Dust Bowl

By Anne-Marie Culhane

You are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Hamlet, Act 2, scene 2,

The Sieving Room

Goggles, mask, lab coat, latex gloves, pestle and mortar.

A tool in one hand, the other steadies a large ceramic bowl.

My forearms working beyond a sliding Perspex dust shield.

Manual labour, physical work. A range of different actions, my whole body is implicated. Smashing, Pounding, Crushing, Grinding the oven-baked soil.

Brown, ocre, white-grey, sandy, rape husks, root strands and the odd piece of flint.

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The tools are heavy, oversized, brutal. The thick rim of the ceramic bowl sears skin from my forearm. I rotate the pestel using my wrists, again, again, right hand then left.  I‘ve got images of women in other places and times crushing seed pods, separating husks, making flour, de-hulling, pulverizing herbs.

I’m here making dust.


Now I’m sieving and brushing the soil through fine mesh.

Agitating, rhythmic and tambourine-like.


The Weighing Room

In the corner of the room are a set of tiny scales and my task is to take a minute scoop (imagine a tiny golf club) of soil dust, weighing five thousandths of a gram, deposit this in a tiny aluminium cup and then fold and squeeze the cup into an irregular metal ball. This work takes place with tweezers, a small brush and a metal plate.

The hours of physical labour in the Sieving Room distilling to a tincture – a homeopathic dose. Some of the samples buzz with electricity and leap to the edges of the tiny spoon. The soil’s life-charge stunned to submission with the anti-static gun. After a while I develop a new level of sensitivity, my body-mind can calibrate to 000mg. Steadying and slowing down my breathing is vital to help control the movements of my hand (just like when I’m drawing the wheat roots).

Cold-stiffened fingers sealing bags of earth in Middle Field on a bitter spring day to clammy hands in latex gloves tapping soil grain by grain.  Instead of images of singing and pounding, I’m think of the Great Plains of the USA in the 1930s. A failure to understand the prairie ecology combining with rapid mechanization and a rush to cash in on high grain prices led to wheat being planted across thousands of acres of drought-prone, arid grassland.  Deep ploughing of virgin topsoil displaced native grasses that usually trapped soil and moisture during droughts and high winds creating storms of dry topsoil, blowing across the fields and settlements culminating in Black Sunday April 14, 1935 The dust storm that turned day into night. 850 million tons of topsoil blew away in 1935 alone.


Patrick Allit writes about contrasting views of today’s prairies quoting the perspective of historian Donald Worster in the 70s:

Capital-intensive agribusiness had transformed the scene; deep wells into the aquifer, intensive irrigation, the use of artificial pesticides and fertilizers, and giant harvesters were creating immense crops year after year whether it rained or not. According to the farmers he interviewed, technology had provided the perfect answer to old troubles, such that the bad days would not return. In Worster’s view, by contrast, the scene demonstrated that America’s capitalist high-tech farmers had learned nothing. They were continuing to work in an unsustainable way, devoting far cheaper subsidized energy to growing food than the energy could give back to its ultimate consumers.

from Patrick Allitt, A Climate of Crisis: America in the Age of Environmentalism (2014) p 203

Here in the lab, the microscopic samples go off the lab to be superheated to reveal their nitrogen and carbon content and we have enough spare soil to bottle into 240 sample jars, one from each test site, to use as pigment for painting and to show the subtle and remarkable variation across Middle Field.  To read Tom Powells’s account of lab work and his research click download a pdf here .