Why Dust Matters





The stuff is everywhere. Bunnies dancing in the corners. Midair sparkles in a shaft of sunlight. A fuzzy white coating on my bookshelf, like thrush on a tongue. We were made from dust, or so it is said. Stardust lives in our bodies.

How could anything so important seem so irrelevant? A swirl of ostrich feathers and we are done with it. Eradication should be fast and effective: we bust dust, Swiffer it away, invent microfiber to entrap it. We never entirely succeed. That tornado of energy just whirls the stuff around, catching and rearranging it. Even scrubbing only abrades and loosens more particles; what we think of as cleaning is more of a dust-up. Yet we tackle it again and again, often with a near-panicked ferocity. In Dust: The Modern World in a Trillion Particles, Jay Owens writes: “Dust reveals that the home’s sanctity is a fiction: it threatens its status as a haven from the outside world. The battle against it looks trivial, but subconsciously the stakes are existential.”

Dust is many things. Flakes of skin; creepy-legged, microscopic mites who make us sneeze; pollen and dander that finish the job. A dissolution of limestone; a crumbling of brick and concrete. Gritty microtextures—yet dust particles in the air act as nuclei for billowy clouds. Plumes from a dust storm on the other side of the world will reach us and change our weather. Road dust is less ethereal—ground-up metal, asphalt, and rubber—and the source of more than a third of the microplastics swirling through the oceans.

Dust is insidious, yet innocuous, tiny, and indeterminate. We do not see those wriggling bugs or vile toxins; we see only fluff. And so we grow accustomed to the stuff, joking about its presence when an unexpected guest comes to our home. No antique shop would seem a worthy hunting ground if it gleamed, each object’s surface immaculate. When 10 Downing Street was restored in 1954, Londoners found out the iconic dark façade was actually yellow. They were so disconcerted, they hurriedly painted the brick black.

Four decades later, the Brits dared a bit more housekeeping, this time to clean the gunk off 900-year-old Westminster Hall. Artist and preservationist Jorge Otero-Pailos had developed a method using latex sheets as a kind of poultice, laid atop the stone to absorb the grime then peeled off like a facial. That way, the delicate, porous old limestone would not be disintegrated by pressure washers. Best of all, the transparent sheet, embedded with centuries of dust, could be hung as art, part of Otero-Pailos’ series The Ethics of Dust. Meek dust, accorded grandeur.

When Genesis tells us, “The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life,” the point is to humble us. (Also to glorify a creator able to sculpt marvels—that would be us—with a bit of clay and spit.) Ecclesiastes continues the lesson: “All are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.” All we are, the rock group Kansas sang, is dust in the wind. The Sufi student must become less than the dust at the feet of the teacher.

Great metaphors—but they all got it wrong. Dust is powerful.

Sixty-six million years ago, an asteroid banged into the sea just south of what is now our country. Within two weeks, all the verdant foliage on the planet stopped drinking in sunlight and oxygen, and the lush greens shriveled into brown. The dinosaurs died. The planet entered a long, bleak, lifeless winter. A recent simulation suggests that the real cause of all that catastrophe and extinction was … dust. After the impact and its aftershocks, clouds of particles, each finer than a strand of hair, clung to the Earth’s atmosphere and blocked the sun. For years.

Those were not clouds of pixie dust. Pixie dust, aka fairy dust, makes our wishes come true. This may prove true: at the moment, the alchemists at NASA are working to turn moondust into breathable oxygen. Yet dust can kill us, even without an asteroid. Coal dust blackens men’s lungs; finer bits seep into the bloodstream and poison every organ. Particulate air pollution is the fifth biggest cause of death in the world, not only clogging our lungs but implicated in heart disease, cancers, infertility, even Alzheimer’s disease.

Dust is many things. Death, dissolution, erosion, decay. “If you reduce an arm to a pile of dust, it no longer exists; it isn’t a dusty arm,” notes philosopher Colin McGinn. Dust is tiny, shed bits of us that are no longer us. Proof of the passage of time. Traces of past actions. Is it any wonder Sherlock Holmes “read the dust” to solve the murder in The Sign of Four?

Sylvia Plath read the dust, too. In The Bell Jar, she writes:


‘Do you know what a poem is, Esther?’
‘No, what?’ I would say.
‘A piece of dust.’


An idea, broken off from someone’s mind and tossed into the air, where it sparkles in the light. Or settles. Or finds its way inside us, as a reminder.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.