We got some gardening supplies last month as a gift to our grown daughter, and in the week before we could make a delivery, the stuff stayed in our car, reminding me pleasantly of life outdoors as I shuttled between home and work.
Afternoon sun heated two big bags of potting mix in the back of the SUV each day while I finished my shift, the sacks of soil as toasty as bread when I hoisted the hatch to throw in my satchel.
Warmth made the soil more fragrant for the trip back to the house each evening, something I liked as I threaded through traffic. If car deodorizer came in a dirt scent, I’d be a ready customer, and probably not the only one.
I could sense my blood pressure lowering as the front seat filled with the aroma of earth, a bouquet sharpened by the pine mulch blended into the bags. I relaxed, even though the car radio peppered me with its usual assortment of bad news.
It turns out there’s some science behind what I was feeling. In “The Nature Fix,” a 2017 book I’ve mentioned before, author Florence Williams explores the latest research behind the appeal of the outdoors, including why the smell of soil improves our mood. She credits geosmin, a substance commonly found in dirt.
Geosmin, Williams tells readers, “causes the funky great smell of earth after a rain.” We might be wired, says Williams, to think of geosmin as a signal of life-giving water. “This may also explain,” she writes, “why its presence helps put us at ease.”
I guess what I was savoring as I smelled garden soil on my daily commute was the scent of possibility, something that’s been harder to grasp these days.
This spring, the darker side of the season has been getting the most attention, with tornadoes and floods pointing to a planet that’s anything but benign. Even so, I’ve lately been struck, as I am every spring, by the sheer resilience of creation, its stubborn insistence on prevailing against long odds.
Last week, for a speaking engagement, I visited Oakley House, the St. Francisville property where bird artist John James Audubon worked nearly two centuries ago. A raccoon greeted me as I approached the visitor center, my footsteps failing to dissuade him as he foraged the cat food left out for the resident felines.
The region around Oakley has changed dramatically since Audubon walked there, yet here was this raccoon asserting the essential wildness of the place, something not easily tamed by development.
I see evidence of that in my city backyard, where I lifted the cover of our barbecue grill last month and found a young possum staring back at me.
He eventually climbed down and sauntered off, though I assume he’ll be back. Nature is a messy miracle, I’m trying to keep in mind, though a miracle nonetheless.