rained a lot recently, another reason I can’t smell it this morning. I type the word into Amazon.com hoping to find an attempt at the smell in a candle or air freshener, but instead find a unisex cologne, wall art and a book by David Scott Ewers—a mystery surrounding a story written in the dirt of a dry lake bed. The book has a single five-star review and I almost buy it, until I remember what I’m doing here. There’s also a hammock and a “performance jump rope” in the list of search results. I just noticed that my processor thinks the word petrichor is misspelled. It isn’t particularly dry here, so maybe that’s not what I smelled at all.
The next picture is of a tree about a dozen yards up the trail. The bark is smooth, and in it are a number of carvings. Nick heart’s Patty, where the heart is drawn with an apostrophe before the s. There’s also the engraving written vertically, BL + CA 04. Every letter of the alphabet could easily be represented here, carvings on top of carvings, but I remember there was a bug dive-bombing my face, so I snapped a picture and kept moving. In the picture there is a similar tree only a few yards back and to the left of this one that is completely untouched. It wouldn’t have been difficult to access if someone wanted their names on fresh wood, but I can’t see a single artefact.
I had completely forgotten about the next picture, which is an up close image of a weathered engraving, probably one of the older ones on the tree, and the only complete sentence scrawled on its surface. I didn’t forget the engraving, just that I had taken a picture of it. It reads: DiANE Had SEX WiTH WilliAM!
Do you think that happened right here, in these woods, or did the happy couple decide to proclaim it sometime after the fact during an excursion here? The sentence doesn’t suggest there was anything memorable about the sex except that it happened. Did DiANE even want to have sex with WilliAM? Should I have brought a weapon? No one hikes in the rain, so it’d be the worse day for a lurking criminal—I’m probably safe. I wonder if he played blues music for her. Maybe it didn’t even really happen at all, and WilliAM was seeking revenge because DiANE had refused his sketchy advances. Been there.
The next picture is of a spider web that thankfully was visible only because of the moisture. Then there’s one of a large tree that had fallen, roots up-lifted straight out of the ground so that at the end of the trunk there is a disk of tangled roots and soil sitting perpendicular to the ground, propped up by the trunk. It would have laid right across the path, but some nice fellow made two cuts with a chain saw to remove a section just as wide as the trail. That way, I suppose, one could enjoy the views of nature without actually having to, I don’t know, touch a tree. It’s been there a long time—one side of it is covered in thick moss and those mushrooms that look like little shelves.
At this point in the walk, I had lost sight of the road running parallel to the path on my right. I couldn’t hear the traffic anymore, and I can’t remember that I noticed the exact moment when it disappeared. What I do remember is how loud it was. Here I thought I’d be taking a quiet walk through nature, when in reality, the forest might have been drowning out the sound of cars. The roar of bugs sounded like it was coming from somewhere in front of me, further down the path. But when I walked further, it moved off toward my left, still sounding the same distance away from me. If I could stand still for twelve minutes, the sound might engulf me, but as it is, the noise stays safely away.
I’m not proud of the next two pictures, which I took of knots in the trunks of trees, and so I’m not going to mention that they look like vaginas or that I took them because I was bored of listening to bugs and smelling dirt. My nose had grown accustom to the smell anyway, and no matter how much I look at these pictures, my nostrils can’t remember the scent.
I’m positive I didn’t walk half a mile into the woods before doing an about face and heading back to the parking lot. Turns out I didn’t need my GPS after all, but I also never needed to distract myself with Candy Crush. The path looked completely new going in the opposite direction, and while I thought my trip was over the moment I turned around, I was really only halfway there. I saw the other side of the root bundle of an upturned tree, and snapped a picture. I heard two different frogs in the leaves just off the trail and paused long enough to actually see one of them hop away. I didn’t take a picture of that. I had barely noticed how much distance had passed when I reached the tree with all the carvings. I snapped one last picture of one particular craving I had missed just above the one about DiANE and WilliAM. It just said PENIS. I couldn’t tell if it was part of the subject of the complete sentence or just conveniently placed in relation to it.
I think the reason I can’t replicate the smell has nothing to do with the fact that I’m no longer in the woods, or because my neighbor’s bonfire is still putting off fumes, or because my house is filled with the smell of my husband’s shower. I can’t find the smell because it rained all night and into the morning. It is because it’s a smell that only exists at the very moment a dry spell is ending. The most important moments in the trajectory of our lives that we can never seem to remember, even with the help of songs and photographs—evidence that we cling to after the storm passes. You can only hold the droplets inside of you and hope they last until the next storm. A way to recall the moment everything changes, but it’s like trying to remember the smell of rain.
Somewhere in the revision process, it dawned on me that other people do this, too. I was reading an essay recently published in a magazine to which I had submitted, and after reading the first two paragraphs, I realized—and it was embarrassing, as if no one ever considered it before—that there are already writers out there. And there are people who want to be writers. And there are probably people who mull over the greatest essay or short story or novel or biography that would ever be written, but never sit down to write a word. I’ve lived in the latter for some time now, and it’s a lonely state of being having a compulsion with no means or will of execution. But other people live there, too. Many people, I imagine, and grow first complacent, resigned, and eventually content. It’s the contentment that scares me. Uncomfortable, unsatisfied, is good because it means potential. It’s the speck of dust around which a cloud can evolve and birth moisture, it’s the viruses and bacteria in the soil waiting to be released that make the most coveted scent I can fathom.
Lisa Luton teaches high school English in rural Tennessee, where she lives with her husband and young daughter. She earned an MFA from Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky in 2013, and her work has been published in New Madrid.
5 Questions with Lisa Luton:
TD: Tell us a little about this story? Where did the idea come from?
LL: After graduating with my MFA, my writing life hit a dry spell. After a couple of years of nothing interesting, I took action (with a little nudge from my husband) with an idea to write about nature. I figured that nature was always there, always ready to be written about. What I discovered was that our lives are the same. I didn’t have to go looking for ideas, I already had plenty to work with, so sometimes the flood after a dry spell can come from within.
TD: Who is your greatest writing influence?
LL: My mentor and friend, Elena Passarello. I need only remember the faith she had in me to inspire me to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). Sometimes when I’m particularly unmotivated, I read some of the encouraging feedback she’s written about my work over the past five years, and it usually gets me going again.
TD: What is your favorite place to write and why?
LL: My living room. One thing that always frightened me about pursuing my writing was that it would require me to separate myself from the goings-on of my family, but that just isn’t true. I can write while my husband cooks supper while my daughter does her homework or plays with her toys, and I get to be present for all of it while pursuing my passions, as well. It’s the best of all worlds.
TD: Favorite word?
LL: Aneurysm. It’s a horrible thing, but a beautiful word, both in the ear and on paper.
TD: Do you have a favorite reading ritual?
LL: I like the feeling of carrying a book around in my purse, but I never read it until I get home. Like it’s there just reminding me that we have a date later, which will probably take place in bed once everyone else is asleep. I could just as easily leave the book on my nightstand, but then I wouldn’t get that exciting reminder every time I open my bag. Plus, there’s something about the weight of it that comforts me.