hear it before we saw it arrive in the eyes of our speaker. We were situated in a hilltop
building. There was a wall of
windows behind the speaker, and, in the early afternoon, the cords of the
window blinds began to move in the wind. “Knock . . . knock.” The weights at the bottoms of the blind cords banged
against the window sills. “Knock .
. . knock.” Soon someone was
closing those windows to stop the distracting knocks, but blinds’ slits
revealed the changing sky.
The other side of the building, the side faced by our speaker, was open to hills of dried grasses. A breeze came through this open wall to cool our meeting as we proceeded through the day into the early afternoon.
We could see
the eyes of the speaker, a visitor from the East Coast, lift periodically above
the faces of the audience. Those
of us at the margin could follow her gaze to look out of the open wall. The blue sky of the morning had gone—it
had fuzzed and yellowed. The
yellow seemed almost amoeboid—as if it extended by pseudopods, thick and
round-tipped—as it rounded the hills.
Then the sky was gone. The
fuzz had thickened, obliterating the horizon, shortening vision. Sky and landscape had become one—a
dense, brownish yellow plasm.
stopped. She stared, gape-jawed at
the surrounding scrim. “So this is a dust storm!” the speaker exclaimed.
had been our weather forecast for the day. Fresh winds out of the west have caught the dust of
harvests, amassing it in dense, dark clouds. This is the season of dust.
A member of
the audience responded to the speaker:
“This is how the hills formed.”
Our hills came
from dust. It was a time near the end
of the last continental glaciation some ten thousand and more years ago. Stone scoured and ground by glaciers
poured as floury outwash from the melting glacial ice. As the outwash dried, the particles
lifted into the wind and fell here, where winds gain rainy weight as they rise
on the western side of the Northern Rocky Mountains. They created this place called the Palouse, a landscape of rolling
may have been formed by glacial milling, but the dust storms in our wind do not
tell a story of glaciation. Our
thick dust storms are a consequence of agriculture.
the Pleistocene glaciations, the soils of arid eastern Washington developed
thick cyptobiotic crusts that consisted of algae, fungi, and bacteria. These complex crusts became integral to
the ecological dynamics in which water and elemental nutrients moved from
atmosphere and soil through plants and animals.
For thousands of years, those cryptobiotic crusts kept the
thick, glacially tilled soil intact.
The crusts, disturbed by agricultural machinery, disappeared along with
native vegetation. The soil, once
held by the crusts, was released to the wind. It blows away by inches and feet. On calm days, the soil swirls and rises in isolated
twisters. On a windy day when the
wheat is being harvested—a day like today—the soil lifts like a yellow curtain,
obliterating the sky.
When I arrived at home this evening, I wiped my finger across the kitchen countertop. A thick smear of yellow grit covered my finger. A kind of ecological displacement has been at work. It is surely a disaster for the land. It is a cleaning disaster for the house.
[The photograph above was shot into the sun as I came home from work.]