The Colors of Dust

A gift from the Sahara

By the time I met him, decades of flying among Liberian villages had taught Gene Levan a few things: never to overload his plane; always to make an initial pass before landing (in order to move soccer players and goats off the machete-mown airfields); and to do his own aircraft maintenance.

The dust that he washed off his airplane at the end of each flight varied according to the season and the winds: sometimes red, other times gray, pink, or yellow. During the dry season, red predominated. For a few months, the laterite soil of Liberia coated everything: so much so that one of the better-known books about the country is titled Red Dust On the Green Leaves. But if the red dust was local, other colors on the leading edge of the plane’s wings — particularly yellow and pink — came from the north, from the deserts.

When the Saharan air layer turns south and west, as it does from time to time, my thoughts turn east and north, to the deserts of Africa. Some curse the haze hovering over the Gulf of Mexico and Texas, bemoaning their irritated eyes and dust-covered cars. I bask in the diffuse, lemony light, and remember its remarkable source.



Comments always are welcome.


44 thoughts on “The Colors of Dust

  1. Ah some tales ready to ooze out from there.
    (Soccer players and goats – now that’s a combination to consider) The color change is very interesting. (East TX has 3-4 natural sand colors – we used to amuse ourselves by making sand “paintings” with them during the summer – we knew where to score the different colors in the dirt road neighborhood)
    That’s a book cover worthy picture there…would work for your tales.

      1. I once was lucky enough to see sand art in a bottle created by a man from my home state: Andrew Clemens. I was surprised to read in the article that such bottle art once was in vogue, like china painting. I looked at some of the Egyptian examples, and the skill is marvelous.

    1. Chalk’s for concrete; sand works great for other “canvases.” It seems the impulse to create will overcome any shortage of so-called traditional materials. We stuck to chalk and finger paints, but wove grass placemats and what we called baskets long before we moved on to yarn and popsicle sticks.

      This morning, it looks as though the haze has moved on — perhaps to make room for more heat. It’s another example of Frost’s suggestion that “nothing gold can stay.”

  2. I like the dust. I like what it sometimes does to the sunset. I’m fascinated that the dust comes from so far away–I feel linked to a place I’ve never visited. Wonderful photo, Linda.

    1. In a way, the satellite images of the moving dust clouds remind me of the migration of birds. Both are a reminder that while we fuss at each other in traffic and gripe about [fill in the blank], there are forces moving around us that we rarely consider: until dust, or color, or sneezes bring them to mind.

  3. Interesting that just dust would tell a story about a trip through the air. I think I’d trade the smoke that we have here for some of those other colors.

    1. Given a choice between dust and smoke, I certainly would favor the dust. It may be annoying, but it doesn’t come hand in hand with fire. It always amazed me how well Gene could interpret the signs around him — but of course he’d been in country for years, and had plenty of time to learn. In all those years, he only had one “accident” with the plane: a flat tire.

    1. The movement of dunes is fascinating. During a presentation I heard last week, the point was made that Texas’s barrier islands haven’t simply eroded away over time, they also have tended to move inland. As development increases, including the installation of seawalls and dikes to prevent flooding, the natural movement of the dunes is stopped, and the land goes underwater.

      It was a complicated scenario that I haven’t described well, but the basic point was the same as that made in the article about the Kalahari: nature has her ways, and when we begun mucking about with them for our human convenience, the law of unintended consequences is going to show up sooner rather than later.

    1. A few years ago, we had some serious dust come through on and around July 4th. It was heavier than this; consequently, the sunsets were even more golden. I was with a friend at a beach house, and it was so odd to see the golden light over the Gulf of Mexico turning even the waters golden.

  4. Australia too is lit by dust. The Blue Mountains coloured by the eucalypt mist. The red interior by iron ore. This endless country whose dusty land is girt by sea and sand.

    1. I looked at some photos of the Blue Mountains — they certainly are beautiful. And now that I think of it, photos I’ve seen of the interior have been distinctly red. I just spent a bit of time reading about places like Uluru, and learned that the rock — akrose — is gray, but turns red when the iron in it oxidizes.

      I was fascinated to learn that Australia has rock formations as old as 3,000 million years, and zircons 4,400 million years old — give or take. It certainly helps to put some things into perspective.

    1. The sunrises and sunsets both have been lovely. Now the haze that’s left is mostly heat and humidity: more usual for Texas in summer, but not quite so compelling.

  5. “I bask in the diffuse, lemony light…” is very nice indeed.
    The dust that follows me seems to be grittier, grayer, and less evocative of faraway continents, and probably more like disintegrating gym socks from under my bed.
    When I was a kid, we had a week of really florid sunsets, and I remember being told about the dust from faraway lands, sometimes from volcanoes, and perhaps bits of dinosaur hide and Julius Caesar. After that, for quite a while, I tried to breathe through my nose, didn’t want to taste old dead Romans.
    When I read someplace about the “loess” soils in the Midwest, the accumulation of yards and yards of soil, grain by tiny grain, it’s always one of the things that brings home to me a sense of huge amounts of time, when geologists talk about the Earth.

    1. Oddly, that lemon-colored light, combined with a particularly cold gray, often shows up before tropical storms.. Funny how the same thing can signal danger or delight.

      Even odder is that I came to love that color because of lemon-chiffon pie. I was introduced to the pie at Stone’s Restaurant in Marshalltown, Iowa, a neighboring town during my childhood and youth. Yesterday, the town was flattened by a terrible tornado, and the courthouse clock tower I used to admire came tumbling down. I still have the pie recipe, though. I’m certain it would still taste better than your old, dead Romans.

