What could be more lowly and inconsequential than dust? A particle of dust, a single speck, is invisible with barely a purchase on existence at all. Only in great congregations can dust hope to assert itself. Yet even then its claims are scarcely stronger. Dust is seen rather as an imperfection, an accidental and undesirable accretion on some more solid substance. In wiping the dust from the bookshelf, one turns it into a reassuringly recognizable though disagreeable smudge. But even that smudge may be a simulacrum, itself projected from the cerebral magic lantern, an image of our restless refusal to be satisfied with the apparently fallen state of things. Surely the Sixth Patriarch would object, as he may have done before even his own birth, and then perhaps with warmer conviction, “Buddha-nature is forever clear and pure,/ Where is there any dust?”
Still, even Buddhists persist in spring cleaning and have in fact an illuminated janitor among their worthies. I found after a thorough renewal of my own home, when I came at last to clean the cellar, that the very foundation bricks were returning to dust regardless of temporary tidiness upstairs, and I took it for a sign, and was busy for hours thereafter at least. I soon faced, though, the conundrum that while one man, expecting to live but a little space of time, might feel inclined to labor to complete some great project before passing, another might feel that, under the cosmic arch, and with the light of eons trained upon the stage, play alone is profitable. Yet most of us neither work nor play in earnest but rather step from one hour to the next like travelers stepping on rocks to ford a stream, relieved to have come this far at least without falling. And all the while the stones and the bricks are turning ever so slowly to dust, even now this very evening, and disintegration then makes a quiet background to our talk, a music as light and massive as the falling of snow, and these lost downtown Middletown building basements are crumbling, too, into debris of paint chips and brick-dust and sand and nameless forlorn forgotten traces that once were new and had a great future before them.
Most dust, though, is not the return to nature of structures built by man. A great part is blown soil, for terra firma is never very reliable, and yesterday’s forest floor may be blowing about one’s head today, and blowing even into the eyes, and in that way clouding the judgment and the temperament alike. The earth does not cease with the topsoil, but rarifies only. And even the sea, which seems a more unlikely source for dust is a more prodigious one in fact. For the liquid and greater part of the earth’s surface sprays forth several billion tons of salt dust annually, a figure as grand and oceanic as anyone could wish, so the Pacific is not below sea level alone, but reaches far into the ether and blows about the globe unimpeded in a most free and enviable way and mingles there with salt from other seas.
Soil and sea water being the main constituents of the surface of this earth, it is unsurprising that they predominate as sources of airborne dust. And all the dramatic upheavals that impress us so contribute far less, though they do have their place. The volcanoes that sometimes erupt in the Icelandic islands, forest fires, like those that devastated great tracts of Mongolia and Indonesia this past year, man’s profligate addiction to fossil fuels in combustion industrial and domestic, as well as all the coughing exhausts of our American totem, the automobile, no longer the finned Leviathan it once was, but a most hungry sports utility truck-baby still, all these dramatic and fiery transformations produce smoke pregnant with dust. Dust puts us in our place when even our worst bugaboos and habitual vices make little mess.
The final source of any significance is meteoric matter, penetrating from space into the earth’s atmosphere, so that the dust hanging in a shaft of sunlight may indeed partake of stardust as you had imagined as a wise and dreaming child.
Organic dust does, of course, exist in complex architectural molecules of rich variety: pollen, mite feces, cast off epithelial cells, but these are trivial, just as my life or all biological time is a mere flash in the sun’s pan, and the sun itself a pulse in ever so grander a void. Though veterinarians call blockages in horse intestines “dust balls,” these have none of the sprightly levity of dust, but weigh upon the beast most unpleasantly, I am told, and have the damp and smelly character we associate unmistakably with life.
In the heroic world of the Iliad, however, dust meant submission rather and a quick and violent death. The poet speaks of simple sinking to the dust, clawing the dust, and, in a memorable congruence of archaic Greece and Dodge City, Agamemnon prays his enemies may “bite the dust as they fall dying.”
As though aware of their transience in this dusty world, Abraham and Joshua, too, put on dust and ashes, but in their case as a voluntary ritual of submission. “I give up” may be the first words of an honest man, as the Twelve Step programs would have it, or Islam, whose very name denotes surrender, but the ancient Hellenic and Hebraic patriarchs seem to have submitted in a lugubrious mood. Still, some researchers have proposed that laughter, too, is a gesture of submission, to enhance civility and discourage dustups. Democritus, who saw only atoms (a close cousin to dust) and empty space and worlds upon worlds coming into existence and disappearing in time, could only laugh and extol cheerfulness as the most sublime reaction to the human predicament. He was wise enough to know that he was obliged to submit to the world or to persist in knocking his brain-pan against the same spot indefinitely which would soon become tiresome and raise ugly bruises to boot.
This , however, has not prevented some from crying out against the world’s long cons. Amos the herdsman of Tekos hurled dark words against those who sought to toss “the dust of the earth on the head of the poor.” We all bear the burden of sufficient dust in nature without dusting our brother the more as we ride him piggyback. Amos attacked those who “swallow up the needy,” and would sell the poor for a pair of shoes, and if anyone here is wearing Nikes, these words have landed in the dustbin of history through a rather rough twenty-seven hundred years, but only because the Wobblies were right when they declared that “the working class and the employing class have nothing in common,” and the rich are always puckish, ready to vamp on the nearest warm blood available that won’t fight back. And even if we’re hard put to see who it is that we rule, we are all Americans and thus by definition have a superfluity of shoes and a shortage of prophets, and if we faced the plate naked at dinner time we should know that we are eating the poor in spite of Amos and Dean Swift and Lu Hsun who did their job as poets and gave fair warning.
