Scale and the Challenge of Sand

The following was co-written by Asa Simon Mittman and Ben Tilghman for the session SCALE, organized by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, at the Third BABEL Biennial in Santa Barbara. You can (and should) also read Karl Steel’s contribution to the session here and Eileen Joy’s here.

Manorbier Beach, Wales

Picture for a moment a skinny little eight-year old boy playing with his three older brothers on this beach. It’s the year 1153. The boys set to digging and piling up sand, improvising structures, and the older brothers, “preluding the pursuits of manhood in their childish play,” begin sculpting a castle, perhaps one that imitates the handsome stone structure their father had built not too many years before. While the older boys are thus occupied, the younger brother sets to work “designing churches or building monasteries” on his stretch of sand. Impressed by his youngest son’s pious behavior, their father arranges for him to receive a broader education and eventually takes to referring to the burgeoning cleric as “the Bishop.”

Manorbier Castle, with beach in the background

Gerald of Wales’ boyhood home, Manorbier Castle, with beach in the background

When Gerald of Wales described himself building ecclesiastical structures of sand, he signaled to his readers both his putative destiny and a sense of the vagaries of the world. For while Gerald did become a renowned scholar and ecclesiast, he never did, to his sorrow, attain the position of bishop; he never built a real church of stone. Perhaps he meant humbly to signal at the very outset of his autobiography (for he recounts this story in its very first lines) a recognition of the ephemerality of human achievement. Gerald had seen ruins; he may even have known that, like all great structures, his own home, someday, would crumble.

The play of boys on a beach is not so different from the deeds of men: it just happens on a more compressed timetable. Indeed, their play engages multiple plays of scale: he and his brothers built miniature versions of monumental structures, with specks replacing stones; and in an afternoon, these castles and cathedrals would be built, occupied (in imagination, or, like so many sandcastles, by arthropodic lords and bishops), before being altered, weathered, likely besieged by brotherly aggressions, and ultimately destroyed. Of course, their play now exists not as an event, but as the words written by an old man some 800 years ago, subsequently transcribed, set in print, duplicated, and digitized. The shifts of scale are dizzying.

Beach Sand

Beach Sand

Sand challenges our understanding of scale because it refuses to settle within a single conceptual framework. Is sand immense, or is it tiny? Individual sand grains sit at the very edge of natural human perception (sand particles are .063-.2mm in diameter, and generally, the unaided human eye can only perceive objects larger than about .04mm), so they are among the smallest discrete things that we can contemplate without magnification. But we rarely, if ever, look at sand grains individually: “sand” is a collective entity, one that astounds with its number when contemplated for even a moment.

Sand’s place in time is similarly elusive: it is often deployed as a metaphor for transience and instability (“THESE are the Days of our Lives”), but the geology of sand trends more towards timelessness (from the human perspective, at least). The sand that Gerald sculpted into temporary monuments to his eternal God had been formed over the course of 3 million years from the weathering of sandstone that itself had been formed over 400 million years ago. Individual grains elsewhere in the world have been dated at 4 billion years old.

Sand grains Magnified 125x

Sand grains Magnified 125x

But this is only to speak of the mineral components of sand. Sand, bear in mind, is defined primarily by size, and not by material makeup or origins. What we see in microphotographs is a dizzying array of shapes and colors, reflecting many different origins: shells, plant matter and, more recently, plastics, all jumbled together with minerals. The very breadth of sand’s material nature and sources again twists our scaled view of the world: a generalized, unified substance reveals itself to comprise a near-encyclopedic catalogue of the world’s matter.

The challenge of sand, then, is the very challenge of scale as a concept. Scale must, by definition, always be relative. It is necessarily situational, and contextualized. Sand–substance of ephemeral constructs, plaything and monumental prototype alike–seems never to find its place. But this is an illusion of our own making. Sand has its angle of repose; it is we who feel the need to place it in a “proper” perspective.

3 Responses to “Scale and the Challenge of Sand”

  1. Garry Galvez June 26, 2015 at 5:35 pm #

    Can I use the photo of the magnified beach sand for the elementary science book I am writing?

    • Asa Mittman June 29, 2015 at 7:30 am #

      I am sorry, but we do not control the rights to this lovely image.

  2. Bertie June 3, 2017 at 8:29 pm #

    Why are oceanside beaches always composed of similarly sized sand? Why aren’t some of them broken down further into the size of silt or clay? Or not yet broken down so that they are gravel or pebbles or boulders? Surely there is a reason

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