Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Michael Welland's "Sand"

Michael Welland is a geologist who has worked around the world in the energy industry. He is a fellow of the Geological Societies of America and London and the Royal Society for the Arts and Commerce.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Sand: The Never-Ending Story, and reported the following:
When the idea of a post was suggested, I naturally hastened to my page 99, curious about what message it might (or might not) convey. I discovered that it was in the chapter on rivers, in which the long journey of an individual sand grain down the Susquehanna tells the story of most sand grains on such journeys, rivers being the arteries that deliver sediment from the continents to the oceans and sand being, by habit, more or less constantly on the move. Page 99 introduces channel bars to the narrative, those island-forming but ever-shape-shifting buildups of sand in the midst of a river. But the book is not a geological text, nor simply a homage to games sand plays in the landscapes of our planet, and Page 99 includes the theme that threads its way throughout, I hope surprising and entertaining the reader: the intimate encounters and intersections between sand and us, our lives, our history, our imaginations.

Here's the second half of page 99:

Channel bars can be large and take up much of the channel, hindering navigation but aiding river crossing and providing habitable space. They are fragile and unstable, however, constantly shifting size and position, steadily marching down the river, disappearing and reappearing during floods and under the attack of ice. Tropical storm Agnes, for example, completely changed many of the Susquehanna’s islands. Historic maps and paintings of the river, compared to its appearance today, graphically illustrate these changes.

One dramatic result of the 1811 New Madrid earthquakes was the appearance and disappearance of channel bars along the Mississippi. But regardless of seismic events, the naturally peripatetic nature of Mississippi sandbars can cause problems—even legal ones. A channel bar was the subject of a long-running boundary dispute between the states of Mississippi and Louisiana. Stack Island is a large, uninhabited channel bar, sometimes above water and at other times not. In the early nineteenth century....

The problem was that Stack Island and the dynamic nature of a great river have no respect for state boundaries - the island moved on, and accusations of land-grabbing, never mind the location of the state line, led inevitably to litigation, which, after many years, wound its way to the Supreme Court. In a final ruling, having ruminated deeply on sand, mud, channel behavior, and the games that rivers play, the Court decreed that Stack Island belonged to Mississippi.

And another wonderful thing about channel bars is that we don't really understand them - their formation and wanderings are too complex. Which illustrates another of the book's themes: science is too often presented as done and dusted, the storyline being what we know. But what makes science - and our planet, and ourselves - continually inspiring and fascinating is what we don't know, and my hope is that, throughout the book, the reader will find the character of sand a compelling illustration of this.
Learn more about the book and author at Michael Welland's blog, "Through the Sandglass."

--Marshal Zeringue