Thaw Smell

By February 2, 2011 Gardening Downtime 5 Comments

It is almost seventy degrees out. Tonight it’s going to freeze. I do not pretend to understand the weather.

What I do know is that the thaw-smell is out in force, and it’s making my brain jitter.

I’ve tried to describe the thaw-smell before, and I’m never sure if I can actually explain it. These days I’m not even sure it’s a smell. It’s that odd jittery feeling that hits when the snow is finally melting and you can smell the wet earth underneath.  In Minnesota, where I spent a lot of my formative years, it’s quite literally a thaw–the gutters turn into rivers, the big piles of snow start to melt, people are wandering around in their shorts and tank tops, despite the face that it’s 33 degrees out, because we’re Minnesotans and that’s just how we roll.

Then I moved to North Carolina, and discovered the thaw smell in a climate that doesn’t even reliably get snow, and now I don’t know if it’s a smell at all. So…it’s the thing that happens on that warm day toward the end of winter that makes you feel that spring is coming. The smell of wet earth is part of it, I’m sure of it, but there’s more than that. Some powerful unknown emotion wells up under your breastbone and you don’t know if you want to laugh or cry or dance around the room. It tastes like joy and closes the throat like grief. There is a maddening frustration to it, as if the world is demanding something of you, and you do not know what response you are supposed to make. You are energized and restless and you itch inside your skin, and throwing all your worldly belongings in a van and driving cross country for no reason whatsover suddenly starts to seem like a great idea.

They say that people have used the Santa Ana winds blowing as part of a murder defense. I can believe it. The air does weird things to people. The thaw smell does not make me stare thoughtfully at butcher knives, but it sure does something.

So I opened the windows and went outside and did yard work. When I was young and angry and pretentiously pagan, I probably would have mucked about with candles and my own self-importance—these days I am a gardener, which involves less sandalwood and more steer manure, so I picked up a rake.

It’s not spring yet, although it’s probably not far off—we’ll get a few more cold snaps and possibly even a good solid snow, the way this winter is going. So there’s a limit to the kind of gardening I can really DO. I settled for raking the leaves off the deck and onto the site of the future vegetable bed and plotting out my nefarious plans for an herb mound.

I don’t know if that was the response the world wanted, but apparently it was close enough.


  • Ginny says:

    I know exactly what you’re talking about and I smelled that thaw smell this morning. You were wise to keep your wits and remember that it really isn’t spring yet, but oh how wonderful to be out there raking leaves! I’m at work, sitting behind a desk, wishing I were out there in the garden.

  • Nicole says:

    Its the magic of spring, the earth coming to life, there is a term that some native cultures use called the Chinook, or the snow eater wind that I’ve used as a term to ALMOST describe it.

    Not too long after the chinook is something I’ve always called the greening, it’s when the very first haze of green starts showing on the very tips of the trees, you almost can’t see it if you look straight on, but you can sense it as much as see it.

    I love the way you describe this sensation, I feel it the same way every year. You write it and describe it so very beautifully. Thank you.


  • Michelle says:

    “When I was young and angry and pretentiously pagan. . .” HAHAHAHAHAAAAAA! 😀

  • […] learned that I am not the only one who gets maddened by the thaw smell when spring feels like it’s so […]

  • c sections says:

    micky b