The magic of sand

Sand doesn’t just stick between our toes – it also has a way of getting inside our heads. Rebecca Willis finds eternity, and more, in a grain of it


Rebecca Willis | July/August 2013

Close your eyes and picture this. You are walking in the sunshine under a blue sky. On one side of you is a green mass of palm trees, on the other the turquoise of the sea. And under your bare feet is sand, white sandpowdery and silky, soft yet firmwhich yields and then holds as you step on it. It sends a sensual thrill from the soles of the feet up into your brain.

Now change the picture. Make the sand beneath you coarser. Turn it to gravel. Make it sharp. It doesn’t work, does it? The sand is essential to the scene. And even if you de-saturate the colour, even if you have rocky cliffs instead of palm trees to your left and a steely sea to your right, the sand under your feet—which may now be greyish—still makes you want to take off your shoes and wriggle your toes into it.

To the travel industry, every beach is white. And it is no coincidence that white sand is, for most of the developed world, a long-haul flight away and associated with wealth, just as a tan was in the early years of the jet engine. The things we desire, or are encouraged to desire, often follow the money.

The place the beach occupies in the Western imagination today has changed dramatically in the 300 years since "Robinson Crusoe" was published. Then it was a hostile, dangerous frontier, next to the wild unknown of the sea. It reeked of shipwrecks, invasions and the treacherous business of fishing. But it is telling that even then Daniel Defoe transposed the tale of Alexander Selkirk, in part his inspiration for Crusoe, from a temperate, rocky island off the coast of Chile to a sunny Caribbean one with beaches. Sailors exploring the South Pacific were understandably seduced, after many hard months at sea, by the warm waters, fresh food and sexual freedom of the islanders, and their tales travelled back to Europe. But the reality was that, until man’s dominion over nature became more assureduntil sun cream and vaccinations against diseasesthe tropical seaside was an unfriendly place to find yourself, sometimes fatally so.

Pale sand may be most prized, but sand of any shade has a hotline to our senses; we want to touch it and mould it and play with it. That is why hotels in the Caribbean don’t replace their beaches with concrete, even though they may be in annual danger of being whisked away by a hurricane. Perhaps warm sand beneath our soles triggers atavistic memories of our ancestral home in Africa, or perhaps it is simply the opposite of our hard, urban streets. Either way, sand exerts its magnetism with extra force at this time of year, the holiday season for the northern hemisphere. But what exactly is this stuff that draws us irresistibly to the coast? How did it develop the power to create new migration patterns in homo sapiens? And why has it lodged itself so firmly in our collective psyche?

I grew up in a village called The Sands, near which some of the best building sand in England is gouged out of the earth by huge diggers (sand has been used in concrete since it was invented by the Romans 2,000 years ago). Attending church on Sundays as children, we used to singwithout any sense of ironya hymn with the chorus: "Oh, build on the rock and not upon the sand...". We were too young to realise that this was just a metaphor for religious purposes, exploiting the shifting nature of sand. And we didn’t know that in fact well-drained, well-compacted sand makes a good base for building on. The actual sandpits were strictly out of bounds to us and had an aura of strange magic: there were rumours of escaped pet terrapins which had grown to gargantuan size and lurked in their muddy waters, and of teenagers drowning in twining weeds that pulled them under the surface. These myths, perhaps started by parents, cast their own spell: we did not venture beyond the barbed wire.

Sand used for building, such as this, and the sand of beaches outside the tropics70% of the world’s sand, in factis made of quartz, also known as silica, produced by the grinding and scouring of millions of years of weathering and glaciation. The sand of tropical beaches is different. It is "biogenic", or produced by life processes, and consists largely of calcium carbonate: the ground-up remains of shells, coral and the skeletons of marine creatures (the parrotfish is known as the “sand maker” because it feeds on coral and excretes sand). That is the simple explanation for the difference in coloursand in the English Channel is never going to be travel-brochure white like sand in the tropics, even if the sun does shine.

The composition of sand varies greatly according to the rocks and conditions, but it is defined on the invariable Udden-Wentworth scale, which uses sieving to determine and average out grain size: from 0.0625mm to 2mm is sand, anything bigger is gravel, and anything smaller is silt. The smallest grains of sand are invisible to the naked eye, and a grain of sand starts its life the size of the crystal that made up its parent rock. Because this scale applies to all granular material, it means that salt and sugar are technically sand. Come to think of it, a beach made of sugar might be just the thing for modern man.

