dirt

The Great Dust heap at Kings Cross. Photograph: Wellcome Images/Wellcome Library, LondonThere is a new exhibition at the Wellcome Library about dirt and our changing views of cleanliness.  A very good write-up by Christopher Turner is on today's Guardian website.

Dirt is also the theme for the upcoming Fall issue of On Site (see the call for articles here). 

The exhibition at the Wellcome, a medical library, is based on Virginia Smith's book, Dirt: the filthy reality of everyday life, a historic survey of our attitudes to dirt and propriety that affects every corner of our dusty lives, our buildings and our cities. 

Living on the prairies is characterised by a fine black dust that blows off the land and settles on windowsills even at the heart of the city.  One is always dusting, sweeping, shaking out mops.  Our streets in Calgary are washed once a year, a great production of fleets of street sweepers, water sprinklers and then another pass by the sweepers.  There isn't a lot of rain here, so the streets and consequently the air are dusty again almost immediately.  Now, on the coast, where it rains all the time and one has to work hard to find dust, even fine dirt in the gravel bed that is the back vegetable garden, these streets are washed 4 or 5 times a year. 

It seems that this is an issue of perception.  On the prairies, dust, gumbo, mud, grey film, clouds of dust off unpaved roads and city alleys – that's okay.  Blowing grit on city streets that gets in your eyes, your hair, your collar – no problem evidently, until you go to a very clean city where the sidewalks are clean, the air is rain-washed, your white dog is actually white, then you realise how slapdash the cleanliness factor can be elsewhere.