“Dust, Thou Art…?”

Dust Bunnies. Electricity. Life. Three elements typically disconnected. However, Annabeth Silversmith of Providence, Ohio linked them all, and generated a national, if short-lived craze. She did this before the age of instant media and “viral” internet hype. Her movement started small. So small, it fit beneath her refrigerator. There, and indeed under most of her large appliances and furniture, was a healthy population of dust bunnies. One day, when Annabeth was motivated to clean, she noticed the dust bunnies appear to flee from the mop. She wondered how a lifeless blob of lint and other more questionable filaments could try to escape their doom. They weren’t alive. Were they? Her husband, Bert Silversmith, assured her they were only dirt and dust—a lot of dirt and dust. Still, Annabeth wondered. The fluffy balls even appeared to quiver, especially when the vacuum cleaner came near. Such behavior shouldn’t come from anything inert.

Bert Silversmith had left the job of door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman (a potentially ironic detail in view of Annabeth’s history) for a more lucrative and less time‑consuming career in politics. He held a city council seat when Annabeth began to consider dust bunny vitality. Annabeth went to most of Bert’s committee meetings. As discussions of municipal policy droned on, strands of attendees would drift over the floor of city hall and gather into small groups. Annabeth enjoyed a slight celebrity charge as the spouse of a council member. She playfully mentioned her idea of dust bunnies being alive to a collection of other spouses, concerned citizens, crackpots, and a few people seeking a free cup of weak coffee. She was quietly surprised at the positive reception. Soon, more people focused on her theory of floorboard biology than on ways to finance new sewer lines. Annabeth had found her own calling.

Shortly after Annabeth’s city hall revelation, she formed a group to discuss sub-furniture ecology and the moral implications of house cleaning. It is unclear if the Dust Bunny Club formed to champion an unrecognized lifeform, or just for new and old friends to hang out under a silly banner. It’s possible some only attended for a free cup of weak coffee. Whatever the reasons, Annabeth now had a forum for her ideas. Her first topic was how dust bunnies emerged from balls of dust, lint, and occasional spider legs into living things. Annabeth theorized that the force that bound the disparate bits together was also what bound socks to sweaters in the clothes dryer: static cling. What caused static cling was the same elemental force that powered nerves and muscles: electricity. The idea of electrostatic fields generating life became the group’s central tenet.

The Dust Bunny Club faced some initial difficulties, and not all from Annabeth’s theories. In the first meeting, one man announced that dust bunnies were not alone. He claimed his entire carpet was alive, and that he and it were engaged in long-term, amorous relationship. He was not invited back. Nor where the less reputable characters who came seeking bunnies of a more human and risqué nature. To avoid this, the group renamed itself the Electrostatic Lifeform Organization. They dropped that name after a famous rock band’s fan club protested the initials. They finally chose the Association for Advancing Recognition of Static Electricals (AARSE). Even with such a questionable phonetic abbreviation, the group expanded.

Before the internet, social networking was person to person. Evidently, some of the right persons heard of AARSE. Its notoriety rolled like tiny tumbleweed beneath the desk of a local TV station’s features reporter. Annabeth was smiling and straight-faced through her televised interview. (On the tape, Bert lurks in the background waiting for the chance to do a sound bite that never happened.) The story went national. Annabeth became a celebrity. Criticism of her ideas followed Annabeth’s fame. Commentators, scientists, and flooring sales clerks pointed out that mops picked up a static charge when moved on the floor. This would repel the charge of some dust bunnies. However, mops could also attract other dust bunnies like magnets. They argued the dust bunny motion was simple physics. Afterwards, the various experts usually hawked their book, next program, or sale on kitchen tiles.

