Across the American Southwest, dust has become lethal.
Valley fever is transmitted by fungi-laced dust that blows from dumping and construction sites, as well as from the deserts of Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, and Texas. As Dana Goodyear recently described in The New Yorker, in the most severe cases, airborne fungi infect patients’ lungs, bone marrow, and brain. One breath can result in a lifetime of suffering, or even death.
Valley fever is a stark reminder about the nature of dust, which, seemingly innocuous and domesticated, is an always present potential danger pervading the atmosphere, well beyond the confines of the households it is usually associated with.
Dust is a ledger of past existence: dead skin cells and plant pollen, hair and paper fibers. Dust is also an ephemeral gathering place for dust mites and fungi. It is at once a random community of what has been and what is yet to be, and a figure of dispersion: a loose assemblage that barely holds together, always ready to catch a ride on the flows of air and relocate elsewhere…or to fall apart. It can be anywhere. Due to its high mobility and its smallness, it can penetrate our bodies. Dust does not limit itself to the surfaces of the things it covers; in fact, it knows no distinction between the inside and the outside.
Finally, dust is ineliminable. We cannot do away with it for good, since no matter how much we try to “clean” it, we only unsettle and move the unbearably light refuse from one place to another. Whatever threats or promises it harbors, we can rest assured that it will eternally return, not as dramatically as ghosts or specters but quietly and cumulatively, like the falling snow.