Insidious, pervasive, ever-present – what am I talking about – dust! Dust creates an eternal, never-ending cycle of cleaning. It is one of the most certain, universal entities in a very uncertain life, yet it shares a randomness with the universe and is never quite the same. I just dusted my tall bedroom dresser, but two days later it needed dusting again. Dust bunnies seem to form in the kitchen minutes after sweeping the floor. And the kitchen is the worst place for dust because a film of invisible grease from cooking coats surfaces and the dust is attracted to this like a fly to honey. Yes, we have a longhaired cat and I am sure this contributes to the entropy. And we collect stuff – inevitably, the more stuff you have, the more you have to dust. But how can dust accumulate so quickly, what the hell is dust anyway, and are cobwebs dust?
According to Wikipedia, “Dust in homes, offices, and other human environments contains small amounts of plant pollen, human and animal hairs, textile fibers, paper fibers, minerals from outdoor soil, human skin cells, burnt meteorite particles and many other materials which may be found in the local environment.” So in other words, dust is life shedding unwanted particles … whether inert or human. Shedding fur and hair, breadcrumbs, paper fragments, human tissue … and history … in the form of old books, antiques, etc. sloughing off matter.
Cobwebs are not dust, but web-like structures created by spiders. But unlike the related, more complex spider webs, spiders do not inhabit cobwebs. Spiders’ abandonment of these webs enables them to function as wonderful dust repositories. The thick, dust caked cobwebs create wonderful visuals for haunted houses and Halloween displays.
Esoteric & Artistic Dust
It is only natural that something so pervasive would find its way into popular culture. Yes, dust has an esoteric, more artistic side. Here are just a few examples.
- Visual art: There are many artists that use actual dust in their art. A recent exhibit entitled Swept Away: Dust, Ashes, and Dirt in Contemporary Art and Design, highlighted some of these artists. The British artist Paul Hazelton is my personal favorite.
- Ziggy Stardust: OK, so David Bowie’s alter ego from the 1970s has nothing to do with dust, but was worth mentioning. Stardust in the cosmos exists – just as the earth sheds everything, star dust is a cosmic dust composed of particles in space.
- Documentaries: Dust has been the subject of several filmmakers, most notably, the 2012 PBS documentary by Ken Burns titled, The Dust Bowl.
- Cinema: In the 2008 WALL-E, the hero of the same name rescues EVE from a dust storm and shows her a living plant he found amongst the rubble. In the 2012 Gunfight at Yuma, fierce dust storm blankets a treacherous stretch of desert as two mysterious strangers approach a campsite.
- Television: It comes as no surprise that many Westerns included dust storms in episodes. Among these were Bonanza, Rawhide, Wagon Train, Laramie, and The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin. Dusty cobwebs graced the dilapidated mansion of the silly 1960s sitcom The Munsters.
- A bit more esoteric is the dust that is the subject of an episode of Oddities, the cool Science Channel program that details the business dealings of Obscura Antiques & Oddities in NYC’s East Village. In Pardon Our Dust, Mike and Evan are speechless when artist Sean Miller boldly attempts to steal the store’s dust and sell it back to them. Later on, they go to visit Miller’s Dust Museum and actually buy back their dust in the form of buttons and coasters.
While dust in one’s home can be bothersome and cause allergies, outdoor dust can be monumental and go down in the annals of history. Take the famous Dust Bowl of the 1930s that obliterated the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, and neighboring areas of New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas. This was caused by a severe drought in combination with a failure to utilize dryland farming methods to prevent wind erosion. John Steinbeck eloquently wrote about this in The Grapes of Wrath:
“Houses were shut tight, and cloth wedged around doors and windows, but the dust came in so thinly that it could not be seen in the air, and it settled like pollen on the chairs and tables, on the dishes.”
Fast forward more than 70 years. The recent dust storms in areas in the Southwest region have produced visually spectacular dust sheaths; the photographs taken of these massive dust clouds enveloping downtown Phoenix are particularly surreal. While visually impressive, these dust storms carry considerable health implications. According to experts, dust storms carry a noxious mix of fungi, heavy metals from pollution, fertilizers, stockyard fecal matter, chemicals and bacteria, which can cause cardiovascular disease, eye diseases and other illnesses.
Here are my closing reflections on dust. While I incorporate debris in my site-specific collages, maybe I should consider using dust. Boy, I’m thankful that dust storms don’t affect the Midwest. OK, household dust is aggravating, but in the scheme of life’s many maladies, relatively minor. Damn, I need a Roomba, but I would have to dust it too.