Winter 1992, Volume 9.1


Dirt, Rock, Wind, Rain, Ice, Dust: Notes on the Environment

As a native Midwesterner, I grew up assuming that the Earth was earth, that is, soil or dirt. Dirt was the more likely term in Chicago where my grandfather gardened in our city back yard and my New England-bred mother held cleanliness, against odds, on a par with godliness. Rocks and stones were somehow parts of the ground that were mixed in as if they'd been added from above. If, as a boy, I had any sense of geological time and process, it stopped at the observation that big rocks could be broken into smaller rocks. I supposed that stones were all pretty much of a size and had been made rounded to fit the thumb and two fingers for throwing. Beyond that, I had the vague notion that they were all on the way to becoming gravel, the stuff they put in parking lots, back roads, and unfortunately, in playgrounds, where they skinned your elbows and knees.

But Earth itself was simply the ground I walked on, and the ground itself was earthy, was soil, however compacted. It was what invariably made you dirty and had to be washed off. It would grow things, both above and under the surface, whether you planted them or not. That could be either good or bad, since some plants were weeds, and even trees could come up where they weren't wanted. If you added rain to dirt or otherwise moistened or puddled it, you would have mud. And when that dried, you could have clay in some places, clods in others. The difference was in the color and the consistency. When it dried, the clay would become quite hard—almost like rocks, except it could crack and then break into pieces. The clods would just crumble. The only other kind of earth was sand. For some reason it was associated with water. When any of these kinds of earth became extremely dry it could become quite fine, and the wind could whip it up from the surface and blow it way. What happened to it then, except for stinging my eyes, was something I never wondered about.

Memories of the dust bowl years of the 1930s, however, make a dent on these recollections from a Midwestern boyhood. Traveling back through the long stretches of central Wyoming in 1990 brought to mind my family's arduous crossing of that state's Red Desert in 1934. I remember clouds at a distance along our route that turned out to be not clouds but huge billows of blowing dust, thick enough so that my father turned on the car's headlights. A couple times my mother, as we'd enter one of these dust squalls, dampened handkerchiefs from our water jug and passed them to us to hold over our noses and breathe through.

Square, one-room concrete structures had been built at intervals of twenty-five miles or so, alongside the straight highway, as havens for motorists stranded by storms that made travel through those long, remote stretches impossible. Winter storms made these shelters necessary, no doubt, but in that 1930s period of catastrophic drought, they were refuge against those stinging, blinding summer dust storms as well. We stopped at one, I remember, and huddled together to get the feel of it. Inscriptions and serious graffiti on the otherwise bare walls with names, dates, and brief accounts gave us a vivid sense of the isolation, the danger, and the tedium of waiting out the elements of storm in those lonely outposts.

Until then, my experience had not led me to consider the reduction of rock and stone, or any of the friable forms of Earth, to anything more minute than pebbles or grains of sand on benevolent swimming beaches. Dust was something you swept off floors and out of square corners into a dust pan, or brushed off the surfaces of furniture and knick-knacks in the house. It was indoor stuff rather than any part of the outdoor natural world. It was not much more substantial than the soft word dust itself, which turned up in grown-ups' saying "ashes to ashes and dust to dust."

These childhood notions and dustbowl recollections become curiously pertinent when I consider them together with current theories regarding the random collection and compaction of "cosmic dust," the particles that, through gravitational accretion over unthinkable reaches of time, have formed the substance of our solar system, our Earth, and ourselves—the "journeywork of the stars," as Walt Whitman happily expressed it over a century ago.

Quite unexpectedly, these thoughts converged for me in the Canadian province of Ontario, as I drove through a daylong series of rain squalls. Some of them were sudden downpours that nearly obliterated the road ahead. More than once I put on my headlights and seriously considered pulling over to the side to wait out the worst of the storm.

Then, as the rain would let up from time to time, I became aware of the solid, smoothly rounded mounds of exposed rock that rose above the thin topsoil of the Ontario landscape along the north shore of Lake Huron. They sat on the land like huge inverted platters or bowls, bulges on the surface. Yet they were constant reminders of the substrate base, the incredibly hard rock compaction of the Precambrian shield. Where it surfaced as these mounds, it showed the glacial action of the last ice age that had smoothed it into mere undulations on the land. The numerous lakes of all that north country, including the Great Lakes whose shores I was skirting on my travels, were depressions carved into the softer surfaces by the advance and the retreat of those same vast sheaths of ice.

My thoughts, as I drove eastward, moved back through those geomorphic stages. I was pleased rather than unnerved by the realization that the current landscapes I drove through and, when they struck my fancy, stopped to preserve in a photograph, were themselves but a stage in ongoing geomorphic process. Further, it suited my largest sense of Earth cycles and rhythms when I went on to consider the gradual accumulation during the ice ages and then the dispersal over eons, of glacial loess, another kind of Earth dust, the product of the slow, incessant grinding of bed rock as the glacial covers shifted. It was this loess, blown by the winds and settling in prodigious quantities, that helped build up the deep, rich beds of soil throughout the whole center of our continent, chiefly in the Mississippi valley and the farmlands of my native Midwest, but spread also across the plains and prairies westward to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, themselves but a current feature, however imposing to us, in the unfolding megacycles of Earth time.


