I grew up in the desert. Not the desert you’re probably thinking of, with sand and lizards and cactus, but the arid high desert of the West. Ok, we had lizards. We also had a well that produced, at its most generous, 1.5 gallons of water per minute, which sounds like plenty until two people in your family want to take a shower on the same day.
We had a strict rotation of every-other-day showers, who got the water when.
Some of my earliest happy memories are bound up in petrichor, in the smell of dry earth receiving water, the way hot pavement smokes with rain or the pattern of sparse drops on grass-bald clay. I carried around a broken chip of concrete in my pencil case for months, that I would wet in a drinking fountain when I was unhappy, to smell the smell of rain.
I don’t know when I started collecting rain.
Oh, I don’t have vials of runoff sitting around my house like some mad alchemist’s shop, each one labeled with a date and GPS coordinates in scraggly Victorian handwriting (although that does sound kind of cool). It’s the memory of rain, of specific rain in specific places.
Summer rain in Southern Oregon is hard and fast. It rolls in on thunder clouds and slaps you in the face, soaking you down. It will fill your old rowboat and knock the oak galls down. But it’s not enough to prevent the forest fires that come with lightning, not enough to stop them once they start. It’s an unkind rain and an exhilarating one. The bad boy of rain in its leather jacket and hot-exhaust smell.
Autumn rain in Chicago is just as hard, merciless. It tears down trees and leaves the air sticky and hotter than when it came. You go outside in it, in thin shirts and old shorts, and you beg it to cool you off and sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t – Chicago rain is capricious like that.
Portland rain creeps up the river like fog, gets into your socks and your shoes and won’t go away. It’s colder than snow, Portland rain. Umbrellas are useless against it. It shows up in November and lingers until June, finally trailing away like a fraying sweater into cloud-lint and fog. You’re wary when it goes- is this the last time? Is that? But when it comes back it’s always a little bit welcome again, a little bit of a relief to see it dewing the grass, making real raindrops out of tree-fall because there’s not enough water collected in the air for real rain.
Rain in Krakow is storybook rain, quick and gentle footsteps heralding spring, the sound of not-snow, not-snow, not-snow on your balcony. Pigeons huddle together and shake drops from their wings, churring indignantly as they build their nests with crooked feet. The swans on the Wisla River stretch necks over their cygnets and flowers dot the cliffs and riverbanks below Wawel Castle.
When I was young we counted the days between rains. The newspaper said, 100 dry days. 200 dry days. Farmers rioted, threatened to blow up dams to water their crops. Sometimes here it is only hours between rains; I count the hours anyway and am grateful to the rain when it comes.