Between Dust and Star

Today Star Wars: The Last Jedi opens in the theaters, but I’ll be waiting to see it until the heat dies down and the Christmas season ends. It’s important to me, but not so much that I would insist on joining the literal crowd. Life is, as it turns out, already quite crowded enough.

I was scanning satellite radio today, which I do not normally do, while running errands, driving through our snowy streets with my dog in the backseat, when I happened upon a mind-blowing discussion. The BBC radio program Crowd Science on Sirius XM, in my first time listening, was airing an episode about the science of household dust.

What struck me, among other things, is the living diversity resident in our everyday dust bunnies. Millions of microbes, fungi, insect and arthropod parts, dead skin, hair, and mostly fabric fibers. VOCs, too, to be sure. One perspective urged policy changes in the safety of household products to reduce the numbers of toxins sold to consumers, while another noted that we can safely live with a fair amount of dust and that some of the ways it is created (bacteria pooping out gold, for instance) may actually be beneficial.

Interesting as well was the expert perspective on how and how often to dust one’s home. Not too frequently but just enough so that the dust doesn’t permanently attach to the surface of furniture and other materials, which it will do for a few different reasons, by a few different chemical processes. One has to do with bacteria, another with humidity changes, and I forget the third. Dust on surfaces of dressers and tables can become permanent film that only a professional restoration service will be able to lift.

One’s dust can reveal under a microscope quite a lot of specifics about who one is and where one lives. Bald residents without pets will have far less hair in their dust bunnies, as a volunteer resident of Australia helped the program to reveal. And certain plants and fungi only live in certain areas, laying their detritus in the trims of our doorways to the outside. Dust is usually gray, even if you have colorful hair and a vibrant wardrobe, due to the blending of many colors that can be seen individually only when examined up close.

My own thoughts from the program?

Although we have the traditional saying from the Bible “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” little did we then know how much more than inanimate dirt our dust contained. Even after we die, the microbes we have shed comprise our ashes, especially when mixed again after, say, crematory sterilization, with the living ecosystems in outdoor soils, material surfaces, and liquid solutions. In death, there is always life, not just the promise of new life. It is not a linear, isolated cycle but a multifaceted, continuous whirlwind.

This quite changes the view of our bodily rest.

If spiritually we find peace, rest assured, our bodies and their shed layers never really do. We might as well say the remains of our deceased have been laid not to rest but to writhe and wriggle, freeze and thaw, moisten and re-crystallize, expand and contract, and generally remain restless and teeming with all kinds of life, as long as some trace of themselves stays detectable by microscope in their bodies’ places of final rest.

It lends new meaning, but perhaps less importance, to the notion that our molecules go literally everywhere whether we are alive or dead, and that our skin sheds enough to help create a whole new being left behind from our person repeatedly during our lives.

The bottom line is that there is no true separation on a physical level, none that we can see and distinguish with our hands and eyes unaided by science, between our biological lives and the lives of millions and millions of others of too many different living species to count.

The implications are up for grabs. Be grossed out. Claim it as an incentive for wildlife conservation (“we are one, literally”) and the fight against climate change, which may be inevitable regardless of human effort (the fight and the change). Justify strange personal hygiene habits. Do what you will with the information.

I find it fascinating whatever the outcome. The fullness of life is restored in my eyes. We’re not alone, in so many ways, and now in so many more. With knowledge come further questions and mysteries to explore. What does it mean for DNA testing or insect phobias or the obsessively compulsively clean? Are identity errors somehow possible because of these minglings and cross-contaminations, if you will? How can allergens in food products take our blame, or at least all the blame, for auto-immune conditions when the number of possible allergens in our environments is so unimaginably large? Far more in the air and environment than in our food, and even more so when we ingest them with our food. #washyourhands

Can we be too clean? What then? If we all live in such bodily zoos, should we re-define what it is to be dirty? How do all the tiny lives of our dust affect our thinking, behaviors, and fates? How does our awareness of them change our sense of ourselves? Of who we are as individuals or groups?

Above all, how does this influence our answer to the question of what it means to be human? If cleanliness is next to Godliness, do we not now see that it was always a pipe dream to strive for divinity? For purity? For resemblance to the necessarily unnaturally immaculate deity? For this vision of God does not allow for God to know dirt first hand.

When the lines of our very beings blur so completely like this, what implications could the inherent blending have for other lines in our lives? Other boundaries? Limitations? Segregations? At what point do physical differences then stop influencing minds and societies? At what point should they? We have more in common, as they say, than we have of differences. This turns out to be truer than we had ever before imagined.