All these observations call into question for me the traditional metaphor behind our static, essentially negative sense of dust as the irreducible end of life. "Ashes to ashes and dust to dust." "Dust thou art; to dust thou returnest." This biblical perspective leaves out the entire dynamics of evolutionary life on Earth. It reduces human enterprise and responsibility to a practical zero. Yet dust is not an isolated phenomenon but a factor in the cycles of nature, indeed, of cosmic process. Nothing in the natural world is finally inert. Neither is the environment nor our human agency in regard to it. For that matter, as we now have learned to perceive the course of life on Earth, even our notion of "environment" itself—that is, the conditions and limitations within which we live our lives—is being recycled.

When I was growing up in the 1930s and '40s, traveling across the land with my family, learning about the world and myself in it, there was clear consensus that as humans we were the product of two encompassing factors. They were called heredity and environment. One was what was in us. The other was what we were in. "Heredity" was structured biologically. What was considered "environment" was structured sociologically.

Fifty years later the terms have been altered to reflect new perceptions. The broad workings of heredity formerly came in the image of family trees and genealogical charts. Nowadays, following scientific probes into cell biology and the function of DNA in the evolution of living organisms, they have assumed the image of molecules. We now deal with biological inheritance as the complex work of genes. The factor of heredity has become the science of genetics.

The term "environment" is still with us, but a shift of equal scope and significance has taken place there. When I was in school, environment was treated as human environment. It was the product of civilized manipulation of the world and the grounds for social engineering. I was schooled in the 1930s, the decade of the Great Depression and the socio-economic programs of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. This was followed, as I moved into my college years, by the mobilization of the resources of the "free" world against the forces of totalitarianism in a global "world" war. Accordingly, the meaning of environment in our lives reflected immediate, drastic priorities of survival.

In the decades since, however, other, long-range priorities have become evident. In the 1990s, this last decade before the millennial changeover to a new century, we include in the factor of environment all the elements of Earth's biosphere, placing human society within the concepts of the natural world. Until recently, we dealt with the very notion of "the world" in the guise of maps that gave us a surface world of only two elements, land and sea. Divisions of the land were shown according to national and international ownership, a kind of 20th century world feudalism. And the feuds have continued. Even when my schoolrooms represented the world as a sphere, it was still a global map, given definition through surface geographical names and political demarcations set on a geometric gridwork drawn with a surveyor's mechanical compass.

But the images of our world we've developed since I was a boy traveling the land with my box camera have become immensely more sophisticated. In my lifetime the art of photography has opened our eyes to new facets of both reality and dream. The new world image is that of the global planet photographed from the freedom of space and viewed as a continuous revolving whole. The old term "world" becomes more often an adjective to modify social and political concerns, while the noun sense of the whole becomes planetary. Beyond our world political communities, we have become inhabitants of Earth.

Our involvement with environment follows suit. The shift is signaled in our language by the addition of the definite article "the" in the environment. Fifty years ago, my teachers spoke of "an environment" as a local set of living conditions—such as a city or a rural environment. Traveling cross-country, I moved through a variety of environments. Now, our view subsumes these in a comprehensive set of conditions for all life. The interlacing parts clearly make one whole. The limitations of Earth are palpable and inescapable in that photographic image of our blue planet, with its swirl of circling clouds, floating unattached in space. There are no artificial geographical or political divisions, no national boundaries, no arbitrary names or subordinating lines of latitude and longitude showing on Earth itself. And we know that even in the photographs from space we see only the surface. We know that the atmosphere above and the concentric layerings, solid and molten, below that surface also constitute the environment.

Still, our common daily approach to the living landscapes through which we move lags behind our ecological awareness. We still respond to the classical ideal, revived in the Renaissance and present ever since, of the pastoral. We still travel through the scenery of our lives in the 18th century mode of the picturesque, substituting our vacation photo albums for the gentleman's and gentlewoman's sketch books. We continue our quest as traveler-adventurers in the 19th century search for the sublime. Our snapshots, slide collections, and oversize coffee table books attest to the continuity of all three of these traditional ways to seek and extol the beauties of Earth's surfaces and of our human interaction with them. Yet there is a new impulse to amplify these aesthetics of place and scene with a fuller awareness of the natural processes at work in them.

Neither heredity nor environment can stand still. Properly seen, there is no such thing as a still photograph, except as a technical achievement. The landscapes and scenery we are drawn to and marvel at the most are not themselves technical achievements. Nor—at least at this critical point in the history of our planet—are we. Rather, we are animate products of the very scenes we survey. As the century comes to an end, it has become our responsibility as well as our privilege to appreciate the dynamics incessantly at work on all the scenes we enter, admire, and celebrate in our increasingly familial planetary world.