Reach your finger up to the top of a door or window frame in your home. Swipe the ledge along its length. If you don’t live with an obsessive-compulsive that actually bothers to regularly clean the ledge, when you retrieve your finger, it will be covered with dirt and dust. If you’re like me, and live in a house where the ledges only ever get cleaned when it’s time to paint, and even then, just by accident when the brush waivers in its path along the wall, you may have even shoveled along a little pile with the swipe. Though dirt and dust are perhaps not technically sand (in actuality, there is no technical definition of sand, except in commercial application), it is this process of relentless accumulation and deposition and coalescence and upheaval and dispersion, to be ceaselessly repeated, that makes the subject of sand so compelling.
Imagine the processes that filled that ledge with airborne dust and dirt (from only the two to three feet of air between the ledge and the ceiling) carrying on for millions upon millions, even billions of years. It’s easy to see that on the scale of deep geologic time, the ledge would soon enough be as deep in dust and dirt (i.e., sand), as was physically possible, to be closely followed (in geologic time) by the whole house filling up with the stuff. Or it would if the house were in a valley. If the house were on a hill or mountain, the structure would first be weathered down, decomposed and ripped into smaller fragments bit by bit, creating its own contribution to the sand pile on the valley floor. Eventually, whatever remained of the structure when everything finally reached the valley floor would then be inundated with sand, and would join the valley sand grains in their march to the sea, ultimately to be subducted into the mantle via plate tectonics, melted and formed and pressed into new rock that would one day get lifted up again by those same plate tectonics, forming part of a new mountain range when the plate carrying it collided with another.
Sand has a story to tell. There is great wisdom locked away in its granules. Michael Welland does a masterful job unlocking the secrets and telling the story. He is a geologist by trade, but does yeoman’s work weaving a tale of time and geology and physics through the perspective of this most basic, yet variable, of earth’s materials.
Because everything is, was, or is becoming, sand, Welland admits that the greatest challenge to writing a book on sand is winnowing the subject matter down to manageable proportions: What to leave in, what to leave out? Welland wisely focuses his efforts on explaining what sand is, at the chemical and granular level; how it behaves, so far as its behavior in aggregates is crudely understood; sand’s effect on life, particularly of the human variety; and what sand reveals of the living earth and the processes animating it. The discussion ranges from sand’s categorization by size, to the tiny crowded metropolises of single-celled organisms that make their home between its grains, to the enormous forces driving plate tectonics and the continuous cycling of sand to rock to sand, to the evidence sand provides of the asteroid that hit the Yucatan peninsula 65 million years ago, considered by many to be the catastrophe causing the extinction of the dinosaurs.
Though sand is often employed as a metaphorical device in literature to represent decay or the ultimate fruitlessness of man’s endeavors, there is really nothing metaphorical about it. Sand doesn’t represent decay, it’s the product of decay. Sand doesn’t represent the disorder and chaos of entropy’s ceaseless increase, it is a direct result. Sand is evidence of the grinding, endless cycling of planetary history. Scoop up a handful of sand at the beach, and you have in your hand a bit of earth’s present, and a visible link to her past and future. Metaphor is unnecessary.
It baffles me, in these days when the earth’s age is generally agreed to be about 4.6 billion years; when it is well understood that plate tectonics, combined with sun, wind and rain have constantly reshaped and reconfigured the earth’s crust and climate; when it is clear that nothing is eternal except change; that humans today still can not see past the illusion of permanence that a mountain range or shoreline provides to grasp the momentary finitude in which they are immersed. It takes a powerful bias of myopia, perhaps naturally selected over the eons as beneficial in dealing with the immediacy of survival challenges, for the instinct to reject the evidence for temporality that reason provides.
In a tiny grain of sand, we know that sea level and temperatures have risen and fallen innumerable times in earth’s history, yet when we sense some increase in temperature and sea levels over the last century or so, a period roughly equivalent to one grain of sand in all the beaches of all of earth’s time, we conclude it must be us that is the cause. We scour the sands for fossil evidence of earth’s past and so realize that roughly 99% of all species ever existing have died out from the ordinary cycles of nature, but can’t accept that creatures so massive and powerful as the dinosaurs would have died of the same processes, so search for some catastrophe that would explain for the dinosaurs what we refuse to accept for ourselves—that extinction is the ultimate destiny of all species. We blind our eyes to the massive forces of nature in constant and cyclical flux to conjure a linear and progressive history for ourselves, refusing to accept that it is those forces that shaped and formed us, and it is those same forces that will ultimately destroy us, unless we get there first.
It seems a bit dismal, all this wisdom to be found in a grain of sand. In a tiny grain of sand is revealed the temporality of all things. How can anything matter if everything ultimately turns to dust? Do the sun and the moon and the stars and the earth matter? The ultimate fate of all is to become sand, floating in space, incapable of supporting human life, or any life, as we know it. No complete philosophy of human existence can ignore this profound truth.
Acknowledging the existential conundrums a tiny grain of sand presents is a necessary step along the road to understanding and wisdom. As the subtitle proclaims, sand is the never-ending story. Welland does an excellent job of telling it.