The word “sand,” much like the words “rock” and “dirt,” is a word one acquires very early in childhood. Sand, rock, and dirt are ubiquitous materials, the building blocks of our planet. We are confronted with them early in life and life requires of us that we know what they are.
Perhaps the most interesting of the three to the young is sand because it is both hard and yet it can flow like water, it is hard and soft, static yet mobile. Sand, the encyclopedias tell is a “naturally occurring granular material composed of finely divided rock and mineral particles.” Even those who have not studied sand know that it comes in a variety of colors and in startling degrees of granularity, ranging from the almost talcum powder fineness of the orange sand of the Sahara to the much more gritty varieties derived from crushed coral which are so prevalent on the world’s beaches.
And now at last there comes a book devoted exclusively to sand, an extraordinary and delightful exploration of this strange corner of the mineral world. It is Sand: The Never-Ending Story by the British geologist Michael Welland, a masterful evocation of a much neglected and yet remarkable and omnipresent basic substance of our world.
From individual grains observed in minute structural detail under the microscope to the vast desert dunes which form like ocean waves on stretches of the Sahara Desert that can be seen from space, from the bottom of the world’s oceans to the landscapes of our neighbor Mars, from billions of years in the past to a future that stretches to infinity — Sand: The Never-Ending Story is an astonishing narrative that encompasses the whole universe in which we live, because practically everywhere in that universe is this stuff, this sand, one of nature’s most humble and yet most powerful and most omnipresent materials.
While this is a book by a professional scientist with a Ph.D. from Cambridge, the story is told with a dramatic sense of language and narrative more reminiscent of fiction and film. Welland is a gifted writer. Sand examines the science of sand, including the physics of granular materials generally, and yet the focus is always on the human context of sand, sand as a material we use every day. That, in the end, is what gives sand meaning in our human world. Interwoven with tales of scientists, sculptors, navigators, the story of sand is at the same time a story of environmental building and a tale of environment collapse, an adventure that stretches back to the beginnings of our planet as a place of solid materials yet a tale that encompasses also the mundane realities of a child’s sandbox in today’s back yard. That is because sand is all around us. Sand is a component of almost everything — it has made possible our computers, buildings, and plate glass for windows, toothpaste, cosmetics, and paper, and it has played dramatic roles in human history, commerce, and imagination. It is a component of concrete, and it is an artifact of weathering. Given enough time, the Rocky Mountains will turn to sand; indeed, the Alleghenies already have. Welland shows us that we can find the world in a grain of sand.
Though he is certainly first and foremost a professional scientist, no one is more fun to listen to as a writer of narrative nonfiction than Michael Welland. He is a born raconteur who might easily have become a writer of pulp fiction (or the owner of a British pub!) had he not chosen the higher calling of studying rocks. His narrative flows with the ease and grace of the best creative nonfiction, adapting many of the techniques of telling stories more typically associated with novels.
His fellow scientists have recognized the power of this book. Sand: The Never-Ending Story won the prestigious John Burroughs Medal in 2010 for the finest book that year about natural history (an honor Welland shares with Rachel Carson, Joseph Wood Krutch, John McPhee, and other luminaries of natural history going back to 1926).
Michael Welland has written an extraordinary book, perhaps even a timeless book that non-scientists can enjoy as much as professional geologists. Welland, who spent many years practicing geology in the United States, now lives in London with his wife and family where he is managing director of Orogen, a geological consulting company he founded, and a Fellow of the Geological Society.
Sand: The Never-Ending Story, 360 pages, is available in hardcover and paperback from The University of California Press.