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9 march 2009

Michael Welland's Sand is a masterpiece of the sub-genre of creative nonfiction that lies on the borders of both journalism and academic scholarship: the reflective essay based on interdisciplinary research. In form it resembles Rebecca Solnit's Wanderlust and Mark Kurlansky's Salt, which take a single ultra-common topic (respectively, walking, and, well, salt) and compile everything that can be known about it in a succession of literary essays. But Sand may be the best exemplar of its kind to date. Starting out to look for sand, Welland finds it everywhere, like a parent vacuuming out the station wagon after a day at the beach.

Welland, though opening and closing his book with personal notes on sand he's known during his career as a geologist, avoids the temptation to write a voice-driven account of the stuff. There are few interviews with sand experts, and Welland saves us the kind of faux suspense involved in narrating trips to exotic locales to hang out with sand mavens. He gets to the thing itself, which is quite fascinating enough without further personification.

Sand is ubiquitous, but diverse in nature. Unlike water, its partner in so many geological activities, sand is not a single substance, but a generic term for different substances that resemble one another in being made up of durable grains of a certain size. As Welland points out, granulated salt and sugar are both types of sand, as are many other grainy household items. Most sand is made of silica, but silica sand, by nature the detritus of a messy process of weathering and stirring, tends to incorporate all kinds of other little granules – as well as a whole ecosystem of minuscule animals, the meiofauna.

Because sand is ubiquitous, in nature and culture alike, Welland can use sand to write about anything from asteroids to mandalas to toothpaste. But though sand itself is a miscellany, Sand doesn't have a miscellaneous feel at all. The geometry and physics of granules, those highly material building blocks of landscapes, simply are nature, and set the preconditions for much that goes on in our lives. It's a world made of sand, and we merely live in it.

Welland's book includes houses made of sand, quicksand, sand castles. He writes about hourglasses, river channels, sandbags, concrete, and plaster. At times the dominant principle in the book is physical scale, as Welland works upward from single grains to great sandstone strata. At other times human interest governs his treatment, and we see sand in art and architecture. One chapter uses a A-Z rubric: sand from Aggregates to Zirconium.

Welland is effective at getting his readers thinking about large-scale processes like sedimentation and orogeny. But the most persistent parts of the book, the ones that will stick with you like sand in your bathing suit, are stray bits of arenaceous lore. A scientist named Hermán Makse discovered that if you mix two kinds of sand with different-sized grains (beach sand and white sugar, let's say), you can re-separate the substances just by pouring the mixture slowly and evenly into a new pile (41-43). A way to get the rice out of my salt shaker, should I ever want to!

Welland also (grr) alerted me to the existence of the Falling Sand Game (click at your risk). Welland introduced me to the work of Andrew Clemens (1857-1894), creator of extraordinary sand bottles. Most kids have made sand art at fairs by pouring colored sand into little vials. Clemens made pictures of tall ships and George Washington and such by putting colored sand into bottles grain by grain.

Welland's Sand is exquisitely illustrated and deeply thought-provoking. Once you've read it, you will be seeing sand everywhere for weeks to come. Of course, sand is everywhere; you just need to have it pointed out to you.

Welland, Michael. Sand: The never-ending story. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.