Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Sand: A Review of Michael Welland's Book

Today, I have the pleasure of participating in Michael Welland's blog book tour for the paperback edition of his book, Sand. Without further ado, here's the review of one fine book. And, very exciting news. Just learned that Sand has been awarded the 2010 John Burroughs Medal, the highest literary award for natural history writing. Way to go Michael. (Unfortunately, there web site is not as up to date as their choices of award winners.)

Sand. It’s everywhere. At the beach. In rivers. On mountains. In your shoes. In your ears. In your computer. Of course, sand benefits by its formation: sand is an ultimate outcome of that eternal battle between the physical world and the omnipresent agents of erosion. Someone with way too much time on his or her hands has even estimated that a billion grains of sand form every second on our little planet.

Recognizing the all-pervasiveness of sand, Archimedes postulated that the number of grains of sand in the universe was 1063 or ten to the sixty-third power. Who knows if he was right but consider that if you dumped out a cup of sand, and counted one grain per second, your task would require a little under 35 days. So, yes, sand could be everywhere, with some grains left over.

All the more reason to pen an ode to a material beloved not only by geologists, gravestone carvers, and computer chip developers but also Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Blake, Elizabeth Bishop, and Jimi Hendrix, each of whom utilized sand as a metaphor in their writing. Add to this list Michael Welland, who ferreted out the above facts in his treasure of a book, Sand: The Never Ending Story. The book is now available in paperback, published by University of California Press.

Unlike many single topic books, Sand follows a trajectory, moving from the microscopic to the macroscopic, from the individual grain to going beyond our planet and our present. Welland mixes in science, art, architecture, and literature. He traces a grain of sand on a quintessential adventure, from mountain to sea down via a river. He shows how sand affects every day objects from cement to glass to computer chips. It is heady stuff, but Welland writes with such passion and erudition that he makes his subjects accessible and fun to learn about.

Curiously, although many have written about the sand, no one definition exists. Size is a critical criteria, but by this definition alone salt and sugar are sand. Moreover, even defining sand by size raises questions as it can be as big as 2mm and as wee as .0625mm, plus how exactly does one measure an object where “one might see … a ruined Temple…[or] two images of human shape, kneeling and extending their arms to an Altar.” (Welland didn’t write the more flowery depiction; it comes from 18th century Dutch, arenophile’s Antony van Leeuwenhoek description of sand grains.) Or as Blake put it in his immortal phrase, “To see a world in a grain of sand.”

Welland follows his reference to Blake with a poem from another well-known bard, Robert W. Service. Apparently when not rhyming about the Yukon and cremation, Service carefully observed sand.

For look, Within the hollow hand,
While round the earth careens,
I hold a single grain of sand
And wonder what it means.
Ah! If I had the eyes to see,
And brain to understand,
I think Life’s mystery might be
Solved in this grain of sand.

In Sand, Michael Welland has done a wonderful job of fleshing out some of life’s mysteries, at least in relation to sand. We are also fortunate that he has taken Blake’s ode to heart and shared his experiences with us.


BrianR said...

awesome ... I'm looking forward to the Q&A

Anonymous said...

A very sad thing:

After reading your post about Sand, by Michael Welland, I located the book at my public library and put it at the top of my reading list. How disappointing to discover that the publisher chose a font size so small (8? 10?) that it makes for a very uncomfortable read. What a shame, so much to learn from its pages, yet it remains inaccessible due to poor choices on the part of the design team.