Sand: Michael Welland Responds!

Michael was also kind enough to respond to a few questions I posed to him about his book, Sand: The Never Ending Story. As you can tell, he is a careful and thoughtful writer.


And, in case you just happened in to this site, I am participating in Michael Welland’s blog book tour. More info is available on his web site.


1. Throughout your book, you write of the many ways that people incorporate sand and its effects into their vocabulary. Why do you think sand is a particularly rich geologic feature for language?

My view is that this is because sand provides so many images and contrasts. First of all, I think that it’s very much about scale (and, of course, that’s what was captured by William Blake – “To see a world in a grain of sand”). An individual grain of sand gives us a reference to something incredibly small – but it’s something we can still see; anything smaller leads us into the world of the truly microscopic, invisible to the naked eye – a grain of sand is a kind of portal to the unimaginably small. At the same time, a vast accumulation of sand grains on a beach is a visibly accessible, but not countable, image of an unimaginably large number – anything larger is a severe test of our imaginations. Hence the continuing resonance of Sagan’s question as to whether there are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on Earth’s beaches (a friend just sent me correspondence in the current issue of Astronomy magazine, continuing to debate this question).

Then I think that sand is compelling for its ephemerality – sand is constantly on the move, shape-shifting in your hand or sculpting landscapes. It provokes images of impermanence – sandcastles being washed away – and this is what makes land art, such as that of Jim Denevan’s beach sculptures, so fascinating, so somehow romantic. And yet, despite the advice not to build our houses on sand, we do – successfully. At the beach, sand is a material that flows through your fingers and yet you can walk on it. The wonders of granular materials!

And then there’s sand as the primeval and everlasting – not to mention mundane and ubiquitous – material. I was recently reminded of yet another saying, “pounding sand” – pointless labour or the related phrase of 19th Century American slang, “not enough sense to pound sand down a rathole.”

Finally, let’s not forget the hourglass and the sands of time. I started this rather lengthy response with Blake, and I’ll end it with Longfellow:

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And departing, leave behind us

Footprints on the sands of time.

2. You are obviously well read, which informs your work and makes it appealing on so many levels. Who inspires you? Are there fiction writers, science journalists, poets, sci/fi writers, etc. that have helped you become a better writer?

I’m afraid this is going to be a rather eclectic list! Any piece of writing, fiction or non-fiction, which you find hugely enjoyable is, by definition, a page-turner. There’s something about the structure, the style, the story-telling, that is compelling. And so it’s only after finishing it that you can reflect on why this was – and the answer is often elusive, intangible. But does something subconsciously “rub off”? I suspect so.

I’ll try to describe writing that I’ve found compelling – and inspiring – by genre, with an example or two for each (leaving a couple specifically for the next question). First, fiction. I admit that I’m a sucker for a good thriller/crime novel, and few books beat the Stieg Larsson trilogy (and I see that I’m not alone – The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, the first in the trilogy is number 8 on Amazon and has 779 customer reviews). Also in this genre. Anything by Fred Vargas. There’s something about the pace and the extraordinary drawing of characters that these writers are simply brilliant at. I also enjoy periodically dipping into science fiction, in particular short stories – I think that the genre lends itself to this form and the challenge of the compactness of a short story is something any writer can learn from if it’s done well. A recent and much-enjoyed sampling has been The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction Volume 3 and I’m right now in the middle of When it Changed, a collection edited by Geoff Ryman. For other kinds of fiction, recently enjoyed have been Allegra Goodman’s Intuition (one of the few novels that superbly gets to the heart of how science and scientists work); read because I shared a radio program with her, Elif Shafak’s The Bastard of Istanbul was astonishing – again, character and pace, and the all-important story-telling; Milan Kundera’s Immortality is one of the few books that I’ve read more than once – it’s actually time to read it again.

Travel writing, if done well, can be inspiring. Anything by William Dalrymple, Wilfred Thesiger is the classic; although I read it decades ago, William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways remains utterly memorable (Prairie Earth is on my – very crowded – “to read” shelf, and probably belongs in the answer to the following question).

Science writing: the classics – Feynman for the way he conveys the excitement and, of course Steve Gould. Phillip Ball; Jan Zalasiewitcz and The Earth After Us, Per Bak and How Nature Works. Nassim Taleb, The Black Swan (boy do we have a lot to learn from that book). Jonah Lehrer’s Proust Was a Neuroscientist (How We Decide is on that crowded shelf). And, although I must admit that he’s an old friend (we were students together), I think Richard Fortey’s books (especially The Hidden Landscape, now being re-issued) are superb.

3. And along that same line. You make a number of references to non-geology writers and how they incorporate geology imagery in their writing. What can we geologists and science writers learn from how non-scientists use geology as metaphor?

I think that we as geologists automatically and professionally take, in the first instance, an analytical view of a landscape. We can learn a great deal from writers who observe the same view through different spectacles, and encourage us to stand back, dump the terminology and the reductionism, and look at these things with a sense of, for want of a better word, the romantic. And yes, the metaphorical. We can effectively learn from non-geologists that the same story can be told without the jargon and with a sense of wonder – isn’t this, after all, a key reason that we’re geologists in the first place?

