I was working as a housekeeper at a bed and breakfast, sweeping a bedroom floor one morning, when I made a startling discovery about dust: As it accumulates, it becomes not heavier, but lighter. When enough of it has gathered to so that a coagulation of dust—a “dust bunny”—has formed, it is capable of drifting weightlessly through the air, on currents its presence makes visible. Eventually (I extrapolated), these drifts make their way into orbit, encircling Earth among satellites and other planetary castoffs.
A few years before this discovery, I was driving across the US with a person I hadn’t known for very long, but was certain I loved. For vast stretches of dusty landscape, the only other inhabitants were tumbleweeds and dust devils. They were devils , not bunnies, and they were eerie—they looked like bodies the air had concocted by whisking together its surroundings.
In our car the radio flickered among stations. These fragments of human speech were—though I was not certain of this—the dust devils singing.
In the house in Minnesota where I grew up, the carpet was respected as if it was holy: It was washed, brushed, vacuumed regularly, and the tracks left in it by the vacuum had to be parallel, symmetrical. It was not to be touched by food, beverages, shoes. It was soft, plush, practically a pet. In my bedroom I lay on it doing sit-ups, push-ups, leg lifts. I aspired to weightlessness. It wasn’t that I wanted to be thinner; I didn’t want a body at all. When I stood up from my exercises, dizzy, I would smooth out the carpet where my body had been, erasing traces of its weight.
The bed and breakfast was a large Victorian-era house. It was old but had been remodeled; the wood floors were painstakingly maintained and nearly frictionless. They revealed to me dust’s omnipresence, something the carpeting in my own house had hidden.
Recently my mother had the carpeting torn out. Carpeting takes up a lot of space. My brother, upon seeing his old bedroom without its carpet, said that if he had grown up in a house with hardwood floors, his childhood would have been totally different. “I could have learned to appreciate jazz,” he said. Had I grown up in a house without carpeting, I might have made my discovery about dust years sooner.
I know what it means to feel weightless—it feels like Highway 80 in the desert, speeding past spinning devils with someone I love.
These days, it also feels like my morning swim at the Y (or at least the first few minutes of effortless buoyancy). I no longer wonder why there are so many people with gray hair at the pool, swimming laps and doing aerobics. They are there because they know from experience that time, the steady accumulation of it in the joints and spine, makes it harder to keep moving the body’s weight. (This is the temporal malady called arthritis.)
What does it really mean to be weightless? To be weightless, not just feel it for the duration of a swim or a drive, you have to leap, dive, fall from a considerable distance.
Which, it turns out, all of us are always doing, because the planet we live on is falling. Constantly. So is the moon. Both are hurtling through space—nothing supporting them, nothing beneath them. We have a planet beneath our bodies, and this makes us feel heavy, weighty, yet the planet itself is approximately weightless. If you were to put Earth on a scale (let’s say), it would weigh approximately zero pounds. Since both Earth and the scale would be falling, there’d be no ground for the scale to press against.
NASA’s Zero Gravity Research Facility is in Cleveland, Ohio. (“There is no there there,” Gertrude Stein said of Ohio, though it is not technically a desert.) Inside the Facility is a 145-meter vertical shaft with a chamber in which an “experiment vehicle” can fall freely for a time of about 5.18 seconds. It is stopped by 4.5 meters of polystyrene pellets. (Humans are not allowed in the experiment vehicle—imagine slamming into 4.5 meters of plastic forks after a 145-meter fall and you will know why.)
As a teenager I wanted to be an astronaut. It made sense at the time, and it also made sense to starve myself. As long as I remained on Earth, what I wanted—to weigh zero pounds—was impossible to achieve. Yet the very impossibility of weighing nothing motivated me. I ran; I swam; I ate very little. I would float through the kitchen of my family’s rambler, down the carpeted hallway, out the back door, perhaps eating a slice of freeze-dried nectarine.
If only I had known then the secret to instantaneous, total weight loss: Step on a scale in an elevator that is in free fall. For a few seconds, the number on the scale will be 0. (Of course, at the bottom of the fall, your body will suddenly become very heavy.)
We experience our body as weighty because of floors, chairs, the Earth, wings of airplanes—the things that hold us up—and the tensing and compressing of our body’s tissues in reaction. When nothing is holding us up, we fall. As long as we are near Earth, we don’t fall for very long. The planet is itself falling, and yet it catches us.
Like that hypothetical elevator, Earth is in free fall. Unlike the elevator, Earth is enormous, and therefore exerts a force of gravity on us, its tiny inhabitants, holding us to its surface as it falls, pressing its surface against us. It is this pressure—of the Earth against our body—that we experience as weight.
When you step on a scale, your body exerts an equal and opposite force on the scale. (This is Newton’s third law—I needed a brief physics lesson in order to write this.) The scale is measuring the force with which the scale is pressing on your body. According to Newton, the force with which your body presses on the scale—assuming you and the scale are firmly on Earth and not in that falling elevator—will be equal. If you weigh 140 pounds, the scale will press against you with that much force.