However, I am no more or less motivated now to dust my home. Housekeeping was never a calling for me, but at least now I feel a little better equipped to cut down on my household dust and keep it in check.

The BBC’s dusting experts say to (1) use a natural-bristle brush to lift the dust, holding a vacuum hose inches away to suck up the lifted particles; (2) concentrate on the areas of the house between hips and shoulders, the places most visible to guests, and (3) dust regularly but not frequently so as not to increase health hazards, though meaning well, by excessive diligence.

Use a HEPA filter on your vacuum cleaner. Dust often enough to prevent the humidity cycle from laying down that cement-like, microbe-moistened film layer on the night stand. Clean every room thoroughly once a year, rotating from one room to the next each month so as not to live only for spring cleaning—all spring long. Use the right tools or hire a cleaning service, and don’t go overboard with sterilization.

If you’re worried about the effects of toxins on child development, reproductive health, and cancer prevention, there is evidence you should be aware of them in order to mitigate the risks. Above all, spend more time outside the home if you are usually a home body (like me, unfortunately); chances are your indoor environment is much less healthy than the outdoor. Keep moving.

“All we are is dust in the wind,” or, you know, the doldrums. Pieces of ourselves lay scattered about our homes and workplaces and vehicles and yards and apartment buildings, and those pieces are lifted easily when disturbed—that is, until they crystallize on our furniture.

So if you want to make your household objects your own in a really primal way, no need to mark your territory Fido style. Just neglect your dusting for a bit, and voilà, pieces of you are embedded in the baseboards, the chairs, the counter tops, your appliances, your books and electronics, and even the porcelain throne, to say nothing of the carpet. Just be ready to share that space with millions upon millions of other lives.

And remember, if you must clean, you won’t just be killing strangers and unknown neighbors—fungi, insects, mites, plant sheddings, pet sheddings, bacteria, and parasites. You’ll be erasing bits of yourself as well.

This reminds me of the practices of Ethan Hawke’s character Vincent/Jerome in the 90s sci-fi film Gattaca. Working for a space exploration company toward his own voyage to space, the heart-defective Vincent borrows the identity of the genetically perfect but paraplegic Jerome through blood, urine, hair, nail, and other bodily samples that he uses for access and carefully spreads around his workplace while Hoovering up his own “de-generate” cells.

Knowing what Crowd Science has imparted, it strikes me how not only impractical but impossible erasing his true biological identity would really be if anyone in authority had bothered to screen more regularly and rigorously. And outer space would have remained only a dream for our underdog hero, though as he says at the end, we will all still have come from the stars.

Heavenly, long-dead stars or living, putrescent particles, it is all in where—and how—you look.

Wildlife TV Programs This Week

One of my favorite ways to view wildlife is through TV programs on my favorite nature channel NatGeoWild (DirecTV 283). There is always something delightfully soothing, fascinating, mysterious, invigorating, or surprising to see–and always much to learn.

In the USA, two special options rendering reality in two very different styles will be broadcast this weekend. They are The Zoo on Animal Planet (channel 282) and Wild Scotland on NatGeoWild (channel 283).

The new episode of The Zoo (link to live streaming of season 1 episodes), a show I have yet to sample about adventures at the Bronx Zoo, is on next Saturday, April 1, at 10pm Eastern and features a desert fox, or fennec, named Charlie. I LOVE fennecs. The tall, pointy ears, the dark eyes, the foxiness, the elegance–truly entertaining canids.

Of course, I love Scotland, too, and until now have not seen a show advertised on NatGeoWild (channel 283) that focuses on Scotland’s natural treasures: Wild Scotland will air starting at 8pm Eastern next Sunday, April 2, in a series of 1-hour-long premiers, each focusing on a different season’s challenges and species in the Scottish wilds. Plus, it’s narrated by Ewan McGregor (at least the UK version is, which seems to focus on the Hebrides)–can’t wait!

Episodes for this series, part of a regular program known as Destination Wild in the U.S., start with “Spring Awakening” at 8pm (Eastern), about this unpredictable season’s effects on life in the Highlands. This new episode is followed by two others at 9pm and 10pm, “Mid Summer’s Night Dream,” and “Into the Woods” (I found no direct links for profiles on these episodes).

Earlier that day are additional, re-run episodes of Destination Wild, including Wild France. I added that to my DVR, also, just for good measure. Wild Alaska was one of the earliest in that line that I recall seeing years ago.

If you missed Big Cat Week on NatGeoWild this year, you missed some great shows set in North and South America including the Amazon jungle and Andes mountains. The majority of shows presented a diverse array of African savannahs, river deltas, deserts, and swamps. I DVR’d most of the shows and watched them later at my leisure. My preferences were the mountain lion, leopard, and cheetah episodes, as well as those involving, you guessed it, African wild dogs, aka African painted dogs.