John McPhee was one of the original masters, but for me there’s one recent book that illustrates this superbly and provocatively: Mountains of the Mind is Robert Macfarlane’s homage to mountains. He’s a Cambridge academic (the English faculty) and a climber. It’s often claimed that this is a book about climbing, but it certainly isn’t. Climbing is simply the route into wonderfully descriptive writing on rock and orogenic belts and the historical role of mountains in our imaginations (“the sublime”). His second book, The Wild Places, also contains some sublime geological writing — for example, the miniature wild places to be found in the weathered fissures of a limestone pavement.

My second example arose in the conversation of your “virtual book tour” on my blog: Dan Snow, Listening to Stone. He’s arguably the finest dry stone wall builder in the US – and a superb writer. Here again, we’re looking at geology though a non-geologist’s eyes, but also his hands and his imagination. One of my favourite quatoations:


“The stones provoke the thoughts and the thoughts give birth to the form. A finished construction is a thought process petrified. Within a wall are all the moments that created it. They remain there like hidden messages slipped between the stones as they were placed. The finished wall’s character is defined by the spaces between the stones as much as it is by the stones themselves.”

If that doesn’t inspire a geologist writer, I have no idea what would.

4. You write “The underlying problem, which we shall return to, is that we have developed an unnatural desire to live in places we shouldn’t.” Any proscriptions for how we can address this fact, such as legislation prohibiting building in certain flood plains?

A couple of years ago, flying in to Philadelphia, I took this photo of the Jersey shore (no, I’m not singling out New Jersey, it just happens to be an appropriate photo). This is a barrier island, and barrier islands are among the most dynamic landforms on the planet; it is in their nature to move, to be over-washed by storms, to be broken up by new inlets as old ones sand up.

Every square metre is covered by development, the dunes, an integral part of the system, have gone, and the beach inevitably has to be “nourished.” This story is repeated around essentially all inhabited sandy coasts, and the population density in coastal areas is increasing dramatically. This kind of issue arises in the UK: the coast of East Anglia is eroding naturally – and extremely rapidly. One classic case involves an individual (sometimes referred to as today’s King Knut) who has recently lost, on appeal, a court case preventing him from continuing to dump hundreds of thousands of tons of soil on to the beach in front of his home (the details of the case are more complex – the cliffs are designated an area of Special Scientific Interest and it seems that the individual had not sought legal permission for his activities). The illustration below (from the Daily Mail) shows the situation – in the foreground is all that remains of this “coastal defence” and remnants can be seen as the grey piles at the foot of the cliffs.


The very idea of “coastal defences” strikes me as being, more often than not, nonsense – and the UK Government tends to agree, especially since it’s a very expensive nonsense that never lasts. Compensation and retreat seems to be a more sensible policy. Furthermore, interfere with one part of a coast and its sediment budget and the whole system is disrupted, invariably causing other problems further along the coast.

I know it’s easy for me to say, but I believe that legislation against coastal development, against development on flood plains, against disrupting natural drainage (by tarmac and concrete, for example), and against massive changes to natural river and sedimentation systems (look at the Mississippi Delta problems and the consequences for hurricane damage) is the only option. It would save immense amounts of money and human misery if we were simply to recognise that there are some natural processes that can’t – and shouldn’t – be screwed around with.

5. A technical question. Maybe I missed this in the book, but when I lived in southern Utah, I found it odd that in the land of red rocks, the sand on the beaches of the Colorado River is white, or at least not red. Why?

A couple of thoughts (although I’m no expert on the sandstones of the western US). Quite often, the red colour of a sandstone is only on the outside as a result of weathering and oxidation of its iron content – knock off a piece and the broken face may well be white or some other very different colour. Many of these sandstones are highly porous and permeable, and their internal colour reflects the chemical activity of groundwater seeping through and other aspects of diagenesis, the chemical changes that happen in a rock after it’s formed; the results can be highly variable.

The other point is that, while many sand grains are originally red (particularly desert sands and therefore sandstones such as the Navajo), that colour is only a rusty coating on the grains – bash them around for a while in a river and that coating will be worn off.

6. Of course, I have to ask this question. You mention several building stones made from sandstone. Do you have a favorite sandy building stone?

Definitely the New Red (Triassic) Sandstones on either side of the Atlantic (as in the Smithsonian). The colours are brilliant and their variations subtle, and the variety of sedimentary structures – ripple cross-bedding and so on – provide an instantaneous urban geological field trip. Here’s an example from a modern building near me in London (one of the blocks has been placed geologically upside-down).


But of course, on your side of the Atlantic it’s not just the Smithsonian – it’s the brownstones of New York made from “the most hideous stone ever quarried,” described so affectionately and eloquently in your book. And your Wingate red sandstone from Utah. [DBW here, As far as I know, the Wingate has not been used for buildings, at least in southern Utah, which seems a darned shame.] I need say no more other than simply urge readers to enjoy David’s chapter on this stone – if they haven’t already done so.

7. And finally, could you show a few images from your collection of the Ogden’s sand education cards?

With pleasure – when I first wrote a blog post about these last spring, I said that I would do more, so here’s a further sampling (ach with its accompanying description from the back).



One of my favourites


This next one seems to be a poor woman who has lost her golf ball in the sand!

A couple of commerce samples.


And, since we started with footsteps in the sands of time, so shall we end.

One thought on “Sand: Michael Welland Responds!”

  1. nice blog,".. the New Red (Triassic) Sandstones on either side of the Atlantic (as in the Smithsonian)." I love this stone too, I have some blocks from a museum building project, given to me, that is sitting in my yard waiting to be carved…

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