Hidden in Plain Sight

We are experiencing a record level of cleanliness, yet dust goes on unnoticed.

A old opened window with plant on it
Photo by Denny Müller / Unsplash

Dust is a constant part of our lives. It coats every surface, it lines every corner, and it makes cleaning my room far more annoying than I’d like it to be. You never notice it until it makes its gradual approach over the days and weeks, as it seemingly precipitates from thin air. It’s everywhere and nowhere, hiding in plain sight until it crosses a beam of sunshine, and then thousands of little motes can be seen drifting in the air currents. You can wave your hand out, and watch a sea of them part around your fingers, and yet you never feel a thing.

It’s strange to think about dust in today’s world. Cleanliness has become a cornerstone in our society: counters must be disinfected, air has to be purified, and food and drink becomes ultra-filtered for our safety. Especially since the COVID-19 pandemic started, people have been dousing themselves in hand sanitizer and spending time rigorously washing and cleaning their surroundings. With everyone paranoid about that one specific virus that clutters up all the news feeds, it’s funny that few people (other those who are allergic) actually pay attention to the dust that clings to the surfaces around them.

All those little motes you see in that sunbeam, all those dust particles floating around aimlessly are near-microscopic pieces of skin or clothes or mites. And while people spend all this time cleaning their tables and counters, that film of dust coating the top, that microbiome of skin cells and bacteria and microscopic creatures remains unnoticed and unaddressed.

That microbiome is fascinating to me. If I were to take a sample of the dust I know exists on the top of my cabinets and place it under the microscope, I know I would see a plethora of miniature creatures. From little multi-legged mites to shredded skin cells to spiny spores of exotic fungi, they all would lie there in a state of constant struggle and competition for food and dominance. They live their entire lives on that miniature scale, doing whatever it is those tiny creatures do, and we never see them outside these scant few glimpses we get through highly specialized lenses and mirrors. For a fleeting moment, they are seen as an image on the other end of that microscope. For the rest of our lives, they simply exist as that sheen of dust on the high shelf you clean only a few times a year (if you don’t have greater than 4000/20 vision, that is.).

You can’t see them, you can’t touch them, and if you were to try, you would irreparably damage the entire system. Even dragging a finger across dust could throw the entire biome out of sync. Thousands of tardigrades or mites and other microscopic creatures might perish, and those that remain might lose the food that sustained them. Just a finger is more than enough to destroy an entire system of creatures we can’t even see, and the broom I use to sweep it all off is essentially a mass extinction event. That surface, wiped of life, in my cleaning and tidying efforts, functionally turns into a graveyard for the millions of critters that gave their life so that I might not get yelled at by my parents for not being thorough enough in my de-dusting efforts.

But that’s the way it goes sometimes. Some have to lose for others to win. And every now and then, you have to wipe the slate completely blank to move forward. Because the truth really is this: life is always going to find a way. As brutal as it is destroying entire colonies of seemingly undeserved microfauna, wiping the top of that cabinet and removing the dust from it sets the stage for another bloom of life to follow. Because as it turns out, for as long as we stay in our houses, there will always be another speck of dust blowing in the breeze. That speck will drop onto that cabinet surface, and another one will come after that. Given enough time, enough of them will land back there to draw the attention of an onlooker, and after amassing in the order of millions of those tiny motes, they become visible enough to be swept away once more, for the cycle to repeat anew.