Incidentally, although big cats are endangered in many places, the social life of lions leaves something to be desired with the males’ lack of protective instinct for younger sibling cubs and the infanticide of marauding adult male lions. Dogs, otters, and even bizarre hyenas are less dysfunctional. For a primer on how great African wild dogs are, see the footnote. *

Sometimes it’s a refreshing change of pace to watch individual animals tough it out–leopards, cheetahs, mountain lions, jaguars, even honey badgers. However, Shark Week (NatGeo) is a ways off, not till late summer, the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show (previously on USA but this year on FS1) airs each year on Valentine’s Day, and Puppy Bowl on Animal Planet (channel 282) broadcasts as an alternative to the NFL Super Bowl (also early February for you non-sporting breeds). Those ships have sailed.

Generally, Animal Planet focuses more on adventure that may or may not involve animals, with programs such as North Woods Law, Pitbulls & Parolees, Tanked, and Treehouse Masters. I’m less of a fan overall of Animal Planet because I would rather see actual animals, not just people acting like them. There’s no substitute for the real thing.

These are not the only channels for observing wildlife on television, just the most obvious, most reliable, and most popular. Every once in a while, there is a special presentation, a Disney movie, films like March of the Penguins, and others on various channels from movie channels to science to family. Of course, now YouTube and other online venues offer even more opportunities to view animal and wilderness videos of all kinds. Our options continue to expand with streaming media and the mobility of videos being shared across social networks.

But if you’re more of a traditionalist as I tend to be, and you prefer good, old-fashioned TV for most of your visual home entertainment, check out this week’s offerings on NatGeoWild and Animal Planet throughout the week. I like The Incredible Dr. Pol, American Beaver, Otter Town, and anything to do with wild canids like foxes, wolves, jackals, coyotes, and dogs (including Dog Whisperer Cesar Milan shows). Tune in especially on Saturday for The Zoo at 10pm Eastern and for Wild Scotland starting at 8pm Eastern on Sunday. Enjoy!

Wild Scotland Reference

By the way, as I am in the process of presenting my multi-part series on Outlander-oriented tourism in Scotland–having visited the country last year but sadly seen little wildlife during that trip–I’m including below a few resources to learn more about exploring wild Scotland in person. 

For general tour guide sources about wild Scotland, I recommend:

Scotland the Best: Peter Irvine chooses his top 50 Scottish places to eat, stay and play – Daily Record – THE latest edition (book) of Scottish travel bible Scotland the best is out and here, author Peter Irvine selects his top 50 places to eat, stay and play.

Rough Guides – The Rough Guide to Scotland – The new, full-colour Rough Guide to Scotland is the definitive travel guide to this gem of a country. In-depth coverage of its burgeoning food scene, artistic innovations and awe-inspiring wild places

Walk Wild Scotland (walkwild.org) – Wilderness. Adventure. Culture. Relaxation.

Regional Guides and Guides by Type of Place or Activity

To begin to drill down into specifics, a helpful starting point for exploration is the Scottish Natural Heritage nature reserves and parks page. It provides different category links for types of sites and where to find them, including national, regional, and local nature reserves, national, regional, and country parks, national nature reserves and those managed by SNH, as well as other sites.

The following are some select resources I happened to come across while trip planning. This is in no way an exhaustive list; some vast territories are not covered.

In the South

WWT Caerlaverock – Wildfowl & Wetlands Centre near Caerlaverock Castle, managed by Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (wwt.org.uk)

Adjacent to WWT Caerlaverock is the Caerlaverock National Nature Reserve managed by Scottish Natural Heritage (snh.gov.uk) – “an internationally important coastal site on the North Solway Coast.” It is a birding hotspot (winter) and habitat for natterjack toads (summer) in the shallow pools on the northern edge of the reserve. “Winter attracts staggering numbers of wildfowl and waders. Oystercatcher, pintail and curlew feed on the mudflats and roost on the merse (local name for saltmarsh).”

St. Abb’s Head National Nature Reserve, Eyemouth, Scottish Borders (a National Trust Scotland site) – “A nature reserve and seabird colony on a dramatic cliff-top known for dolphin and puffin sightings.” – Google maps

Central Scotland & southern Highlands

In Fife, just north of Edinburgh, across the Firth of Forth: Welcome to Fife Coast & Countryside Trust and Local Nature Reserves.

