When the Desert Smells Like Rain

It doesn’t rain often in the Sonoran Desert. If we get eight inches in a year, it’s a lot. Compare that to New York, which gets 45 inches a year.

Imperial sand dunes, Arizona. © Quinn McDonald, 2011

When you don’t get a lot of rain, the sun bakes the surface of the earth and hardens it. You can bend a shovel trying to dig a hole in your yard.

When it rains in the desert, you can smell it miles away. The scent is a mix of dust and wet asphalt. There is the oily smell from the creosote tree and the brittle snap of ozone that lightning leaves in the air.

Sometimes the rain never touches the ground. But monsoon rains bring downpours. The water hits the earth, bounces up, loosening dirt clods and gravel. The ground is so hard it can’t absorb the rain. The rain runs off into lower areas, dry creek beds called arroyos, fast and thick. The ground can’t absorb the water, so the arroyo runoff pushes debris ahead of the force of water. The power of the water is unbelievable, just eight inches of depth will push an SUV off the road.

Planting the hope of rain © Quinn McDonald 2011

When you smell the rain, you go out and water your yard. The hose water holds down the dust. The dust holds down the grain of sand, and the small rocks won’t bounce away when the rain comes. Yes, that’s exactly what I said–you water your yard so the rain can soak in. If you don’t do it, your yard will be pitted with gullies, and your plants won’t be soaked, they’ll be bare-rooted. Water will tunnel around them, expose their roots, and they’ll die.

Why is this important if you live in an area of regular rain? Because this story is not just about rain. It’s also about ideas, imagination and creativity. If you wait for the occasional brainstorm, you will know it’s approaching, but you won’t benefit from it. The ideas will flash across your mind, bounce off your consciousness, and run off the surface of your imagination, leaving you without nourishment. Leaving your barely established ideas bare-rooted. You’ll have a hundred pages in your art journal, all very nice, all with a clever saying or layers of color, but with no connection. With no unifying idea. With no body of work.

To allow the brainstorm to sink in, to nourish, to create groundwater that forms wells of ideas, you need to water the surface of your creativity regularly. How do you do that? By working on a creative project regularly, even if you don’t feel like it. By spending time in your studio, even if you don’t create anything specific. By experimenting and having aimless fun, which is another name for practice.

A regular creative practice prepares you to make the most of the big idea, the powerful brainstorm. When the desert smells like rain, ideas are blowing in. Go out and water your lawn.

-Quinn McDonald lives in the Sonoran Desert and waits for rain.