      Pondering whether loess might be more, I looked up the word, and found that geologists call it an “aeolian sediment.” That reminded me of aeolian harps, like this homemade one. The materials list is wonderful.

      1. That’s pretty neat! I knew about aeolian harps from a college class on English Romantic poets. I’ve thought of that when walking along wire fences or phone lines, that start humming in the wind, sometimes nice-sounding, sometimes keening and kinda eerie. Did you ever read about those 50k watt stations in L.A., that you can hear when you walk by metal fencing in the neighborhood. The businesses right next to the AM towers there, have chicken wire all over the walls & ceilings, to protect the workers. Couldn’t find the article online.
        Yeah, I think lemon-chiffon sounds pretty great, although I do love Caesar salad!

        1. I’ve read a bit about those low power or “pirate” stations, but the only story about fence-radio I’ve heard involved an early transmitter with a signal so strong farmers could pick it up through their barbed wire. The most interesting detail in the article I linked is that NPR was involved in trying to shut down the micro-stations.

          The other place you can hear that eerie wind sound’s in the rigging of boats. The in-mast mainsails took it to another level with the slits that run the entire length of the masts, but even the standing rigging will hum away under the right conditions.

    1. I’d never thought of such a thing, but it didn’t take long to learn there are marine fossils in the pyramids. That certainly gives pause for thought! Thanks for mentioning it.

  6. Dust — who knew? Here, dust merely signals that we haven’t had enough precipitation, so the crops and such might be under stress. Nice to learn that there are so many interesting colors in its residue! Personally, I think a persistent haze hanging over the Gulf might not sit well with me, but perhaps it’s moved on now?

    1. It has moved on. There’s still haze, but we’re seeing bluer skies.

      Clearly, there’s a difference between domestic dust and foreign dust. But the Panhandle and the southwest certainly have their share of dramatic dust storms, like this one. It’s interesting that they’ve picked up an Arabic word to describe them: haboob. The phenomenon surely is the same. There’d be no hanging laundry on the line when one of those shows up!

  7. Lovely post. The desert dust of the Southwest also changes color according to the seasons. though not so dramatically as that coming from the Sahara. Also not as picturesque. We get a fair degree of wind here, off the Bay, but no dust.

    1. I had a friend who grew up in the Texas Panhandle with a mother who was, shall we say, dust-obsessed. She considered dust a mortal enemy, and passed the conviction on to her kids. Boys or girls, they dusted their houses like mad fiends. Any of them would have loved living in your neighborhood.

      After I’d been varnishing for a while, I came to understand the difference between a dirty wind (off the land) and a clean one (off the water). There are times I’ve waited for the wind to swing before putting on a final coat, just to eliminate the pollen, dust, or parking lot debris that comes from one direction or another. Where I’m working now, west winds are best, since they come in off the lake. In other places, an east wind comes off Galveston Bay, and usually is dust-free.

    1. Thank you, Pete. It’s very much a now you see it, now you don’t sort of phenomenon when it happens. There still was a bit of dust last night, but it only helped to add color, rather than obscuring. I’m glad to have captured it while it was here.

  8. Love the photograph. Agree that it would make a lovely book cover. Living in the flatlands as I do, I’m well acquainted with dust. We have very moving scenery here. Sometimes it moves upwards of 40 mph. We don’t have quite as much dust as we did when I was a child, though. We used to have some rip-roaring sandstorms then.. Since then, the farmers have learned how to “sand fight” and keep their topsoil on the ground and out of the air. Even so, I still store my drinking glasses upside down in the cabinet. I’d like to hear more about your plane flying friend.

    1. When you mentioned the upside-down glasses, I remembered that it used to be a common custom. Now, I don’t see it very often. Just offhand, I can think of only a half-dozen people I know who still follow the practice. I don’t do it at home, although I used to up in the hill country, at the cabin.

      Gene and his wife June were delightful people. Gene flew for a variety of reasons: taking visitors around the country, making the occasional trip to Monrovia, and flying hospital staff to bush villages for clinics. That’s the reason I flew with him: to get to remote sites for maternal-child health clinics. It was such a different experience to see the bush from the air — nothing but that green canopy — and walking through it on bush paths. I wish I could go back now and see it again — but of course it wouldn’t be the same, thanks in no small part to their civil wars. Still, it would be worth it.

  9. I often forget your time in Liberia. I can imagine there was a wonder of different experiences, different ways of looking at things there. I never thought of the color of dust but yes, it makes perfect sense.

    1. It’s never occurred to me before, but it makes sense that many of us think of dust as white or grey, just because that’s the color of house dust when our houses are sealed against the outdoors. But when nature sneaks in through the cracks and crevices, things are different. Sometimes, it’s not even dust that intrudes. I’ll bet you’ve done a good bit of sand-sweeping at the cottage. It’s always easy to tell when I’ve been around Galveston — there’s no way to keep sand out of the car, either.

    1. We rarely if ever get your wonderful green light falling around us, but when the golden light of the desert-dust appears, it’s delightful. Practically speaking, of course, the great benefit is that the Saharan dust clouds help to suppress tropical activity: always a good thing, no matter how someone feels about the dust itself.

    1. Given the sorts of traveling you’ve done since I’ve known you, there’s no question you would have enjoyed a little time up-country yourself — and yes, there are stories galore. Some of the best ones involve cultural differences that didn’t become apparent until I’d spent some time there. Even basic notions, like how best to organize a kitchen, led to really quite interesting conversations with my house boy.

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