Rannoch & Tummel (rannochandtummel.co.uk) – In the Big Trees Country of Perthshire: Loch Rannoch, Schiehallion munro, Dunalastair Estate, Blackwood of Rannoch (Scots Pine, remnants of the Great Forest of Caledonia), Kinloch Rannoch (village), Tummel Bridge and Loch Tummel, Rannoch Moor, Rannoch Station, churches, and more

Argyll & the Isles

Scottish Beaver Trials in Knapdale Forest – “Spot the signs of beaver activity in one of the most stunning parts of Scotland.” For information on the project, see the Scottish Natural Heritage page about it.

Argyll & the Isles (exploreargyll.co.uk) Wildlife and nature reserves page – a brief overview followed by three pages of specific results on wildlife and nature tourism in Argyll & the Isles, including Bute Forest, Islay Sea Adventures, Mull Eagle Watch, and Staffa National Nature Reserve.

Cairngorms National Park

Cairngorms National Park (visitcairngorms.com – official) – Activity search results for “Wildlife Watching” include well-established wildlife tours such as

UK Wildlife Safaris: Cairngorms Highland Wilderness–diverse, elaborate over 7 days, the tour offers sightings of red deer, wild goat, golden eagle, common seal, red squirrel, otter, pine marten, badger, and Capercaillie via treks to the Speyside Wildlife Hide, the Moray Firth, and through Caledonian pine forest–

and Rothiemurchus Safaris and Tours (Aviemore): osprey, badgers, red squirrels, red deer, pine martens. See Rothiemurchus.net for the full range of outdoor activities available, which include wildlife watching and photography, self-guided walks, pony treks, fishing, white water rafting, gorge swimming, hiking, kayaking, biking with bike hire, clay target shooting, quad bike treks, mountain climbing, archery, and special activities for kids.

For more Highland wildlife and bird watching safaris, go to VisitScotland.

Farther North and West

Scotland’s National Nature Reserves (nnr-scotland.org.uk) – Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve (lower northwest coast vicinity, Highland): On the hill you may see red deer, pine marten, mountain hares, foxes, voles and stoats.

Garbh Eilean Wildlife Hide (managed by Forestry Commission of Scotland) along Loch Sunart between Acharacle and Strontian, West Highland – otters, pine martens, a heronry, and, rarely, golden eagles and white-tailed eagles

Islands

Arguably the best place to see puffins is Handa Island. The Islands are generally best for waterfowl sightings year round.

Eilean Ban: The Brightwater Centre (eileanban.org), The Pier, Kyleakin, Isle of Skye island wildlife: “On the island you may see Voles, Pine Marten, Rock and Meadow Pipits, while in the water around, Shags and Cormorants are regularly seen feeding, and Eider Ducks have appeared in large numbers. Porpoises and both Harbour and Grey Seals are visitors, not to mention the resident Otters!

Don’t forget to learn about wildlife and nature in the Outer Hebrides, Orkney, and Shetland!

If you decide to hold off till the weekend, Wild Scotland is sure to be another great way to start exploring the Scottish wilderness. Watch it this Sunday, April 2, at 8pm Eastern on NatGeoWild.

The Zoo‘s latest episode called “Birds and the Bees” features the fennec fox, bee-eater birds, and a leopard; it airs Saturday, April 1, on Animal Planet at 10pm Eastern.


Disclaimer: I have no affiliation with any of these companies and make this recommendation from personal interest alone.

  • African wild dogs are the most efficient predators in Africa, with a percentage of hunts resulting in kills more than 90% of the time, and arguably the most humane. Rather than slowly suffocating or bleeding their prey, like big cats often do, African wild dogs immediately go for the belly, which induces the numbing effects of shock and results in a quick death. Again, dogs are better than cats–it’s just a fact. But they’re all endangered, and each ecosystem survives in a delicate balance. For a snapshot of other wild animals I enjoy, see Five-Phrase Friday (23): Cool Creatures.

Backyard Brief, June 2016

Spotted so far this month at our house:

  • chipmunk – 1
  • squirrel – 1
  • blue jay – 2
  • grackle – 2
  • red-winged blackbird – 4
  • rabbit – 1
  • goldfinch – 2
  • house finch – 4
  • house sparrow –  lots
  • toad – 2
  • cardinal – 4
  • chipping sparrow – 1
  • starling – lots
  • robin – lots
  • mourning dove – 4-6
  • honey bees, bumblebees, carpenter bees, yellow jackets, mud wasps, flies, pavement ants, spiders (various), mosquitoes, moths (various), butterflies (various) – several
  • house cat – 1
  • Cooper’s hawk – 1
  • flowers – oodles
  • weeds – too many

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