The smell of the rain

The smell of the rain

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When you live in a country where rain is a regular occurrence, it becomes a fact of life, almost an annoyance. Particularly in areas where precipitation is a year round affair and where the prospect of uninterrupted spells of rainfall implies inconvenience, damp and blocked sunlight for long periods of time, the subject of rain becomes a topic of distaste; a phenomenon which necessitates the need to temporarily flee one’s normal abode in search of warmth and sunshine.

Not so in places where rain is not so common. Such as Malta during the long, hot, dry summer season. A place where week after week of warm to hot sunny days prevail almost uninterruptedly between late spring and late summer: around twelve weeks of hot, dry weather which burns the countryside dry and lets you wonder at the resilient patches of green vegetation which defy the furnace-like quality of what they face and survive almost without a drop of soothing water for sustenance, except for the occasional heavy dewfall which is absorbed through their leaves.

Those of us who inhabit such areas are generally sensitive to a particular sensation which is most magnified when it rains after a long dry period. I term this sensation, the smell of the rain. A wonderfully rich and refreshing earthy smell which brings great joy. An indicator of change to come. The first airborne drop of relief in advance of wetter days ahead.

I used to think that this sensation was something that was simply an undefinable feeling. Some primitive switch to which humans in dry places are programmed to respond. Until an architect friend of mine told me that there is actually a word for it! Petrichor. A combination of two distinct words, petra and ichor designed to embrace and encapsulate the feeling that has been arousing my senses since childhood.

Petra stands for stone while ichor stands for the more esoteric fluid that flowed in the veins of the Gods in Greek mythology! So there you have it: a heavenly fluid mixing with the very earth on which we lesser human mortals stand. Producing a sensation of what flows through the Gods’ own veins! No wonder the feeling of euphoric refreshment which the smell of the first rain brings.

Researchers theorise that the smell of the rain, or petrichor is caused by a combination of factors. Part of the smell derives from an oily substance exuded by certain plants during dry periods which is absorbed by clay and rocks on the ground. When it rains after a lengthy dry spell, the oil is released into the air along with another compound, geosmin, a metabolic by-product of certain bacteria which is emitted by wet soil, producing the distinctive scent. The smell can be further compounded by ozone which is generated by lightning during a thunderstorm.

The purpose of the oil is to slow down seed germination and plant growth during the lethal dry season. It is only when the rain dissipates the oil in the ground that the seeds get the go-ahead to germinate. This would indicate that the plants produce the oil in order to safeguard the seeds from germination under duress.

Just imagine what is taking place whenever you feel this exuberant high! As each raindrop lands on the porous surface of the sun-baked ground, air trapped in the pores forms small bubbles, which float to the surface and release spray-like aerosols.  Such aerosols carry the scent, as well as bacteria and viruses from the soil. Gentle rainfall tends to produce more aerosols which explains why petrichor is stronger and more noticeable after light rains.

As to why it excites us so much? Scientists believe that humans react so joyfully to the smell of the rain because our ancestors may have been hard-wired to rely on rainy weather for survival.

Blood of the Gods splashing on dry stones or complex organic chemicals released by plants and bacteria? Whatever the origin, the magic remains for all those who like me are sensitive to its timeless pleasure.

 

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Smoke on the water, fire in the sky

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Smoke on the water, fire in the sky

A wet wintry day just outside Valletta’s main gate.  The Triton Fountain sporting Vincenzo Apap’s beautiful bronzes from 1959.  Above the fountain, the diffuse rays of the setting sun flicker like flames amongst the billowing clouds textured like smoke.  The road surface is wet from a recent downpour.

A strong image reminiscent of men holding a bowl of burning oil with its leaping flames reaching out into the sky.

And all an optical illusion, of course!  Captured on my way out of the office during my walk to my car using only a humble mobile phone camera.

 

 

Sunset over the southern coast

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Sunset over the southern coast

A beautiful Maltese sunset seen from the limits of Qrendi in the south of the island. The broad expanse of the Mediterranean stretches in an uninterrupted direction all the way to the Tunisian coast about five hundred kilometres away.

