A wistful history of dust

IMG_3725Gravity piles it on top of itself, floating, then falling, adding layer on unabating layer, never stopping. The dust that envelops us all is almost Shakespearean in character. It’s minute and ephemeral, but can bury whole civilisations under its weight. When the sun lights it up in delicate animated motes, it is even beautiful.

Ultimately though the dust on our shelves symbolises a certain kind of deadening, as in the ashes from the bible reference. Is that why we feel compelled to wipe away the reminder? Is it us trying perhaps to halt the march of entropy, just for a little bit? Dust veneering a surface in someone’s house is not just the presence of ennui, but the stamp of melancholy, a knell of future disorder, a totem to remind us of the illusory impermanence of the world we build around ourselves. We mean to extract information from the universe, but most of the information is still beyond our capacity to measure or read and we choose instead to interpret it to the best of our abilities. That dust on my shelf is rich with information, but to me at this point it is a metaphor for coming chaos. The caveat is that culturally inspired interpretations could be wrong.

I live and breathe in a third-world country. Many among my aspirational countrymen do not like that moniker: third-world country. But the truth is writ all around in the ascending-descending dust. In New Delhi, the capital of India, governments are finally running scared because a killer smog made of what the news media has dubbed ‘particulate matter’ has swallowed up an important city. ‘Particulate matter’ is made up of effluvia of all kinds—fly ash, coal dust, smoke from burning grasses, diesel leavings, concrete ground down by millions of feet and vehicles, bared dry earth thrown to the winds by continuous construction in ecological hotspots, rock dust, pollen, spores, sloughed off human skin, animal dander, microbes, alien meteorite grains, ancient dust left over from the making of the solar system or even the big bang. When a selfie is clicked on a ubiquitous smart phone, the lithium in its battery was born in the dust that cooled from the big bang.

It was dust in space that brought us together here on this pale blue dot. Gravity crunched it all down to start fusion and create a star that gives us light, and out here at this distance the left-over dust made Earth and its magnetic molten iron core that protects us from the radiating dust of our star. And here it is on my table, blown into the room on the wind, smearing and greying, entombing every exposed surface. Just as the wind blew over and buried all traces of a whole bronze-age Indus Valley Civilisation far north of here. Even today, after uncovering a part of this lost civilisation from its dirt shroud, we still cannot say for sure who these people were. Their seals and potsherds do say a lot but not enough. As no Rosetta Stone has been found like in Egypt, their language is still a hotly debated mystery exacerbated by politics and ideology.

Meaning has been given to minute particles through the universal language of quantum physics. Particles seem to appear and disappear or two things about one particle can never be measured at any one moment. This meaning may be abstruse and bizarre to the everyday world, but this meaning is the very foundation of the world around us. It is even hopeful to think that maybe our information was coded into the dust as we were made into being and it will still be there in the dust as will the information of all the other people and creatures that came before and will be after. Dust to dust it is, but with hope. Let’s say then the glass is half full.



2 thoughts on “A wistful history of dust

  1. I was fortunate to be raised by a woman whose creative endeavors exceeded the power of dust. She was a potter (a dusty business in any event) and she did keep a lid on the dust in our home. But when it slipped, she was sure that it was no measure of her worth or direction. What can you say of a life, so full, that a little dust doesn’t matter?

    Liked by 1 person

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