Of all granular materials, those we call sand are the most mobile in water. Mud sticks, stones are too heavy: sand is the traveller of the granular family, riding the winds and the waves. And like a traveller, it has a tale to tell. The type of mineral betrays its place of origin, a fact now used to help solve crimes. The shape speaks of its journeysdesert grains are rounder than sand eroded by water, which cushions it. And sand reveals age, too: exposure- or luminescence-dating measures the amount of radiation to which it has been subjected, and can determine the age of archeological finds way beyond the reach of carbon dating, as with the cave paintings of the Kimberleys in Australia, thought to beat up to 60,000 yearsthe oldest images we have of the human figure.

People who love sand are called arenophiles, from the Latin harena for sand, which was spread over the floor of the Colosseum in Rome to soak up the blood of combat, and which also gives us the word arena. (What that leaves arena-lovers to call themselves, I don’t know.) Sand has properties which even the non-arenophile may be able to appreciate. It is self-sorting: grains of the same size group together, as the different ingredients in a box of muesli do; that is why, when the grains are different colours, you can find exquisite, painterly patterns left by the tide on a beach. When sand is poured into a pile, the slant of the slope made by the edge of the pile is called the angle of reposethe bigger the grains, the steeper the angle of repose; and for an hourglass to work properly, the angle of the slope in the glass must equal the angle of repose of the sand (which is often not sand, in fact; in the early days of hourglasses it was sometimes ground-up eggshells). Sand behaves more like a liquid when it is dry, but more like a solid when wetso perhaps walking on dry sand is the nearest we get to walking on water. And the processes of erosion that make sand do not discriminateon the Normandy beaches where the D-Day landings took place, there are sand-sized fragments of steel.

Most of these facts I learned from an engaging and exhaustive book, "SandA Journey Through Science and the Imagination" by Michael Welland (OUP). He is a London-based geologistnot, he explains, a sedimentologist, which means a dedicated sand man. But he is a fan. "Sand", he says, "sculpts the landscapes of our planet and reveals the history of the Earth." Without it,  there would be "no concrete, no glass, no silicon chips and a lot less jewellery". It is hard to conceive of modern life without sandand therein lies a problem: we are using sand faster than the planet can replenish it. "We think of sand as something that’s just there," he says, "but it is not a sustainable resource." Whole islands are being wiped off the map as man develops the planet, especially by making concrete and extracting valuable minerals. Frackingthe great energy hope of the momentdevours vast quantities of sand. And most of the world’s beaches are undergoing erosionpartly from natural causes and partly because civilisation in coastal areas is "completely perturbing the natural balance of a highly complex system, by removing dunes, building breakwaters, and replacing sand that is removed…with the wrong kind of sand".

Welland hoped his book would surprise the readerand it doesbut some of his findings surprised him, too. "The microscopic life in between the grains on the beach is truly astonishing." Tiny invertebrates called meiofauna live there. "If you pick up a handful of wet sand at the beach, you are holding a miniature zoo. And these little critters keep the bad bacteria on the beach under control and relatively odourless for us. The diversity of life in the spaces between the grains of sand is greater than the diversity in the rainforest." Beach sand is, literally, full of surprises.

Some people are not content to let sand trickle through their fingers. Tourists visiting Alum Bay in the Isle of Wight or the Negev Desert can buy jars containing multi-coloured layers of sand. Hard-core arenophiles collect sand in its many guises as a hobby, and may belong to the International Sand Collectors Society, which has no apostrophe but does have a quarterly newsletter called, what else, The Sand Paper. In the Netherlands, Loes Modderman photographs sand through a monocular zoom microscope and arranges her pictures on her website; you can then click on a map and see the colour palette of the sands from that part of the world. What I’m saying is that sand gets under other people’s skin, not just Michael Welland’s. Even so, there are places you don’t want it to get: in your shoes, in your eye, in your bed (whatever you plan to do there). Its propensity to be an irritant is in inverse proportion to its size, and doesn’t always result in a pearl: "a spanner in the works" can be translated into French as sable dans l’engrenagesand in the gears.

