Faith Works 10-25-09
On the Importance of Dust, Et cetera
Orion is heaving himself up over the eastern horizon these days, right about the time all decent citizens of whatever faith tradition are sensibly heading to a warm and cozy bed.
Later, into winter, the three-star belted hunter will shine out as darkness falls, but right now you have to get back up about 5:00 am or so to see Orion; or Osiris, or Finnegan, or Nanabozho, or Mithras, or whomever your culture associates with the striding red capped figure walking across the night sky.
The Orionids are a meteor shower associated with Halley's Comet, that "short period" comet which reminds us of the vastness of scale used by astronomers, since it came in 1910 to carry Samuel Clemens away just as it had brought him, so to speak, 76 years before, and passed through our nights in 1986, not to be seen again until 2061.
While the comet's blaze in swinging 'round the sun is long past and won't come near again for decades, the debris trail left behind is a wider swath, which our planet crosses twice a year. This leads to a distinct, if sparse scatter of meteoric trails, originating from a spot in the sky just over Orion's shoulder.
I went out for the show, too late and again at too early, and saw a handful of silent, swift, emphatic slashes on the sky that left no lasting mark. Each one, no more than a speck of dust, really, but made incandescent by speed and friction and circumstance.
In fact, each day, literally tons of dust and micrometeorites settle onto the earth each day. Your roof may not have any blazing holes through it, but there are almost certainly a scattering of grains from beyond this planet that lay atop your house right now. Every year, tens of thousands, some say millions of tons of cosmic dust are added to the mass of our world as it orbits the sun.
With the new dawn, there are no more meteors to see, but the brilliance of the colors all around. Fall's glory turns to the usual autumn story of dropping leaves, with raking, mowing, mulching (and gutter cleaning) all to do. The bright colors fade into browns and greys, and the artist's palette of complete leaves drops to the studio floor, where they steadily break down into fragments and bits and . . . dust.
Water evaporates, materials compresses, and the whole drifted riot of leaf piles is no more than a thin layer of incipient soil – the agronomists assure us that it takes 500 autumns, 500 falls of forest leaf and dying vegetation, to make one inch of good organic soil. 500 years. Six inches of topsoil in your lawn? 3,000 years of dust laid down.
Even as you look up past the leaves in their descent, and enjoy the frequent stark blue of October noon, too quickly turning into dusk and dark, that cerulean is in fact the result of light scattering in the atmosphere, with the dominant color blue being due to . . . dust.
Then the skies grow less blue, not from impending evening, but with clouds rolling in from the west. Clouds, of course, being the moisture in the air coalescing around windborne . . . dust.
"Dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return." These ancient words of committal tell a truth about one element of the human condition, the source and destination of the essential building blocks for our bodies. We hear them at funerals and Ash Wednesday (perhaps), and just a whisper of those words, echoed in the sound of a dry leaf scraping along a pavement next to the cemetery. "Dust thou art . . ."
Is dust a hint of death? Should we see dust motes in slanting autumn light as a sign of insignificance?
Or does our close connection to dust remind us of our roots in the heart of stars where carbon is formed; that our story layers into a deep, rich, fertile tapestry; we are formed of the same dust that draws bright lines across the vault of heaven, or uplifts the tall cap of cumulonimbus along with the wind and rain.
With the last week of October, we look into the graveyard, across the tombstones, and into the blue sky over a fading forest, shedding its color into a remnant, skeletal stand. Do we shudder with fear, or shiver with wonder? "Fearfully and wonderfully made" we are, and "to dust we shall return" may not tell us all there is to know about where that dust may yet dance.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; shiver his bones with a tale sent to firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow Knapsack @Twitter.com.