I might have loathed my body a little less had I known, back then, that it was the force of the scale pressing against me that weighed ninety-seven pounds. I might have been able to see myself differently: not as a body pressing down on the world, but as a body the world presses against, a body experiencing the stress and strain of the world’s weight.
In addition to being weightless, I wanted to live in a desert. That is, as long as I had to live on Earth, I wanted to live where the landscape looked like another planet’s. I knew how other planets looked because of movies: They looked like the desert. I knew how the desert looked because of movies: It looked nothing like Minnesota.
“How to avoid weightlessness”: a heading for a section in the Wikipedia entry on “Weightlessness.” It advises “standing on the ground, sitting in a chair on the ground, etc.” I could edit this section, adding: “Eat. Don’t do leg lifts. Install carpeting to weigh down your dust. Don’t leave the planet. Don’t accelerate with the force of gravity. Don’t get in the pool. Whatever you do, don’t drive across the desert with the person you love. Don’t fall in love.”
At the time when my body was thinnest, when it had grown a strange layer of hair to try to hold onto its meager heat through long, northern winters, I longed to feel the sun on my back, to be free of the deep ache of starvation. I wanted to float along like a tumbleweed.
Of course, I didn’t know yet about dust devils, how they churn their surroundings into bodies, broadcasting fragments of eerie speech through the shimmering heat.
Anorexia is a kind of desertification of the body: Slowly, all that is alive about it dies. But this comparison is misleading because a desert is not actually dead: It is an ecosystem full of living creatures whose lives depend on the delicate balance in their surroundings.
Maybe anorexia is more like a quiescence—a slowing, a suspension of activity in the midst of hostile conditions, to try to preserve what’s vital. This is something desert creatures do, too. It’s called estivation : a deliberate slowing of the metabolism to create a state of dormancy or torpor during hot, dry periods.
The word “desert” comes from a Latin word meaning “an abandoned place.” But even in the Atacama, which evidence suggests did not have any significant rainfall during the four hundred years between 1570 and 1971, and where some weather stations have never received any rain, there is life—plants that get enough moisture from dew and fogs that blow in from the Pacific.
In Chile there is a desert called Valley of the Moon. In America we go to deserts to test our war weapons and film scenes that are supposed to look as though they are happening on a different planet. On fictional desert planets we stage battles we then watch on screens. How have these scenes affected our reactions to images in the news from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq? How easy is it for us to see the faces of people who live in deserts as faces of Hollywood extras? As if, just off-camera, there is a table of iced lemon water and Clif bars and slices of melon and prosciutto.
West of Nevada, my new love and I followed Highway 80 across the Sierras and into the Imperial Valley. This is a desert that has been irrigated with water drained from wetter areas around it, to make it suitable for farming. Irrigating the desert has given us almonds and dates and avocados, but it has also damaged the drained ecosystems so severely, killing fish and thousands of migratory birds, and causing tensions among humans, that its unsustainability has become impossible to deny. One third of the world’s crops are raised on irrigated lands. What will happen when the population these lands helped increase can no longer depend on them for food?
In the movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan , the spaceship Reliant is wandering the galaxy, searching for a lifeless planet where the Federation can test a powerful new weapon. So far, on every planet they have visited, even the ones that are entirely covered by desert, there has been at least a tiny bit of life, if only a molecule of it. The crew of the Reliant is getting tired of searching. At one point the captain of the ship calls his commander and asks, “Does it have to be completely lifeless?”
In college I was assigned to write a paper discussing whether morality exists where there is only one person. Today, it can be easy for a person with enough money to live as if they are the only one alive, without concern for the living and working conditions of others, or, as the Styrofoam takeout container is chucked in the trash, for the planet. Money lets us buy the props that make the stories we tell ourselves seem real.
Of course, no matter how alone we are in our stories, each person’s actions have consequences for all of us. Money can be a temporary buffer between a person and their consequences. A kind of carpeting.
4. Just because you can’t see it . . .
In July 1945, Kodak began receiving complaints about its X-ray film. The film was unusable because of exposed spots, a phenomenon the industry calls “fogging.”
Kodak had taken a lot of trouble to prevent this happening: They had realized that the paper they used to package film had to be free of radioactive contamination, and that recycled cardboard often was not free of such contamination because it was salvaged from wartime manufacturing plants where radium-based instruments were produced. So they had arranged with a paper mill in Indiana to make strawboard, a stiff paper, from carefully selected raw materials. Even so, the fogging reported in July and August of 1945 was traced by scientists at Kodak to the Indiana mill. According to Julian Webb , the strawboard was found to contain a radioactive material “not hitherto encountered.”
Webb heard that another run of strawboard was also contaminated. This one was produced around the same time as the contaminated one from Indiana, but in Iowa. Both mills were near rivers, Webb noticed. Eventually, after a lot of testing and reasoning, Webb decided that the radioactive particles contaminating the strawboard had to have been deposited by precipitation. The particles had found their way into the strawboard via the water from the rivers used during production. But how had they gotten into the water?
