and so we may feel echoes
We experience dust. We may notice it or not, but it's there. Covering all things; thick in the air. Inhabiting, dispersing. We share the dust as we share the atmosphere. All things (including ourselves) are on the way to becoming dust, just as the dust is shaping into things. It is a resource and a nuisance; it can be an archive and a disguise. Dust is political and unjust. It is rude and unremarkable. It is uncontrollable.
As I write this, I am slowly being covered in a sticky yellow dust that seems to completely cover my front porch every 8 hours or so. I am in Atlanta, Georgia, and every morning I awake to a fresh coat of yellow, powdery pollen. If I sweep it away first thing, there will inevitably be a replacement coat by noon. It's Spring in the Deep South, and yellow particles are visible everywhere, a part of everyone.
Pollen is dust with potential. Each speck is essential for growth, creation and transformation of the plant for which it is destined. It is also a particulate archive, holding knowledge about seasons, fertility and climate that help us to understand deep time. Pollen holds memory. It can also be inconvenient.
For reasons unclear, many of us are deeply, physically aware of pollen. Our eyes and breathing systems sense these particles acutely, mis-identifying them as dangerous and (over)reacting with all available defenses. In a way, our systems are effective instruments of detection – bringing awareness of specific pollen types, the earth's turning and the contents of the air.
Unlike other descriptors that might explain the make up, chemistry, motion or shape of matter, the word particle describes specifically a size and a relationship to that size. A particle is a piece, a bit, a speck. Eroded or erupted; airborne or resting as a quiet film; barely perceived or not at all – particles may be associated with the site of their origin, their resting place, or their travelling state distinct from the medium they inhabit.
But a particle does not usually present itself to observers as one alone. To be noticed (or sensed), particles must be present in great numbers; experienced as a dusty residue on a window or a table, or a cloudy haze. Smaller bits require the assistance of apparatuses to extend one’s sensory capabilities. Microscopes further visual reach but only to a certain point. The sensorial equipment required tends to grow in size exponentially as the particle being sought becomes smaller.
We became interested in dust by investigating a subatomic particle so small and fast that it rarely interacts with normal matter: the neutrino. In the 1930s a particle physicist named Wolfgang Pauli noted: “I have done a terrible thing. I have postulated a particle that cannot be detected ”. With no mass, no electric charge and extremely weak interactions, the neutrino seemed utterly elusive. By the 1950s, specialized sensors noted the slight effect of neutrinos on other observable particles, proving their existence. Neutrinos originate naturally in nuclear reactions in the sun, in black holes and stars. Once projected outward, a neutrino will travel in a straight line forever, moving through all matter that it encounters without reacting or shifting its course. Neutrinos also have a memory, containing an archive of information about their origin, how far they have travelled and their trajectory. They are everywhere – travelling through all space and matter in a constant stream. Every moment 100,000 neutrinos from the sun pass through your body.
Theoretical particle physics, particularly neutrino research, happens at the edge of knowledge: a space of projection, extrapolation and theory. This way of thinking is also relevant when considering the impact of the distant past and emerging futures of the earth.
Earthly detection of neutrinos predominantly happens in areas far underground, the dense rock creating a buffer to quieten the “cosmic noise” crowding the surface. The deep caverns and tunnels of unused mines make ideal detection sites, and so these hollowed out spaces are repurposed – a mine shaft carrying physicists instead of miners, blasted out chambers that once removed mineral wealth housing vast detectors to sense the extremely small. The detectors are often materially simple – using purified water, steel, mineral oil, or ice as a medium to attempt to catch a shift in electrons that signifies the neutrino passing through. The first naturally occurring neutrino was detected in a mine shaft of the East Rand Proprietary Mines in Boksburg, east of Johannesburg. It must have been relatively ‘quiet’ three kilometers down, though mining continued even while the detector waited and listened for passing particles.
