Swallowed by Dust

May 4, 2017 | Posted in: Sociology

Illustration from My Fourth Tour in Western Australia, Albert Calvert, illustrated by Walker Hodgson, 1897.

Illustration from My Fourth Tour in Western Australia, Albert Calvert, illustrated by Walker Hodgson, 1897.

I’ve just returned from visiting my friend Claire in Austin, but rather than spend the week in the city we went out into the great expanse of West Texas, to a small town in the high-desert. Blustery winds filled our trip with dust and I discovered that I’d finally found a place I was allergic to. Dust covered our shoes, swirling in the air around us before entering my lungs, making it hard to breathe. This feeling of drowning in dusty air brought to mind the story of an entire town where people not only swallowed dust, they were swallowed by it.

I read about the village of Oumaradi, Niger in Olivier Le Carrer’s Atlas of Cursed Places. It lay not far from the northern border of Nigeria, in the southern range of the Saharan desert. Here the Harmattan (the seasonal period lasting from October to mid March) brings its months of dry northeasterly winds. It may cool the searing desert air a bit, but it also brings an increase in illness from the tons of dust it carries with it. But for Oumaradi, this dust proved an even greater threat:

   “Forty years ago the Oumaradi villagers thought they had found the perfect site for a settlement, at least by the standards of the region: a small patch of forest, water, pastureland. And then the infernal cycle began. Successive droughts debilitated the vegetation that, until then, had stabilized the soil. The need for wood of a population that had grown in number over the years resulted in the clear-felling of trees, correspondingly reducing the degree of protection the copses afforded against the wind. Today, the houses are disappearing beneath the dunes, with only a few walls and dead treetops protruding from the sand. It is difficult to image that dozens of families once lived here. They have now rebuilt their homes a short distance away—provisionally, for who could hope to withstand the sand’s insatiable appetite for long? The sand is driven by the wind, most often in the form of shifting, crescent-shaped dunes known as barchans, which are capable of consuming twenty feet of land per year. This may not sound like much, but it is enough to swallow up a village within a few years—without the inhabitants’ shovels being able to do the slightest thing about it.

   Oumaradi has disappeared without trace. And other villages, both in Nigerian territory and in the neighboring countries, are also on the verge of disappearing, struck by the same scourge. No measures to combat the sands will be effective unless the sky decides to deliver a little more rain.” Le Carrer

Illustration from A Travers le Désert, Édouard, Paris, 1892

Dunes, illustration from A Travers le Désert, Édouard, Paris, 1892

I’ve escaped the desert, outpaced the dust with its dose of springtime pollens, and can breathe once more. But with climate change comes a more dusty future, a warning by scientists that the deserts will grow. Some even claim that the Sahara was partially created by human activity thousands of years ago. It might well be that our greatest legacy as a species will be the spreading of desertification, an inverse Johnny Appleseed folktale for future generations: We came, we conquered, and deserts bloomed.

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