It’s unclear whether Webb knew about the Trinity Test while he was making these discoveries in 1945. In 1949, when he and the rest of the world had learned about the Trinity Test, he wrote, “The most likely explanation of the source of this radioactive contaminant appears to be that it consisted of wind-borne radioactive fission products derived from the atom-bomb detonation in New Mexico on July 16, 1945.”
5. . . . doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
Right now, medical scientists are trying to understand why the rate at which we are afflicted by autoimmune diseases is rising. Over the past thirty years, the presence of these diseases in our bodies has risen by between 5 percent and 7 percent a year. Our DNA hasn’t changed that rapidly, so this increase isn’t explained by genetics. None of the other explanations researchers have come up with , including environmental toxins, smoking, low levels of vitamin D, and certain infections, has provided an adequate answer for why more and more people are getting these diseases.
Some doctors and researchers believe that autoimmune diseases are diseases of excess—especially of fat and sugar. They used to be called the diseases of kings, since only the very wealthy could afford to eat rich, nutritionally empty meals.
“All autoimmune diseases invoke the metaphor of suicide. The body destroys itself from the inside” (From “Sarah Manguso: the disease that stole my youth” ).
Aggressive self-destruction seems like a counterproductive activity for a living organism, yet it is something that many bodies, given the right confluence of internal and external triggers, do with gusto. Why? Nobody really knows for certain.
A small but growing group of scientists believes that the increasing rate of autoimmune diseases has to do with changes in the bacteria living in our bodies, particularly in our guts. Living indoors, in sterile environments; taking antibiotics when we are sick; irradiating our organs when they have cancer; eating foods that have been processed heavily—all these factors of ordinary, first-world life affect the makeup of our microbiome, the bacteria and fungi and viruses that blanket our bodies inside and out.
Consider, for example, the effects of gastrointestinal surgery on just one organism, E. faecalis , a normally helpful bacterium that lives in the human gut. A routine treatment for colon cancer involves removing part of the colon and stitching the remaining halves back together. Under healthy conditions, E. faecalis helps the immune system. However, after gastrointestinal surgery, some patients develop something called an anastomotic leak—the seam where the bowel has been sewn shut breaks open and intestinal fluids seep into the body, a condition that can lead to sepsis and death. It turns out the culprit is E. faecalis , which, under the stressful conditions of surgery , goes rogue and starts to eat holes in the intestine at the surgical site, causing the tissue to weaken and leak.
Why would a normally helpful part of our body turn against us like this? A microbial ecologist named Jack Gilbert has an idea. Consider, he says, what gastrointestinal surgery looks like to the microbe: First the intestine is blasted with radiation to kill as much bacteria as possible—effectively the Trinity test for anything living in the gut. Before surgery, the patient is given intravenous antibiotics. Then, during surgery, the colon is cut open, and a normally anaerobic environment is filled with oxygen, a poisonous gas for anaerobic creatures like E. faecalis . The intestine is sewn shut and the wound begins to heal itself by pulling in phosphorus from the intestine. Now there isn’t enough food for the microbe.
Having survived radiation and surgery, E. faecalis is now starving to death. Naturally it migrates to the place where there is something for it to eat—the phosphorus at the surgical site. It attacks the wound for food. To us this attack looks like an infection, so we administer more antibiotics, making the situation more dire for E. faecalis and hastening its attack.
Thus, in the case of E. faecalis , we have created the conditions of our own destruction unknowingly, out of ignorance of our bodies as complex environments for other living organisms. Yet we know from our own experiences that our environment has a huge effect on whether we thrive or suffer—raise or lower the temperature just a little above or below a comfortable sixty-eight degrees Fahrenheit, and we become uncomfortable. Deprive our irrigated valleys of water for a couple of years, and we can’t get enough food. Add radiation to the desert and film in Iowa and Indiana fogs.
6. Many Among Many
Russian scientists have observed differences between cockroaches conceived in space and their terrestrial counterparts. The space-conceived cockroaches grew more quickly, and also grew up to be faster and tougher.
It’s a bit like that for E. faecalis —the organisms that survive radiation and surgery are particularly tough, so their attack against their host organism (which from the microbe’s perspective is not really an attack, but a famished attempt to find food) can devastate it. Of course, E. faecalis depends on its host for its life; if, in its attempt to nourish itself, it attacks its host and its host dies, so does E. faecalis . But that sort of long-term reasoning seems to be beyond an intestinal bacterium. Is it beyond us, too?
When I was starving, I felt like I had to be lonely. It seemed the only way to weigh nothing was to keep apart from everyone. But even a solitary self, a single body, is more than one. For every human cell, there are ten cells of bacteria. About three pounds of every person’s biomass is microbial; that’s roughly the same weight as the human brain.
Our bodies are a multiplicity of beings; nothing separates us from them.
The boundary between our bodies and our surroundings is blurry, too. Maybe it’s nonexistent, a mirage. I feel this in the pool. Floating among other buoyant bodies, my own body feels less onerous, though Earth weighs on it more heavily than it used to, and carrying that weight gets more tiring as I age. That’s all right. I no longer aspire to weightlessness, or desire to live in the desert. Now where I live it rains all winter. On this enormous ball of dust, I think about the water connecting us. We’re mostly water, after all.