Regent's Park, London, on a bright spring day. The playground is humming with activity. Children are shinning up climbing frames, swinging along monkey bars, propelling themselves down slides. And they are making a noise about it, yelling and raising their voices excitedly. Except in the sandpit. Here they are playing with an intense, quiet concentration; they fill buckets with sand, they pour it and pile it up into huge mounds, they fashion it into crenellations, they burrow and dig tunnels. Periodically, a child discovers that sand is fun to throw, at which point a parent steps forward and remonstrates. But mostly, all is calm.

Nearby, in Primrose Hill, is a nursery school called Ready Steady Go. The principal, Jennifer Silverton, agrees that sand has a soothing effect on children. "So does water," she says, "natural materials are more calming than all the bright plastic stuff. They love exploring the properties of sand. Sometimes we freeze it for them to play with, though of course play and work are the same at this age. The thing about playing with sand is that it is open-ended, not goal-oriented, so it gives children such confidence. Unless of course", she adds wryly, "they have a parent who is keen on sandcastles..."

You see plenty of those at the seaside: whole families spend long, focused hours building sand forts, sand cars, sand dams and pools, and bury each other up to the neck (though in the Mediterranean it often seems to be the British families doing this, while the locals look on from their loungers). In some resorts the goal-orientation goes a stage further, with sandcastle competitions, and entries as big as houses.

Sand is also used in healing. In sandplay therapy, which uses Jungian theories of the unconscious, the patients create a scene in a tray of sand which is an externalisation of their inner world. Kate Loiseau, chair of the British and Irish Sandplay Society, tells me that it is used in hospitals, social services and prisons. "In the sand room there are two trays on a table, one of dry sand and one of wet, and a collection of figures and objects which the patient can select and which have symbolic value. It is witnessed by a therapist who may have an interaction if the patient wants to talk, but may not." She has seen the treatment help patients ranging from severely depressed adults through people with marriage problems to children injured in accidents. "Sand", she says, "works directly with the unconscious. You can mould it, put water in it, construct it. It has a light feeling, a freeing feeling."

Walking on a beach feels natural. We are born barefoot and our ancestors went shoeless; we were not designed to walk on pavements. Biomechanically, walking on soft, dry sand is good, because it doesn’t send shock-waves through our skeletons and because our feet can adopt the angle to the ground that suits them, rather than the other way round (many people are pro- or super-nated; their feet don’t really want to be flat). As we walk, the sand is also massaging our feet and exfoliating them at the same time. But that is a modern view of the beach: mankind has not always felt so drawn to it.

The Romans were beach-worshippers and the ancient Greeks were great swimmers, but in Europe by the end of the Dark Ages the beach had gone back to being an ambiguous, even menacing, place rather than a centre of leisure. Populations moved north to cooler climates, and the Judaeo-Christian tradition was not big on promoting sensual pleasures. In their book "The Beach: A History of Paradise on Earth" (Pimlico), Lena Lencek and Gideon Bosker deftly describe how the beach became fashionable again. Several factors combined to bring about its renaissance: the sights and lessons afforded by the Grand Tour, the existing culture of mineral spa bathing, which had survived down the centuries (though sometimes with a bad reputation), and Edmund Burke’s doctrine of the sublime, set out in a treatise in 1757, which described the sea as producing "a sort of delightful horror". These three threads twined around each other to draw people to the seaside, and gradually beach resorts began to appear on the coasts of England and then of northern Europe, with their boardwalks, grand hotels and casinos. Over time, the humble fishing village of Brighthelmstone was transformed into the beach resort of Brighton, a social hub patronised by royalty.

Therapeutic sea bathing in the middle of the 18th century consisted of stepping down from your horse-drawn bathing machine into the cold Atlantic and being dunked under the waves by people employed as “dippers”. It was considered harmonising and revitalising, a cure for melancholy and spleen, and by the turn of that century it was not uncommon to find ailing aristocrats drinking a pint of sea water a day for their healthsometimes mixed with milk to make it taste better. The sand itself was merely an obstacle to be crossed en route to the water, and hard sand was preferable because it made it easier to manoeuvre the horses and the bathing machines. No one thought of lying on it, let alone spreading out a towel and sunbathing; dipping tended to happen early in the day to avoid the sun’s rays, which were thought to dry out the body and might give the skin a tan, which was working-class.

