By Elaine Rohse • Columnist • 

A world in a grain of sand

Sand isn’t on our planet just to provide grit in picnic fare.

Rather, sand imparts a vast amount of knowledge to mankind. And sand collecting is becoming a hot hobby. Sand entertains us. Sand even sings to us. It provides beaches where we dig in our toes. And finally, sand provides dunes to slide down, with resulting sounds like an airplane taking off.

These tiny grains are big, big in our universe.

Tons of quartz sand is used annually in production of computer chips, glass and concrete. Sand is used in art and photography. And — importantly — sand is a teacher. Its students are scientists of many disciplines. The learning pertains to national and international geography, marine science, geology, oceanography, workings of water and wind, continental drift and tectonic processes, location of ancient seas and sea level changes.

Further, each grain of sand teaches knowledge unknown to any other grain of sand.

Special knowledge as to river flow, tidal currents, storms, erosion, life cycles of plants and animals. Each grain depicts how it came to be of its particular size and shape. Sand reminds students of the importance of sand beaches to marine life and to humans. It passes along understanding as to past and present environments and of beach movements and developments.

If the sand grain is rounded, it explains that this came about because it met with considerable energy during transport to its site — perhaps from collisions with other grains of sand due to wave action. Aeolian or wind-transported sands likewise are usually well rounded. Larger or heavier grains are carried by swift rivers and build up beaches of boulders and gravel.

Sand collecting satisfies the innate urge of humans to collect.

Collecting of sand samples has been happening for about a century, and in 1985, the International Sand Collectors Society was founded for amateurs and professionals who take pleasure in collecting and studying sand and soil samples.

Its founder, Horst Windisch, now deceased, had about 6,000 sand samples gathered during world travels.

Collectors get goofy about samples of sand from places like Chappaquiddick, the Nile River, the Great Wall of China, cold sands from Antarctica, and from Hell Bunker on the 14th hole of the St. Andrews golf course.

Luckily, there’s no shortage of sand for all those needs. Sand is found about everywhere: dunes, lakes, rivers, beaches, rock formations, and in some gardens — although my McMinnville soil shows little indication.

Nor is a sand pile required for each collected sand sample. Only about a tablespoon constitutes a sample, neatly labeled in a vial or small plastic sack.

Collectors particularly like sands of color. And although we generally think of sand as white or gray, sand is about as diversely colored as a box of crayons, with Hawaii and Alaska choice states. Austria has nice sand with fetching metallic shine. Volcanic ash from St. Helens is red, green or black. There are pink sands; and purple sands — in Nepal. There are golden sands, and from Hawaii’s Papakolea Beach the famous green olivine sand that’s included in the World Atlas of Sands database.

And now, humans are helping nature along. They’re coloring sands in shades nature overlooked. On the market are sands to match your wedding colors for beach nuptials. How about pink chiffon sand for the rites? Or would you like blue pool, pumpkin spice, or truffle? “Sandsational Sparkle” and Moon Glow products also are available. These artificially colored sands are about $3.75 per pound (about one-and-a-half cups); $32.75 for 25 pounds. Sand ceremony vows are even included with some purchases.

And for your child’s next birthday, would he like his sandbox filled with his favorite persimmon color? It’s guaranteed kid safe.

Perhaps the most bizarre sand now available on eBay is a hydrophobic sand that keeps your cat’s urine atop his litter box of sand, thereby facilitating removal of permeated sand.

If you become a sand collector and don’t pick up your own samples while traveling, or scoop them up from the Yamhill River where steamers once docked, you can also trade for sand samples. Sand collectors, or psammophiles, as they are known, trade perhaps as many as 275 samples per transaction.

Prices of samples paid for with cash will vary. Four ounces of Moab, Utah, sand, $5.40. A sample of sand from Ireland is $19.99. Caribbean Beach sand, $10.50. That olivine green from Hawaii, $12.

Highly prized by collectors are samples of “star” sand from Okinawa, Japan. It’s a biogenic sand composed of skeletons of tiny mononuclear creatures, coral, bivalve shells, gastropods, marine worm tubes.

As for the singing sands, these “concerts” are staged at some 30 sites around the world, including Belize and Eureka Dunes in Death Valley. They result from wind passing over the dunes, and/or by walking on them. Man has long wondered about this musical happening and even Marco Polo, the Venetian traveler, is said to have spent time pondering the recitals.

In the Mojave Desert, there’s yet another kind of musical sand, as mentioned in a recent issue of Time Magazine. It tells of the “Booming Dunes.” This unusual sound, according to Time, is “triggered by a mini-avalanche of sand grains on the dunes.” The strange “booming” sound results when someone scoots down a dune, which then results in a droning sound not unlike that of a taxiing aircraft.”

And sand teaches the harassed and restless still another lesson — that of patience. The weathering processes of some of the minerals that eventually will become sand are so lengthy, that at times the change is undetectable in the lifespan of a human.

Author Edward Young wrote these perceptive words about sand. He wrote, “Think naught a trifle, though it small appear; smaller sands the mountain, moments make the year.”

Elaine Rohse can be reached at

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