Dust: Where Does it Come From?

Graphic by Amy Hoang
March 28, 2024

Dust: Where Does it Come From?

We’ve all seen it before. It can be found on our floors, our tables, and our beloved knick-knacks. We often just brush it off, but at some point, one must consider: Where does it come from? and why does it always come back?

Where does it come from?

Firstly, there are many types of dust. As per the University of Exeter, the types of dust include “Ash”, “Charcoal”, “Soil - Clay”, “Soil - Loamy”, “Stone Dust”, “Wood dust”, “Cement”, “Birds Droppings”, and “Carpet Dust” among others mentioned. In particular, I believe carpet dust is the dust I’ve previously referred to. Thus, for the purposes of this article, unless explicitly mentioned, let “dust” denote “Carpet Dust”.

Those keen may have noticed that the accumulation in a dryer’s lint trap resembles the accumulation on one’s hand or Swiffer Sweeper after taking a swipe at a layer of dust on a surface. This leads me to believe lint may be a form of dust. If we accept lint as a form of dust, however, we’d be faced with the reality that dust is with us, clinging to us, whenever we’re clothed and even intruding in our own bedsheets. This notion, while initially alarming, is trivial when considering further ideas of dust. 

A contributor who chose to remain anonymous brought into question the notion of “human dust”. Consider when one scratches dry skin. If not remaining fixed to the skin, those flakes must go somewhere. Thus, we may all be covered in dust regardless of whether we are clothed or in the comfort of our own beds. Is it a coincidence that we call dry skin (on darker skin tones) ashy? (Recall that “Ash” is a type of dust). These flakes make their way to our surfaces, joining the dust conglomerate. Consider dandruff– then stop because dandruff is simply the aforementioned dead skin cells that fall off the scalp. To the four of five readers who did not relate to the notion of dandruff, you are not alone: “One out of every five people has dandruff”. This leaves four of five people to weep and wonder. 

Perhaps the essence of dust is in being fragments of a whole. This theory generalizes the notion of “human dust” formation and is observed in the cases of “Stone Dust” and “Wood Dust” as fragments of stone and wood respectively. In the case of the soil varieties of dust such as “Soil - Clay” and “Soil - Loamy”, it isn’t immediately clear what each dust is a fragment of. The explanation I offer is that all soils are fragments of some mother soil– a large solid from which all soil dusts are fragmented. A consequence of accepting this generalization, however, is that there must be some mother (carpet) dust from which (carpet) dust is fragmented.

Why does it always come back?

To begin, I must debunk this notion. In contrast to popular belief, dust does not always come back. Take for instance the infamous Dust Bowl of the 1930s on the American High Plains. Severe dust storms blew away much of the region’s topsoil, permanently damaging the land and livelihood of those practicing agriculture on it. The dust, swept by the wind, would never return. It would never fully regenerate either as it takes thousands of years to generate a few centimeters of the desired topsoil. 

Why then does the dust in our own houses choose to stay? Time after time, we wipe or blow it off and yet it always comes back. What is the reason for this deep devotion? Even when faced with our constant rejection and torment. Perhaps dust loves us. Perhaps it cares about us though we never reciprocate. Some may feel uneasy about this, going as far as to reject the notion to avoid seeing themselves in an abusive position. Our lack of natural reciprocation, however, can easily be explained by the cultural barrier separating us and dust. Surely, dust doesn’t realize it makes us sneeze and our eyes itch, but it has no other way to express its feelings than collecting in our homes and waiting for us to notice. But we must be doing something right for dust’s expressions to never waver.

How then, can we prevent our own Dust Bowls from occurring? Many cite that practices of dryland farming methods would have mitigated the effects of the Dust Bowl. My advice to readers is to care for dust and remember that dust cares about you and even contains fragments of yourself. Take each wipe not simply by its utility, but as an act of love. If I could speak to dust in its native language, I would express my gratitude for its fidelity. And if I could meet the mother dust, I would give it a big hug.

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