The minuscule islet of Filfla, the remotest of the uninhabited smaller rocks of the Maltese archipelago lies silhouetted against the ruddy hues of the setting sun, its imposing 60 metre high cliffs like standing sentinel against the approaching darkness.

The exposed hard layer of coralline limestone karst is almost devoid of soil, its thin layer of organic cover washed into the sea ages ago once the trees which originally bound it to the land were cut. This landscape is far from dead however, supporting rich and aromatic Mediterranean garigue vegetation such as thyme, heather, asphodel and sea squill.

At the bottom of the picture, the small and picturesque inlet of Wied iz-Zurrieq, a tiny and narrow coastal indentation providing shelter to the small fleet of boats which ferry tourists to Zurrieq’s Blue Grotto further down along the coast.

Many call Wied iz-Zurrieq a fjord and superficially it does give the impression of being a mini version of one, but fjords are carved by glacial ice and glaciers have never featured in the Maltese landscape, not even during the ice ages. It is actually a ria, a submerged river canyon caused when a valley that was originally carved by fresh water on land ends up below sea level either due to a rise in sea level or due to land subsidence.

Within a few minutes total darkness will prevail. In the southern Mediterranean latitudes which are ten degrees closer to the Equator than they are to the North Pole, twilight is always brief. Like flicking off a light switch, someone once described it. But until that light switch is flicked off, the ephemeral beauty of the setting sun’s multi-hued light on this beautiful coastal stretch is captured by this picture for all to enjoy.

An elephant on Comino?

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An elephant on Comino?

Not quite!

Although fossilised remains of a dwarf species of this grand creature have been found in places like Ghar Dalam on Malta, there is no fossil record of anything so huge on the little, 2.5 square kilometre island lying between Malta and Gozo.

There is, however, an impressive rock formation found on the high cliffs of Comino’s eastern side which definitely resembles one. A natural monument featuring a gigantic head complete with its trunk lowered gingerly into the water. The detail is so incredible that one can also discern a small eye socket on top of the head with the rest of the animal’s body seemingly carved out of the rock.

A little known natural feature which lies away from the more popular sea route between Malta and Gozo to the west of Comino and therefore not as famous as its mainland counterpart the Blue Grotto at Zurrieq which is known locally as the Elephant’s Leg.  The Comino Elephant’s main claim to fame is its appearance in Kevin Reynolds’ 2002 film, The Count of Monte Cristo which had extensive scenes shot on Comino with the island’s Santa Maria Tower doubling as the Chateau d’If.  In the 2002 film the Elephant Rock was used as one of the clues to get to the hidden treasure in the story.

The Comino “elephant” bears a different official name however. The maps identify it as id-Darsa, the Molar and indeed it does also bear a resemblance to a huge extracted molar complete with deep roots.

Elephant or Molar? A question of taste perhaps. Personally I am for the former! And you?

The smell of the sea

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A friend of mine recently commented on a photo of rough seas during a north-easterly gale which I had uploaded on my facebook page.  He is Maltese and currently based somewhere in the internal depths of continental Europe: very, very far away from the sea.  His comment on my photo, which I am including above with this story, was that he could smell the sea from 2,200 kilometres away!  I immediately understood what he was saying and empathized with his feelings.

The smell of the sea, particularly the salty Mediterranean Sea.  Never quite so distinct as during a storm.  When the spray rushes non-stop past you, tangible enough to be felt but so fine as not to actually feel damp.  The bracing aroma of salt and seaweed.  Toxically saline and not potable, yet paradoxically refreshing and life-giving.  Exhilarating and pleasant.  Particularly when combined with the other senses.  The sound of the rolling waves crashing against the solid rocks, the awe-inspiring sight of monumental splashes where a wave disintegrates against the unyielding coast.  The salty taste of the sea in one’s mouth and the subsequent wet feeling when the accumulated spray soaks your clothes and hair.