There were further arguments against electrostatic life. Some were surprisingly detailed, indicating a lot of free time on both sides of the dust bunny debate. Some scientists argued that dust bunnies met few, if any, of the criteria for life. They stated that although static charge created dust bunnies, they possessed no true homeostasis. That is, they had no internal regulation, and were less complex than a spring powered watch (that comment dated the scientist who said it). Also, they had no cells, or really, any structure outside a general round shape, just as rocks did. (These comments led to a temporary resurgence in pet rock sales.) Dust bunnies had no metabolism. That is, they ate nothing and nothing ate them (vacuum cleaners not withstanding). Furthermore, they did not reproduce. (House cleaners and appliance repair technicians heavily debated this claim.) Another point was that dust bunnies didn’t adapt to new environments. (The counter-argument was that refrigerators, couches, and clothes dryers were quite different underneath.) Finally, static forces or a strong breeze easily explained any dust bunny’s response to external stimuli.

Annabeth took this all in stride. She commented that there was a strong breeze from her detractors, and suggested they check there own metabolism and buy breath mints. She selected points from the anti-bunny arguments as proof for her own theories. Annabeth stated that if electrical fields originated on floors, so could electrostatic life. Dust bunnies did have an electrostatic charge, so could also have an electrical system like a nervous system. To her, it was more evidence dust bunnies were alive. Annabeth smiled. The cameras clicked. The story rolled on. Even with good intentions for public benefit, it is always hard for skeptics and facts to counter the public’s emotional attraction to someone blissfully accepting a silly idea. This is especially true when the idea uses the word “bunny”.

Although Annabeth claimed dust bunnies were as real as rhinos, she could not stop their inclusion into crypto-zoology and contemporary lore. Nor could she stop others capitalizing on her concepts and their product proliferation. The evolution in these fields was far from static. There were dust bunnies from UFOs; dust bunnies as Big Foot larva; dust bunnies as the cause of zombies (well before the 21st century craze). Psychics communicated with dust bunnies via electro-ESP. (Electrostatic life and its potential consciousness sparked the Current Cults, and 9-volt battery shortages in the US and Canada. However, that’s a topic for another entry.) Dust bunnies even leapt into ads for allergy medications. Novelty stores sold dust bunny posters, T-shirts, and dust bunny habitats (formerly known as aquariums, or, more shamelessly, empty boxes). A few warehouses storing forgotten appliances sold tickets to its dust bunny preserve, and flagrantly abused the term “natural environment”. Annabeth could only scrape up a pan full of the dust bunny bonanza. Dust bunnies were harder to trademark than a smiling yellow face. She did enjoy a national tour to promote her book Dust Bunnies: An Electrostatic Odyssey. Today, it would be considered a best seller, as it was a brand unto itself, and thus dominated the market.

Annabeth attempted to clarify the increasingly fuzzy image of dust bunnies by defining the “species”. Unfortunately for Annabeth, her followers, and perhaps the commercial parasites, ‘Leporinium-similis electrica’ gained no purchase with the scientific world. The dust bunny epoch was short. Their niche vanished from the environment of pop-culture. At first, people lauded the idea of preserving life, even with questionable origins. However, several voices rebuked the idea of never cleaning homes to spare such life. Annabeth claimed the vacuum cleaner lobby and cleaning product companies sabotaged her efforts. This remains unproven. Any traces of an actual conspiracy would have been swept away, long ago. Although, the corporate mascots Spotless Smith, Lil’ Scrubby, and Mrs. Neat took a more glowering appearance in the contemporary ad campaigns. Many people still wondered if electrostatic life was real. There was a spike in pest control companies referring customers to vacuum cleaner sales people. Bert Silversmith even considered returning to his old job. He decided to run for mayor, instead. Annabeth went on from momentary fame to working in wildlife conservation. One assumes for actual, living animals. Bert and Annabeth now enjoy a comfortable retirement in Clearwater, Florida. How well their house is vacuumed is unknown. However, a healthy dust bunny population would have to compete with the increasing numbers of pythons, Madagascar walking fish, and wild sea snugs in the warm, Southern US.

BSL