Landlocked and wheezing pollen, my body misses the sea. More specifically, it misses stretching out, near naked, on wet, hard-packed sand and listening to the sea. The splurgiest vacation we ever took was to Bermuda, and that was the only time I ever wept when it was time to go home again. How could I leave that pink sand? A skirt’s deep hem, coyly raised and lowered by foaming turquoise waves. It was fine as talc and so soft I would have gladly let someone bury me in it. I did not bother to build; just being there was my sandcastle, a temporary kingdom of pleasure.
William Blake wanted “to see a World in a Grain of Sand,” but I only wanted to escape the world for a while. Ignore its frets and obligations and still all thoughts, until I was conscious only of the wriggle of toes in hot sand. Of flopping down on the sand after a splash in the sea; of embraces that left sand in awkward places. Sand itself is sterile; nothing grew on that beach. It was littered with driftwood and shells and odd marine creatures who had washed up there, like old men on park benches. But yes, it held a world.
“In a grain of sand there is fire, water, air, and dust,” observed the French essayist Joseph Joubert. A naturalist friend of mine reads the sand at the base of river bluffs as a clue to prehistory. Glassmakers melt sand into liquid, heating it to roughly 3090F—the flaming temperature a space shuttle reaches when it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere.
What is this stuff, anyway? Powdered rock. The dust of boulders past. Erosion, dissolution, and forgiveness. We play in sandboxes, and Zen Buddhists use sand to rake away distractions. Take a handful of the sort used to make glass and slide it under a microscope. You will see tiny grains of quartz crystals, different as snowflakes but made of silicon dioxide. When the glassmaker heats the sand to that crazy temperature, the silica loses its crystalline structure and then, as it cools, forms an entirely different structure, one that exists at the border between liquid and solid. “An amorphous solid,” it is called, meaning it has retained its original nature but lost its shape, taking on, instead, the “molecular randomness” that characterizes a liquid or an aimless weekend.
As hot as sand can feel, surprising bare feet in late afternoon and sending you scampering for its cool wet edge, it will never reach melting point from the sun’s rays alone. If we refrain from industrial manipulation, its only variances will be texture—how sharp or soft, gritty or powdery—and color.
But oh, those variations are glorious.
Turns out the heavenly pink of Bermuda’s beaches comes from red foraminifera (Homotrema rubrum), which exists in a niche tucked between the plant and animal kingdoms. Its body is not multi-celled, as an animal’s is; nor does it photosynthesize. Sucking in calcium carbonate from the seawater, it uses the stuff to make a hard red skeleton that will protect its vulnerable, gelatinous body, sticking it to the undersides of rocks on the ocean floor.
Wading in, I had no idea that minuscule organisms were clinging to the rocks, sticking their tentacles outside their exoskeletons and waving them around, hoping to grab particles of lunch. Nor did I know that once dead, the foraminifera would fall into the sediment and wash ashore, mixing with white sand until the beach glowed the color of dawn. Or—a less pretty pathway—go through the parrotfish, who scrape algae off the reef and wind up gulping down a little limestone and red foraminifera along with it. The granular bits come out the other end, so it is often crap that turns the beach that blushing pink. One more romance with a vulgar underside.
Intrigued by Bermuda’s backstory, I look further. The swirls of purple sand at Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur come from a mineral called manganese garnet. The decadent luxury of white sand (the whitest, I am told, is at Hyams Beach in New South Wales, Australia) comes from the purity of its quartz crystals, ground to a fine powder that has never been contaminated by minerals that might dull or tint its blinding white.
Prince Edward Island’s red sand beaches are, like the red dust on Mars, tinged with iron oxide. At Kaihalulu Beach in Maui, the iron comes from a volcano; the same is true at Kokkini Beach in Santorini, Greece. In Porto Ferro in Sardinia, Italy, the beach’s hue is closer to orange, thanks to a mix of volcanic deposits, crushed shells, and orange limestone. Dramatic black sand comes from basalt, an igneous rock formed when hot lava splashes into cold ocean water. On Costa Rica’s Playa Negra beach, the black sand has enough iron mixed in with the basalt to be magnetic (so keep your rings on).
Rarest are the green sand beaches in Hawaii and French Guiana. They take their color from olivine, a mineral that forms from lava the way basalt does. (We know olivine as a gemstone: peridot.) Most intriguing is Rainbow Beach in Queensland, Australia: it looks beige at a casual glance, but its sand is the dissolution of multicolored cliffs and said to contain more than seventy colors. In aboriginal lore, that is because Yiningie, the spirit of the gods, took the form of a rainbow. When he did battle with an evil man, Yiningie crashed into the cliffs, and his spirit stained them.
Lore from the world’s other side gives us the Sandman, who sprinkles magic sand into children’s eyes to give them happy dreams. The Sandman in the upcoming Netflix drama by that name, based on a comic book by Neil Gaiman, is a less whimsical character: the tall, attenuated figure of Morpheus, king of dreams and ruler of the Dreaming. For DC Comics, he was drawn with ink-black hair and bone-white skin, capturing the sharp contrast between daylight and dreamtime, and his eyes were deeply shadowed, indicated only by the reflected light of two stars. Immortal, the Sandman shapeshifts and can teleport anywhere (might I suggest Bermuda?). He conjures both our dreams and our nightmares.
Sand tells quite a story all by itself, a saga that spans centuries. Once a formidable cliff or boiling volcano, it falls apart and, in this insignificant, near weightless state, becomes an elusive bringer of dreams. Or a thief of time, slipping through an hourglass. Or a castle, washed away but unforgotten.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.