On my way to the airport, rushing eastwards through the arteries of the urban landscape, the traffic slowed abruptly. Like dominos we hit each other: a truck into a car into me, and me into another. No one was hurt, though the cars sat, undrivable, in the middle lane. An island amidst crawling traffic and watchful drivers. The headgear of that mine was probably viewable from where I sat, if I knew where to look through the haze. A neutrino must have an effect on surrounding atoms to be noticed - an impact is necessary to know that it is there.
A different kind of particulate originates from these same deep places in Johannesburg. Mine dust, a silty yellow film (like pollen), is a substance that exists entirely because of industry. These particles were buried beneath many layers of sediment and rock for millennia. For their metallic value, they are unearthed, fragmented and denuded. They are the bleached and stripped refuse after all value has been drained out. Piled high in tailings dams, or mine dumps (as they are locally known), these dust mounds form a unique backdrop to the city.
I can attempt to imagine the meteor that hit the earth two billion years ago that rippled the strata, upending the golden layer so that it lay diagonally towards the surface; the erosion of softer layers until the tilted strata touched air.
Johannesburg mine dust holds a time record of a different sort. The tailings dams move from deep golden yellow colour near the city centre to a brilliant white at the extremities of east and west, noting (through tone) the progressive effectiveness of extraction over a hundred years. The yellow colour indicates the presence of low grade uranium. This radioactive metal was once deemed too expensive to extract, but as markets and global needs have shifted (and as the available gold becomes too deep to access safely), the re-mining of the older tailings dams has become viable and highly profitable.
Mine dust exists because of human industrial processes, but its presence is alien, unknown and without use (except for possible further extraction). In the city we can sense it - in the cracks in our shoes and under our fingernails, on our tongues and in our lungs. When the August winds blow especially, it acts as an irritant - making its comparatively minute presence known to our bodies in sometimes debilitating ways.
The city and its colonial inhabitants were aware of the adverse effects of mine dust even as they planned the town that would become Johannesburg. The Witwatersrand ridge, spanning east to west across the city, served as a natural dust barrier. It divided the city’s industry, its mines and the dumps that grew around them from the wealthy white middle class who benefited from the colonial system. This geological feature was utilized as a buffer continually as the city grew, as well as a directive to divide which was fully embodied in the Apartheid system established in 1948. From this point, the right to clean air (and so the right to breathe effectively) became profoundly linked to an individual’s race and capital.
In July of 2019 we visited the West Rand with mining activist Mariette Liefferink. Beside an unpaved road between the mine dumps, we found strange pipe-shaped fragments. A steel pipe that had until recently transported sand submerged in water from the nearby dumps to a re-mining facility had been removed. The fragments we found were, on closer inspection, heavy metal sediment that had formed inside the pipes. Layers that had once formed strata beneath the ground had settled in a circular formation within the pipes. When the pipes were removed, the imprint of the residue remained.
How might we imagine the dust settling in the internal piping of a body breathing? Could sediment rest and become layered in bronchioles? Could these layers mark a history of industry, circumstance, mineral wealth and systemic oppression through the microscopic stratified surfaces lining the inner systems of those who have spent their lives in this air? With each wave-like rhythm of gaseous exchange, do we add to the chemical and geological archive we carry? The greater burden of dust – this toxicity and radioactive residue – was historically and is presently, held by those who do not benefit from the value it has borne. There is inequality in breathing.
In his essay Change in the Air, geologist Jan Zalasiewicz writes about the shifting nature of airborne dust in relation to human industry. Along with minute fossilized sea creatures, minerals and volcanic silt the dust contains fly ash, black carbon, nitrogen rich fertilizer and mine dust. Trade winds, as he describes, transport this dust to far off nations. What message do we send from Johannesburg with our toxic yellow white particulate? Could these particles serve as an insidious reminder that the colonial extraction of wealth is not without its poisonous echo?
For dust, the air is porous: a mingling mixture of particles. Alive and dead, recently released, about to settle or uninhibited for eternity. Studies of the atmospheric biome show that dust particles – be they from deserts or dumps, organic or toxic – are necessary for the formation of clouds and rain. Each speck can behave and affect according to its chemical self, and yet its physical presence in the air is part of the system the earth relies on. It is only dust, and it is everything.