We decided to visit our friend David in the country last weekend — to putter around the barn, to look at the cows, to watch the birds, to see what else there was to see. The only problem was picking a day when it wouldn’t rain.
South Louisiana had, for much of the month, settled into a familiar summer pattern of bright, hot mornings and soggy afternoons. By lunchtime on many days, the heat builds to a breaking point as the clouds blacken and empty, like dampness descending from a fevered brow. It’s hard to schedule much outdoors without fear of failure.
We drove over to David’s place last Sunday. The weatherman predicted spotty showers but advised courage. The chance of rain, he said, wasn’t worth a change of plans.
We started the day in church. The world is broken in many places these days, and there was much to pray about. It seemed petty, given all the real worries touching the headlines, to pray as well for a clear afternoon. But I made my private wish anyway, figuring there was no harm in asking.
In the middle of the Lord’s Prayer, I noticed that the stained glass windows were glowing — their blues, reds and yellows flooded with the full radiance of June. The sun seemed invincible.
But within a couple of hours, as we left a restaurant to go call on David, the sky had turned to shadow. We spent part of our visit on a second-floor porch, watching a drizzle fall across the pasture. The cattle — huge Brangus steers and their hearty concubines — seemed unfazed. Each one, black as coal, stood stoically in the shower, perhaps soothed by the coolness of it.
We could smell the weather as we watched it — that strong, strange scent of dirt, rust and the must of a million years that tickles the nostrils whenever it rains. Earlier this year, in a book called “The Nature Fix,” author Florence Williams explained what accounts for rain’s odd bouquet. What we’re really smelling when we smell rain, says Williams, is a hydrocarbon called geosmin. Tests have shown that sniffing geosmin lowers blood pressure. One theory is that the smell of rain relieves us, since our early ancestors often struggled to find water. “Geosmin,” Williams tells readers, “is the smell of survival.”
The rain broke long enough for adventuring beyond the house. We went to the barn and found a few wasps who weren’t happy to see us. We surveyed the ruts some wild hogs had made. We poked around the tool shed and discussed the wonders of the combustion engine.
The downpour didn’t really start in earnest until we were driving back. A bolt of lightning streaked the horizon, like a vein throbbing with anger. We felt lucky to get home.
My blood pressure drops when it rains, too — usually, when I am hearing it from beneath my own roof.
Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.