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MARTHA SEZ: Examining the secret life of dust
July 13, 2017

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"For dust you are, and to dust you will return."

(Genesis 3:19)

I have always believed that housework is fundamentally an attempt at control, not just over the order of our immediate household, but over our life in general.

If we can't even control the cobwebs in the corners and the dust under the sofa, how are we to stave off our own mortality?

Have you noticed how active the spiders have become recently? This is the start of spider season; it comes every year. Even though the little psychopaths capture and assassinate many bugs we may like even less, we feel compelled to knock down their webs with a broom, just as people have been doing for centuries. Dust and cobwebs are Halloweenish symbols of neglect and decay.

If the tone of this column seems glum, what with all of this mention of mortality, it is because I have been reading "The Secret Life of Dust," By Hannah Holmes. I was going to report on her more recent books, "Suburban Safari: A Year on the Lawn," and "The Human Animal," and perhaps I will next week, but today I am held in thrall by her earlier, darker book, this study of dust.

The main theme of "The Secret Life of Dust" seems to be that we come from dust and will be dust, without fail, again. Nowhere else have I seen science and the Old Testament come together so neatly; and yet I feel that the author need not have been so glib about it. She appears, in fact, to be downright delighted, in that way scientists have, to be spouting the disturbing news so coldheartedly, or at least offhandedly.

Asthma among children is on the increase, although no one appears to understand why, Holmes tells us. Many kinds of dust trigger asthma attacks, but why are more and more children developing this bronchial sensitivity in the first place?

Some scientific studies have indicated that children who are raised in hermetically sealed neat and clean dust-free environments are more likely to develop asthma than those raised among dust bunnies. There is a theory out there that dust may strengthen our auto-immune systems. I like this theory, not so much because I believe it to be true, but because it makes me feel better about my own housekeeping.

Vacuuming and sweeping actually cause dust to rise into the air, where humans breathe it, Holmes writes. This backs up my lifelong fear of vacuum cleaning.

When I was a child back in the 1950s, women and girls were pretty much the only people who wielded vacuum cleaners, except for janitors, who at least got paid for it. Women were expected to vacuum, Which caused a certain amount of resentment, resulting in the practice of the slam method of vacuuming.

I myself have practiced the slam method of vacuuming. Some may call it passive aggressive. I personally maintain that passive aggression has been given a bum rap. What are one's choices in a situation in which one, normally so sweet, begins to feel-well, a little upset?

The choices are passive aggression, active aggression and being nice. Active aggression is arguably worse than passive aggression, and being nice is not always possible. As a result, hostile vacuuming, with its loud noise, reckless bashing of walls and furniture, and self-righteous implication "Someone has to do the cleaning around here!" comes in right next to banging the cupboard doors.

Holmes tells us that the dust on our television screen and beneath the bed is a conglomeration of tiny disparate particles, including star dust from meteorites, desert sand from as far away as Asia and Africa, lint, bacteria and bits of our own sloughed off skin as well as dust mites and the so-called pseudo-scorpions that stalk them.

Far from romaniticizing a person's aura-but then, Holmes is a scientist, after all, not a psychic-she writes that we all walk around in our own individual clouds of dead cells, moisture droplets, and so on.

In the last chapter, she sanguinely points out, "Indeed, the entire earth will be dust."

The good part is that all of this dust may float around the universe until it gathers itself into other planets, just as our solar system began. New life may emerge.

The book ends on this note: "And then, like an old newspaper in the attic, the worn-out universe will gradually disappear under the thickening dust."

Maybe so, but that's no excuse not to clean up your room.

Have a good week.

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