Petrichor: the smell of the forest in the rain. It’s almost indescribable. Earthy. A lovely odor summoned by heavenly water that seeps out of the soil itself. Contained in it are hints of the mighty trees, the forests’ animal dwellers, the decay of generations past. An ancient freshness, a novel oldness, a scent that conjures thoughts of the endless renewal of nature.
And oh, the sound of the forest in the rain. The pattering of raindrops overhead, the rustling of branches as they sway, the splattering of fat droplets knocked off leaves. And in in the gorges Ithaca, there’s the thunder of cascading white water and the clamor of the stream as it cuts deep through the shale.
Can you see it? The hillside forest caught in a late-October rainstorm? The leaves range from green to golden to crimson to hazel. Some cling onto the trees, some lie on the damp earth, some are fluttering down right at this moment. Most of the trees stand regally upright, their stern trunks reaching up into the half-barren branches. Maple, ash, elm, crabapple, oak, pine, ginkgo, spruce; they are what make Ithaca the ”Forest City.” The trees are drinking their fill, relinquishing their leaves, and shedding their coats for the winter.
There’s a deep gorge that glaciers gouged into the bedrock millennia ago, revealing the striated shale even more ancient. The stream gathers rainfall and guides it down to Lake Cayuga, the finger lake that Cornell University overlooks. Following the water is a well-paved hiking trail, parts of it rocky stairs, parts of it well-worn dirt trails littered with tree roots and protruding rock. That’s where I’m running.
As I run through the mist, I can feel it gather on my face. I can taste the mist too as it dilutes the sweat on my lips. That accounts for the five classical senses, but wait, there’s more!
My hands sting as they cut through the crisp 42-degree autumn air. The collar of my damp shirt itches my neck. My feet, pounding rhythmically on the forest floor, instinctively use muscle/tendon tension feedback, proprioception, tactile feedback, and my ears’ balance to place thousands upon thousands of precise steps on slippery soil. With the assistance of complex motion-tracking vision, I dodge protruding tree roots and boulders camouflaged under freshly fallen leaves.
Internally, my chemoreceptors regulate my breathing according to carbon dioxide pressure. 9 miles into the run, my kidneys thirst for rehydration, my intestines hunger for replenishment, and my muscles complain of depletion. My brain is somewhat oxygen-starved, but subconsciously it unites this onslaught of feedback from an armada of sensory modalities to execute this complex bodily action of running. And above all that, my conscious brain marvels at the beauty of this rain-drenched autumn forest.
In some senses (the literal senses, I suppose), my routine med school life in New York City is so bland. The hospital air is climate controlled, sterile (optimistically), and artificial. I spend endless hours staring at a lifeless monitor typing away, back sagging into a chair, legs drowning in static venous blood. Even outside the hospital, I find myself trapped in a forest of artifice. Yes, a primary motivation for my upstate escape was for autumn forest photos (even if the rain excluded my DSLR from the run, hence iPhone 6s photos), but sometimes I long to return to more primal senses.
No matter the near-freezing rain, barely shielded by the thinning forest canopy, the blood coursing through my heart, lungs, and legs warms my body from the inside out. The circulating blood awakens a more primal part of my brain to drink in the primeval stimuli of the forest. To breathe not putrid NYC smog but the crisp air filled with scent of the forest — the petrichor — to fuel my body. To have my ears filled not with the honks of taxis and roar of buses but instead the serene cacophony of rainwater, streams, and waterfalls. Even as my eyes trace out the distinct shapes of the trees — vibrant leaves, crooked branches, tangled roots — nature’s autumn spectrum begins to blur together as I run past.