Saturday, February 03, 2007

Natural history of dust

In the low winter light you become aware of dust. It's a seasonal thing. Dust doesn't seem such a big deal in the summer. I am sure it is still there, but with the sun high in the sky, it is nearly invisible. The winter, with it's low-angled rays brings dust to your attention. You can see it's shadow on surfaces and it is alarming: big, hulking elongated shadows creeping up behind you like giant mutant dust creatures from a horror movie. High up by the ceiling, cobwebs are suddenly backlit. Swirls of dust never seen before are illuminated as they twist though the air.

I am not a big fan of dust, but still, it fascinates me. It's kind of like the weeds in the garden in that, though unwanted, can still teach you things about what grows well where. Weeds can map the water available and the microclimate of different areas. Dust is a map of energy flow. Particles are picked up from high-flow areas and deposited in low-flow areas. You can use this knowledge of energy currents to help you arrange things and prioritize cleaning. Maybe you could even make a clever dust trap behind the door or under that dresser where it always gathers.

And what about what is in the dust? In my kitchen, it is usually filled with goldfish cracker crumbs and the like. In the entry, the grime is more sandy, in the bedroom, more feathery. After we got the cats, it became more furry. Maybe I should set up dust traps in different parts of the house, collect little vials, and compare...

Anyway, I am not alone in this odd idea. Just today I read in the paper that the National Institute of Standards and Technology sells 10 gram samples of "standard house dust" [Standard Reference Material 2585] for $450 a bottle. (Yes! I have a gold mine! Except that the NIST samples are irradiated and somehow expensively processed to prepare them for study. Sigh.) This "standard" house dust is used to give environmental scientists a baseline of chemicals that would normally be found in a house. Just so you know, higher concentrations of toxics were found in American household dust than European household dust. Interesting. I wonder how our house dust compares. And I've noticed that the dust is different in the different places we've lived. In more urban areas it is darker, blacker. Out here in Colorado it is a sandy tan color.

So before you throw open your windows on the first warm day of spring and whisk it away, think about what you can learn from the dust in your home.

And then there’s dryer lint…

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