The Romantics loved communing with nature on beaches, just as they loved doing it with mountains and water-falls and all facets of the natural world that were awe-inspiring. Wordsworth’s "Evening on Calais Beach" was part of this repositioning of the beach as a place of deep meaning; "the mighty Being is awake/And doth with his eternal motion make/A sound like thundereverlastingly" is how he writes about the sound of the sea on the shore. The Impressionist painters were also drawn to the beach, by the social tide as well as the shimmering light conditions, and Boudin, Manet and others documented the business of seaside life, with bonnet ribbons blowing in the breeze and angular parasols and bathing huts against long, milky horizons.

The Industrial Revolution and the invention of the steam engine meant that there were workers clustered in cities and the means to transport them for day trips to the seaside. The working-class resorts of the Victorian age burgeoned, with their gaudy entertainments and saucy postcards, and Thomas Cook started organising weekend excursions. The smart, monied set was moving on anyway: the first steamships had crossed the English Channel in 1816, and the French and Italian Rivieras were becoming fashionablethough they still had a medicinal role, this time as a cure for tuberculosis.

Bathing machines had given way to elaborate bathing costumes, which used yards of fabric in the interests of modesty (but not of buoyancy). These got smaller over time to the point where, in 1917, the American Association of Park Superintendents issued the "Bathing Suit Regulations", setting out in detail what was acceptable wear at the beach and what was not. It was emblematic: the last gasp of the Victorian mindset before the first world war blew it out of the water and society changed irrevocably.

By the early 1920s, fun at the beach was the antidote to the trauma of the war years, bathing costumes had shrunk further, and beaches were thronged at midday when the sun was at its height. Noel Coward wrote in Vogue of the Venice Lido: "Every square inch of fine, powdered sand is churned up by the passing of unnumerable [sic] toes and dented and depressed by recumbent sun-blistered bodies of various nationalities." The sun-seeking beach culture that persists todaythough with more health warningshad begun.

In the desert, sand dunes are forever moving in the wind, and a sandstorm can swallow a whole village; our planet may be solid, but it has moving layers on its surface. Grains of sand eroded from rock are carried by rainfall and rivers to the sea, where they are deposited on the continental shelf and moved around by time and tide, wind and water. They form sand bars, barrier islands and beaches...and they can un-form them, too. Man wants to subject sand to his willmuch money and energy is spent on coastal defencesbut sand is like Thursday’s Child: it has far to go.

It is this mobility, the ephemeral, shifting nature of sand, that has created its symbolic power. Not only are beaches themselves what academics are fond of calling "liminal spaces"thresholds, in-between zonesbut the material of which they are made is ambiguous too. Because sand is moving and temporal, it has gathered associations of mortality and time. We know that its smallness and smoothness are the result of aeons of erosion and weathering: it is geological time made visible. It speaks of eternity on a human scale in a way that a mountain in its vastness cannot. The phrase "the sands of time" barely even registers as a metaphor.

A footprint in the sand on the seashore, here and then gone, is an inescapable symbol of our brief lives. The equation of sand and the passage of time must also have to do with the invention of the hourglass, or sandglass, which first appeared in the 14th century. It was used in dead reckoning in navigation: a rope, with knots in it at intervals, was let out into the sea, and the number of knots that went out while the sand ran through a 30-second glass told the ship’s speed, in knots. It was also used for measuring watches on board: a half-hour glass had to be turned every 30 minutes, and a bell rung; eight bells was the end of a four-hour watch. Perhaps becauseunlike the timepieces that came along to replace itthe hourglass measured a span, a miniature lifetime, it soon became a symbol of mortality. It was used as a memento mori, appearing on gravestones and sometimes even being placed in a coffin with its occupant.

Most of us are used to the idea that sand is created from rock by weathering, but less familiar is the idea that it can be turned back into rock again. "Sand grains originally born from granite long ago", Welland explains, “may accumulate, be buried, and become naturally glued together, lithified (from the Greek for stone or rock) into...a sandstone. When this, in its turn, is exposed at the surface, it is attacked by weathering and the sand grains are liberated again. The whole process is cyclic, over and over again." He estimates that half of all quartz sand grains have completed that circuitbeen turned to stone and then rebornsix times.

The true age of our planet is hard to grasp, and for me those six cycles are a far more helpful way of doing so than talk of millions of years. Lithification and liberation are the planet’s circle of life, hugely longer and vaster and wider than the animal one Elton John sang about in "The Lion King". Not dust to dust, but sand to sand. When William Blake wrote, in 1803 or thereabouts, of seeing "a world in a grain of sand", his words were truer than he could possibly have known.

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