Saturday, 22 June 2013

shuttle 6: the book of sand

'He told me his book was called the Book of Sand because neither sand nor this [book] has a beginning or an end' (Jorge Luis Borges, The Book of Sand)

'We live surrounded by ideas and objects infinitely more ancient than we imagine; and yet at the same time everything is in motion' (Teilhard de Chardin)

'Sand is formed when rocks are ground down by weather or when they simply dissolve. Many of the commonest rocks are actually made of small crystals; if you pick up a stone at random and look at it closely, chances are you'll see small bits and pieces of slightly different colors. Different minerals dissolve at different rates, so rocks that are exposed to the air will gradually start looking like sponges, with tiny pits and holes where some minerals have dissolved away. Other rocks are ground down by rivers or cracked by ice or abraded by wind, and slowly pummelled into smaller and smaller pieces.

The sand you see on a beach or in the desert might have been freshly extracted from some mountain nearby or it might have been brought there by a river or an ocean that has long since disappeared. One of the wonderful things about sand is how far it reaches into the past ...

It used to be thought that sand grains became round by rubbing against each other in the surf or being tumbled together in riverbeds. Recently, geologists have realised that it takes millions of years of abrasion even to begin to round a sand grain. That means that a well-rounded grain ... may have gone through several 'cycles': first it was a crystal in a rock, then it was dislodged and ended up on a beach or in a riverbed. It may have been tossed around in the ocean for a couple of million years. Eventually, it settled somewhere - say at the bottom of a lake. As smaller grains of dust and dirt settled around, it became impacted and eventually hardened into stone. A few more millions of years and the lake might have dried up, exposing the lake bottom. Again the little grain would have sprung free and been washed away to some other beach. Again it would have been tossed around and gotten a little rounder.

A round grain ... might have lain about on different beaches three or four times over the course of a hundred million years - an amazing thought. It would have sat on a beach long before there were dinosaurs and then again millions of years after the dinosaurs vanished, and then one last time in the late 19th century, when an amateur naturalist scooped it up and put it on a microscope slide. The smaller the grain, the more slowly it becomes rounded. A really tiny round grain could have been at the bottom of a lake and then - in the scale of time that only geologists can appreciate - it could have been slowly lifted up into a giant mountain range, and then broken off the mountain, washed down to an ocean, stuck in a deep sediment, turned again into a rock, and so on ... at least for me, the aeons are too long to imagine.

"Sand grains have no souls but they are reincarnated", is how one geologist puts it. He says that the "average recycling time" is around two hundred million years, so that a grain of sand that was first sprung free of its first rock 2.4 billion years ago could have been in ten mountain ranges and ten oceans since then. Even the giddy numbers of Buddhist reincarnations (some deities live billions of years) can't bring home eternity for me in the way this simple example does.

Think of it next time you hold a grain of sand in your palm'.

Extract from James Elkins, How To Use Your Eyes, London & New York: Routledge, 2000, 176-81

Photographs: top - 'archive sand' from the Vatican archives: 'Walking through the storerooms of an archive containing documents dating back to the 17th century at the latest, on the shelves holding registers, volumes of letters and strings, one can notice a very fine type of sand, or sediments from other materials, mainly iron dust. Before blotting paper was invented, the “polverino” - as the sediments were called - was spread on freshly-written paper in order to dry the ink more quickly. Even nowadays, on desks in archives and libraries that preserve manuscript collections, as soon as they have finished looking at their desired item, researchers are likely to find a considerable amount of sand grains on their table. Flipping through the pages, the sand which was still adhering to the ink, falls from the sheet. For this very reason, in conservation labs, it’s a good rule to dust the documents in order to remove the grains that hold a strong grip onto the ink, even though the manuscript is often used. In order to remove the sand, a “dusting” is carried out with the so-called “Japanese brush”, a small brush deprived of its metallic parts, with very soft bristles that act in an extremely delicate manner on the paper, without causing any damage to the material'.

Bottom: Charles Henry Turner, 'Sand Dunes', c. 1890: cyanotype
For an earlier post about slowness in art practices, 'The little by little suddenly', see here 

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