Rain Comes to The Desert

Clouds build to the west. They're dark, foreboding. I glance at them through the day almost without meaning to. The mountains keep most of the moisture out of the desert, but sometimes the flood of atmospheric wet just will not be contained. The dark clouds grow, and grow closer.

A sudden waft of scent washes over me, as if the entire desert has chosen to come into resinous bloom at once. It's the odd sweetness of creosote, attenuated somehow. And sage. And dust. The land exhales scent. Rain is coming.

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The desert has saved against this moment through all the dry months. In the north, it's the sagebrush that exudes its resins onto the stony soil, the patches of leaf litter beneath each shrub. In the Mojave creosote bush contributes the base notes, its distinctive, almost industrial scent with the odd citrus undertones. Juniper leaves and piñon pitch and brittlebush, playa dust and woodsmoke and pollen all accumulate in places, baking in the desert heat.

And then a wave of humid air comes at the front of a storm. The desert exhales that breath it's been holding since the last storm: an olfactory recording of the dry season that is about to end.

That wave of scent can be torture in the low desert. I lived for a time at the very edge of the Colorado Desert, at the base of Mount San Jacinto. From my doorstep I could have walked out of the desert in less than an hour, had I the ability to walk vertically. From time to time a front of desert rain scent would wash past my house, cascading down San Jacinto's steep slopes from a storm three or four thousand feet up. That rain would never reach the valley floor: it dissipated in the Coachella Valley's heat before it hit the ground. But its calling card arrived, and the smell of moist creosote and brittlebush tormented me. I felt sure I'd jump out of my skin if the rain didn't hit, and soon.

Summer rains can torment you anywhere in the desert: they are small and fierce. They can carve deep gullies in the north end of a valley while the south end bakes, and the people there look northward with longing. Winter rains are broader. They encompass whole states, whole continents. There are some Native people in the desert who traditionally refer to summer rains as male and winter rains as female. Summer rains are strong, but impetuous and inconsistent. Winter rains settle in somewhat more gently, but have much greater stamina; they feed the desert the majority of its water. A heteronormative stereotype, but it serves to illustrate nonetheless.

"Gentle" is a relative term. A winter rain that provides a tenth of an inch of precip can wash out roads, topple century-old trees, infiltrate the best-sealed roofs. Storms that deliver an inch of rain can re-route rivers. And then the storm passes in a day, or three, and there is driftwood in your road that was five miles uphill on Friday.

If the wave of scent that precedes the storm is strong enough to be euphoric, the scent when the rain actually hits can be mind-altering. The first drop hits soil. It dissolves the accumulated resin and dust of a year, or two or three, and releases it: a small wet grenade exploding in perfume. Then another hits. Then another. Before the marks of the droplets even begin to merge on the ground, they fill the air with volatiles: the air becomes like turpentine, but less choking.

And then a new scent overwhelms the others, literally washes them out. It can take a few years in the desert to notice it, but it's not subtle. It's just that outside the desert you're never away from that smell. It is the scent of water itself, rendered overpoweringly noticable by its absence -- until now. It rapidly muddies the botanical notes of the storm front air. Drowns them, one could say.

The desert is defined as a place with insufficient water. But everywhere you look in the desert, you see water's influence: the steep-carved canyons, the layered lakebed sediments, the place names with "Springs" or "Vegas" (Spanish for "marsh") or "pah" (Paiute for "water"). Everything in the desert -- plants, animals, the land itself -- is shaped by the dearth of water. Ironic, then, that it's in the first few moments of a rainstorm that one can best apprehend the desert's essence.

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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