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The refreshing smell which blows away the cobwebs, unblocks the nasal cavities and rushes straight down to the lungs, leaving a trail in its wake, like in the adverts!  And available for free rather than encapsulated in plastic phials.

Not the kind of hydrotherapy that one goes to thermal sources and spas to benefit from, but just as healthy and invigorating.  With the savage beauty of unrestrained nature thrown in for free!

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Island hopping

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Island hopping

Islands in an archipelago.  Siblings not clones. So near and yet so far away, separated by narrow but deep channels of seawater.

Neat parallel lines. Sky, land, sea, land, sea.  Like layers, almost too neat to be true.  Land born in the sea, raised above the sea and embraced by the sea.

In the first picture, the island of Gozo in the distance.  The gothic-style church at Ghajnsielem and the barely discernible ramparts of Fort Chambray on the right, the fortified Citadel and town of Victoria on the left.  Twenty minutes sailing north of Malta and yet a world away.

In the foreground the tree-covered Ahrax tal-Mellieha peninsula, on mainland Malta.  Rising 70 metres above sea level.  Almost an island in its own right but for a narrow strip of land which attaches it to the mainland.  Apart from the trees and the cliffs, the ubiquitous presence of military architecture as evidenced by the low defensive wall, a redoubt aimed at harassing attempts to land by enemy shipping.

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In the second photo, another stretch of the Ahrax peninsula on Malta: tough upper coralline limestone sitting on top of a softer and older clay deposit.  Slowly crumbling, boulder by boulder into the blue sea.  The thin layer of trees whose deep roots seek moisture retained by the waterproof clay below.

And in the background, the Ta’ Proxxa Cliffs on the tiny island of Comino, also perfectly parallel.  Not by accident but by design.  The result of past geological faulting creating a series of ridges and valleys, horsts and grabens as the geographers would call them.  Only in this case the valleys are under water while the ridges survive as dry land, the tips of submerged heights which once stood prouder and taller before the waters rose.

Beautiful vistas and interesting geography rolled in one.

Malta’s Azure Coast

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Malta’s Azure Coast

An aerial shot of the south-western coast of mainland Malta displaying the sheer contrast between the deep blue Mediterranean and the golden limestone coast.  The sea is so calm that the cliffs’ reflections are visible as if on a mirrored surface.

Whilst most of Malta’s western coast consists of sheer cliffs which reach up to 800 feet (250 metres) in altitude, there are places where water-carved valleys indent the coastline creating inlets and diverse geological features such as the ones in this aerial shot taken from a departing Air Malta aircraft (www.airmalta.com).

This photo features the small hamlet of Wied iz-Zurrieq (Zurrieq Valley) at the end of the winding road towards the bottom-left of the picture.  The hamlet lies to the right of a flooded fjord-like valley bearing the same name, from which one can take a boat to the marvellous Blue Grotto which is visible as an arched “h”-like structure in the centre of the image.  The Blue Grotto, which is actually a number of interconnected caves, is renowned for its beautiful deep azure waters which, when coupled with the morning sunlight combines to provide a brilliant show of all sorts of shades of blue.  The experience is further enhanced by the brilliant phosphorescent colours of the underwater flora which inhabits the sides and depths of the caves.

To the right of the picture it is also possible to make out the canyon-like chasm of Wied Babu (Babu’s Valley) with the straight “Blue Grotto Avenue” on its side.  The valley drains into the sea near the Blue Grotto and cuts deeply into the high ground flanking it on both sides.  The village of Qrendi lies at the top of the image.

The name Zurrieq itself originates from the Arabic word izraq which means “azure” and there is no doubt to my mind that the azure blue referred to in the place name comes from none other than the deep blue sea which prevails in the area.  So much so that the village motto is the Latin “Sic a Cyaneo Aequore Vocor”, which translates into “From the blue sea I took my name”.  Take another good look at the picture and you will understand why!