In Praise of Dust

On the scales of Fate, dust is what remains of all our good intentions.

Many of us view housekeeping as a series of mind-numbing tasks, best done by someone else. Yet I’d like to propose a thinking person’s guide to general maintenance. Think of this as “housekeeping for sapiosexuals,” a brief manual for people aroused by big questions about the nature of the universe and the cosmic significance of dust. Dust–ephemeral, elusive.  The mote that existed long before the human eye.  Its provenance, some Ur-speck that traveled from a burning star through the haze of interstellar space, cooling and condensing into its present form.  Recall its romantic origin—the first orgasmic explosion, that cosmic collision that produced all life on earth.

Dust lackadaisically spreads itself around the house as if it owned the place.  As soon as the cloth has cleared the surface, a new cluster appears and thumbs its nose at us.

With that first whisk of the feather duster, we whisper “Gotcha!” then moments later, we are pursuing these creatures as they dart around the room, engaged in that age-old game of hide-and-seek.  Sometimes  I wonder, is dust acting on a grudge, or expressing its own kind of constancy and devotion?  Dust may be our silent partner in a lifelong courtship—and on the scales of Fate, what remains of all our good intentions.

But there’s more to the story than that. Remember that expression, “I’ll give you a real dusting now”—a parental threat, followed by a quick swipe across the hindquarters? What made our guardians think they could clean up our behavior by invoking an amalgam of dead skin cells, plant pollen, mold, hair, and fiber—the strange lacunae of the living world? Well, there may have been some method to their madness.

Holmes reports that the Earth grows fatter each day, thanks to the continuous supply of specks…this mass of microscopic motes that have literally descended from the Stars.

Dust,  this domestic squatter, has its own sense of morality.  In The Secret Life of Dust, Hannah Holmes describes this substance as the planet’s “Picture of Dorian Gray.” It is nothing less than the “fragmenting skin of the Earth,” continually sloughing off its face.  This is the way things and bodies age.  Dust rises “both at nature’s urging and our own, it changes the weather..(altering) the seas and the soils and the delicate linings of our own lungs. In tiny things, there is huge magic and colossal mayhem.”  Holmes reports that the Earth grows fatter each day, thanks to the continuous supply of specks…this mass of microscopic motes that have literally descended from the Stars. “They’re everywhere,” an astronomer tells her. “You eat them all the time. Any carpet would have ‘em.” So, too, would your bookshelves and your countertops.  You are continually ingesting a kind of cosmic debris—most of which comes from colliding asteroids near the planet Mars.  As this stuff moves toward the Sun, a good bit of it falls on our cars, our houses, and our gardens.

Holmes says it takes roughly 10,000 years for a small grain of dust to migrate from an asteroid belt to the surface of the Sun.  In that blazing furnace, each grain melts down into a small sphere with ears that looks like Mickey Mouse.  Daily, the surface of your skin is being colonized by this Disney creature who also makes an important contribution to your health, protecting you from allergies and asthma, and letting you breathe a bit better every night.   We tend to think of dust as causing us to sneeze, but the opposite is true.  We’ve been wheezing more, of late, because in our obsession with cleanliness, we’ve tried to do away with Mickey.

We’ve gotten so good at creating tighter houses, and better ventilating units,  that the lack of dust is affecting our immune system.

In 1950, children spent about four hours a day outdoors, building up their tolerance for dust and pollen.  Today they spend fewer than 30 minutes, which means they’re not getting this natural form of inoculation.  Studies show that in villages throughout the developing world, where walking remains the normal form of transport, asthma is rare.  In short, children really need their parents to give them a good dusting now.

“It’s intriguing to think that there are some things in dust that can educate the immune systems,” says Andrew Liu, a physician and asthma specialist at the National Jewish Medical Research Center in Denver, Colorado. Epidemiologists now talk about a day when babies who don’t have enough dust at home might be injected with it as a way to fend off asthma.

When my great grandmother took a piece of china down from the plate rack, it went directly on the kitchen table, no matter how long it had been exposed to the daily flow of dust.  My mother asked why she didn’t give it a cursory wipe with a dish towel first, before serving the meal.  “Well,” Lotte said. “We’ve all got to eat a peck of dirt before we die.”  There was more wisdom in those words back then than anybody knew.  So open up those windows and let those cosmic travelers land on your floors and tables. Your health may depend upon this kind of hospitality—and your willingness to treat these motes as honored guests.


Valerie Andrews
Valerie Andrews
VALERIE is the Chief Storyteller for Reinventing Home, an online magazine exploring how home shapes our culture, creativity, and character. Isabel Allende calls this publication Brain Pickings for the Home—a thinking person’s guide to the well-lived life. Our contributors explore home as a personal sanctuary and interactive hive, and how home contributes to our health, happiness, and productivity. Valerie calls her own features “a mindful approach to home with a Jungian twist” and considers everything from the secret lives of our possessions to how the dust underneath your bed is related to the creation of the cosmos. Reinventing Home is nonprofit journalism at its best—a virtual living room for an enlightened conversation about the way we feel about our nests and the bigger issues that are shaping home today, from technology to climate change. Read more at

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    • So glad this one took you by surprise, Charlotte. I loved your light-hearted comment—would that were the case! My great grandmother died in her 90s while canning peaches at the kitchen sink, back in 1959. She had her hands in the soil every day, and there was little in her house to keep. Two hardback chairs in the living room, a curtain separating that from the bedroom — a small cot with a horsetail mattress and a side table with a Bible on it. Her “peck of dirt you have to eat before you die” referred to untampered with, mineral rich, organic earth. When I was living in Manhattan and came down with the grippe, a German neighbor brought me a glass of what looked like chocolate milk and said, “chug it down.” It was Luvos earth, a medical grade form of dirt, a not so distant cousin to the dust bunnies in my article. My great grandmother Lotte would have approved.