I once visited London when the dustmen were on strike and their absence was immediately apparent in stinking heaps outside the Albert Hall (which itself strikes some as a disagreeable heap). And I have lingered in Lagos where plumbing is rare and the rain doesn’t begin to wash away the rot. The shit-carrier in Fela’s song “Alogbon Close” spoke the truth when he declared to the big shots, “I be agbepa I de do my part/ Without me your city go smell like shit.” The composer of a gospel for Martin Luther King could have done no better than to bring him to death while defending the garbage-men of Memphis.
Every word has a semantic cloud defined by bits of meaning flung across a field and the spoor of words may be traced with precision through time. Dust descends from Germanic dunst which meant that which rises or is blown about in a cloud such as dust, vapor, or smoke. How close this definition is the the list of images for the world in the Diamond Sutra! The Buddha told Subhuti we should view what we can see as we would a star, as a blind spot, as a lamp, a magic show, a dew drop, a bubble, a dream, a flash of lightning, or a cloud. Insubstantiality links these terms, but insubstantiality has, too, another face, and the Ur-Wort also can mean breath. Indeed, Jehovah formed man from “the dust of the ground.” In the same way, dust, the most useless of things, has a form similar to flour and meal, the foodstuffs that allowed accumulation of surpluses and opened the way to all artistic and intellectual pursuits. For shaman, poet, priest, and tenured professor who dig no physical dirt and produce no tangible and edible fruit are thereby allowed the liberty to construct sweetmeats of the mind and sometimes more substantial fare as well.
The unapologetic unproductive character of the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is fossilized in the name of the lovely liberal arts, necessarily reserved for freemen only, and the word school meant simply leisure in the Greek language and this was carried into Latin and thence to English, and schoolboys have forgotten that to sit before even a squinty and dyspeptic teacher is quite a different and a better thing than to follow the foreman into a mine like the British children of whom Marx tells who worked and sweated and drank their whiskey and cursed their lot, the nameless Victorian working-class girl who “spelt God as dog and did not know the name of the queen,” or Blake’s dear chimney sweep with his poignant call “ ‘weep! ‘weep!”
More indirect and hence perhaps more revealing, the Chinese word ch’en means dust or dirt and also means the world. The semantic radical is t’a the earth and the phonetic is lu a deer, showing horns, body, and feet. Did the sign suggest the dust raised by a deer in flight? Meaning retreating from the viewer? Truth hightailing it? I have somewhere a copy of a sermon preached for a Southern funeral in which the soul was figured as a deer, racing to the river, pursued by hunter/relatives and dog/doctors seeking to prolong its life. But the deer leaped the creek which is to say the River Jordan and arrived safer on the other side. What relation might this soul-deer be to the animal between whose horns Christ has been sighted, ot the beloved hind whom Wyatt found “wild for to hold, though I seem tame”? But I should leave etymology for even its moister byways and further superstructures might seem dry-as-dust to those of little Sitzfleisch.
Dust settles, reminding each temporarily solid surface of the passage of time, and according to Ferdinand von Richtofen settled dust is the origin of the loess deposits which in China reach thicknesses of seven hundred feet. Siince it is estimated that sixty-eight tons of dust fall each year on New York City, perhaps in time Manhattan will share the fate of the lost city of Ubar, “the Atlantis of the sands,” ruined capital of the people of Ad who Mohammed said were buried for their sins, like the Sodomites before them, though in this case leaving behind “weird monkey-like creatures called nisnas to haunt the spot. In Arabia one sees, as well,m a dust devil now and then, which bustles industrious about its business, but sand is grosser than dust and sooner comes down, though it keeps many secrets, even if Ubar is now known.
And dust rises, demonstrating to us a solemn and self-absorbed movement that makes a middle between the microcosm of the subatomic particles and whatever smaller stuff may lie beyond and the greatest macrocosm, the immense vasts where things drift, and it still may be that our cosmos is a dust mote in one still greater. Each cloud of dust presages the great entropic soup toward which all tends and which is contained as well within the inner heart of present things. So all about on every side one sees nothing but a lazy flux, an easy aimlessness, a hium of action without goal that should instruct in the art of non-doing the Daoists call wu wei.
Dust is the very soul of clouds which can form only when the requisite number of solid condensation nuclei, which is to say, dust particles on assignment, are floating above. Air and water can fill the sky with fancy and make every mood concrete, but only with the excuse of a high-flying dust cloud, too sparse to see from ground level, but crowded nonetheless at three hundred to five hundred particles per cubic centimeter. And the clouds are instructive in their plasticity in that they move and change and mimic and mock in time all that occurs below. But to go into the cumulus, which is to say the heap, in an airplane is always disappointing because the cloud block the view and leave the passenger reliant only on his own imagination or the in-flight magazine which is little consolation or salt peanuts which is something better at least either in the form of high-borne music or as aliment. So it is with many a marvel, and thus the wiser part is often to pass the opportunity to pierce the veil as the view is generally better from before it.
But for scale and for time, I, too, am dust, and you. We all deserve the title of “dustyfoot” the Scots gave wayfaring peddlers though our heels are no more dust in the end than our heads and our hearts. So let us salute each other and trust our sweat and tears and in the end our blood will serve to keep down the dust a while at least. These words are only so much the more dust tossed atop millennia of dusty stacks, but there can be no end of words, and never an end to dust, for there is no road but the dusty road, and the way leads willy-nilly irresistibly on.