Dust and Dusting: A Taster of John Dargavel’s Anthropocene Days

On 28 February 2023, The White Horse Press will publish John Dargavel’s Anthropocene Days, a collection of interlinked essays by one of Australia’s first environmental historians. The strikingly illustrated volume serves as a fragmentary memoir of the author’s 90 years on this Earth and focuses on how environment is experienced in the everyday. While the world and governments face changing climate, deforestation, species extinction, air pollution, fouling oceans and so on, we go about individually and locally as best we can from day to day. Anthropocene Days contends that these two domains, so apparently separate, are essentially connected. ‘Is that the nub of the world’s environmental crisis: that in the business of everyday, we pass by with our connections unacknowledged?’ 

Here is Chapter 14, on Dust and Dusting…

I vacuum the floors every Saturday while my wife dusts the furniture and my messy desk; a common way of sharing the task these days. If ‘everyday’ sometimes means mundane, then dusting proves it. Week by week we do it with little change, although there is more dust in winter when we have a fire, it is yellow when the casuarinas or acacias flower, it is black when there is a bushfire, and it is everywhere in a summer drought. We have our coffee when it is done.

Another everyday task comes every few weeks when the vacuum cleaner’s dust bag is full. I grumble to myself about needing disposable bags; but convenience routs grumble when I reach the garbage bin and they look biodegradable anyway. My wife washes the dusters she uses and shakes her feather one outside; no environmental grumbles for her. Of course, they could always be found. How are her micro cloths, or her artificial feather duster or my vacuum cleaner made? Investigate those and we would never get our dusting done.

What richness might the historian Braudel have revealed if he had turned his mind to dusting? He describes fifteenth to eighteenth century interiors across the world, notes their furniture, furnishings, fireplaces, chimneys, stoves, floors and windows; and how they varied between hovel and palace and changed with time. His picture of women in Hindustan (India) eating a meal shows them sitting on a carpet. Did their servants clean the carpet by brushing it, and by occasionally hanging it over an outside line and beating it with a cane beater like the one in my boyhood home? His fifteenth century German interior has a holy book on the table; surely such a valuable thing must have been carefully dusted before the angel oversaw the family’s devotions? There was certainly more dust in those old houses than in mine, or in the filtered air of today’s giant office blocks.

Dust has its history of continuities, changes and events. Dust storms fill film and story, headlines and legends, none more pervasive than those from the ‘Dust Bowl’ of 1930s America. Who can forget The Grapes of Wrath on page or screen? It seeps through Australian history, as the manager of the Clare pastoral property in Central New South Wales wrote one day in 1900:

I think absolutely the worst dust storm yet. 118º [48ºC] in the shade. Very strong winds and dust all day. This storm completely altered the face of the country.

David Eastburn kindly provided this quotation from Australian National University Archives, Records of Australian Land and Finance Company, Clare Pastoral Holdings Series, NBAC, N360. 

Told as a story of over-ploughing and over-grazing that let the soil just blow away, it is recounted again and again: in China, Africa, the Soviet Union, and terribly so in drought-torn East Africa again as I write. The histories recount traditional practices, grandiose schemes, failures, social consequences, and conservation attempts, all of which changed people’s everyday lives. 

There are stories older than the plough, older than people, that tell of winds and sands drifting throughout geological epochs. And there are diaspora stories that tell of the several million tonnes of dust that blows from the Sahara each year, most to fall into the Mediterranean, but some to Northern Europe, even the Amazon and the Caribbean. Some from Australia blows to New Zealand, and some from Asia arrives in America heedless of its borders, or the US President. I could find something reassuringly universal and democratic about this if I stopped to think about it one Saturday. 

Dust can also be threatening, even deadly. The explosion of the Krakatoa volcano killed thousands in the nineteenth century and sent so much volcanic ash into the atmosphere that it changed the weather in the northern hemisphere. Nuclear bombs and tests in the twentieth century sent radioactive particles into the air that can now be found in lake sediments far away. Dust from erupting Icelandic volcanoes stopped planes flying in Europe, mine in 2011. 

Dust has its own science that starts, like all sciences, with definition and classification before measurement can start. So too does language. Dust is one of the most ancient words in the great Oxford English Dictionary, generally meaning ‘particles small and light enough to be easily raised and carried by the wind’. Scientists classify it by where it comes from and ends up, and they measure its size, analyse what it is made of and survey how it affects our health. It is the bigger particles that make the furniture look dusty before we set to our dusting, but there are far smaller particles we cannot see, though they slip in everywhere, even into our blood. 

Canberra’s air is mostly clean and bright, although spring and summer pollen from grass and trees burdens some, and smoke trapped in winter fogs burdens others. Now, in the twenty-first century, scientists measure the particles automatically hour-by-hour. They set up such an air-quality station in what looks like a shipping container near my house, and I can read their index of air quality on my computer screen whenever I want. Occasionally they analyse it chemically and can tell, more or less how much dust comes from fire, traffic, soil and, surprisingly for an inland city, salt from the sea. Inside the house, we add our own dust to what comes in. The salesman for my vacuum cleaner proclaimed its virtues in removing dust mites from their carpet home. It is best not to think about their diet. 

Dust has its own astronomy; interplanetary, interstellar, intergalactic, cosmic and dramatic. What people in the eighteenth-century thought were ‘holes in the heavens’ were, by the time I was a boy, known to be clouds of pesky dust obscuring our view of distant stars. But the way it refracted the light gave astronomers new ways to understand the universe. In the 1970s they tried to catch this ‘extra-terrestrial dust’ on high-flying aircraft, and then detected particles in meteorites, polar ice and deep in the sea; so much that they could estimate that tonnes of it arrive on earth each day. Then, right at the end of the twentieth century, they launched a dramatic hunt: they would fly a spacecraft through the bright aura, the ‘coma’ of a comet and bring back its dust; they would snatch dust from the cosmos. And they did. It took eleven years before they had their sample and eight more for them to analyse it. Perhaps there is a speck of cosmic dust in my dust bag?

Dust has its spirituality. When present-day astronomers describe dust’s place in the endless creation and break-down of matter, they express scientifically what people have expressed spiritually for centuries. In the Judean-Christian tradition, God breathed life into dust, and it is to dust that people return, ‘dust unto dust’. 

Dust has its poetry that for Rupert Brooke mingles it with love and death, my wife’s and mine eventually:

Nor ever rest, nor ever lie,
Till beyond thinking, out of view,
One mote of dust that’s I
Shall meet one atom that was you.

From Rupert Brooke, ‘Dust’,1910, The Rupert Brooke Society, https://www.rupertbrooke.com/poems/1908-1911/dust/ (accessed 31 July 2022).

As I do my vacuuming on my everyday Saturdays, I cannot think of dust’s history, science, storms and astronomy, or of its intimations of mortality and immortality, love and loss; else I would never get the job done. Yet dust is here, everywhere, every day. Is that the nub of the world’s environmental crisis: that in the business of everyday, we pass by with our connections unacknowledged?

Image from Anthropocene Days, created by Stefania Bonura.

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