Clastic Detritus

Sand: The Neverending Story — Q&A with author Michael Welland


This post is the second of two posts devoted to the book Sand: The Neverending Story’ by Michael Welland (check out the first post, my review of ‘Sand’ from yesterday). Below is a Q&A with author Michael Welland and then additional Q&A in the comment thread between Michael and my readers. Make sure to check out his blog Through the Sandglass for additional information. 

Brian Romans (BR): How did the idea for ‘Sand’ develop? Is this something you’ve wanted to write for a long time or did it come to you in an “ah ha!” moment?

Michael Welland (MW): Several years ago (I just realized that, astonishingly, it was 2004), I had an idea for a book that would be a guide to looking at landscapes. Working on bits and pieces of that, I started writing the story of a sand grain’s journey down a river, and, the more I worked on it, the more the idea struck me that here was the basis for a different book in its own right – and the rest, as they say, is history. So it was a kind of “ah ha!” moment, and the “ah has” rapidly escalated as I thought through the scope of topics that a book on sand needed to cover – all the journeys that a sand grain could take us on.

BR: My favorite chapters were the ones that tracked the journey a grain of sand might take in a sedimentary system. These pages artfully discussed what I think is a fascinating area of research in sedimentary geology that attempts to integrate observations and measurements from an entire sediment-routing system — that is, from source areas to terminal depositional basins and everywhere in between. How did you come to use the Susquehanna River and associated offshore areas of eastern North America as the setting for telling that story?

MW: I wanted to use an essentially wild river, one as close to its natural state as possible, free from dams and other manmade influences that would impede the sand grain’s journey. Since I had been writing about a sand grain’s birth in the tepuis, the incredible flat-topped mountains of Venezuela’s Canaima National Park, I assumed that I could just continue from there – about as remote a place as you can get, home of Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, wild and romantic landscapes. It turned out that this was a very naive assumption – the rivers flowing out of the park and, ultimately, into the Orinoco, are, today, some of the most disrupted in the world – gold mining and gigantic hydroelectric power projects the culprits.

So I embarked on a review of the literature of the world’s rivers and our influence on them. What emerged was the startling fact that, in order to find a truly wild river, you have to go to the Arctic of Canada and Russia. But what I wanted was a river that would be familiar to the reader, a setting that would resonate – and lead the narrative on to a coast that would do the same. It turns out that, relatively speaking, the Susquehanna is as close to a wild river in a familiar setting as you can get. It also had the advantage of linking strands on the Appalachians, the ice ages, and the importance of rivers in culture and history – plus it leads to the Chesapeake Bay, the Outer Banks, barrier islands, and a dramatic coastal system, all wonderful grist for my mill, so to speak.

I agree that the whole topic of sediment-routing systems is fascinating – as much for what we don’t know as what we do. Measurements are not only tricky, but generic, different instantaneous cargoes of dissolved, suspended, and bed load sediment measured at particular times in particular places. Individual frames in a movie much of which we can’t watch, characters on journeys that we can’t follow. I found the reports of the Grand Canyon sediment flushing experiments fascinating since this is one of the few examples of tracking a specific cargo in real time.

BR: Which part of the book turned out to be the most challenging to research and/or write? Why?

MW: Without doubt, the section on the strange behaviors of granular materials – I had no idea what I was getting into! But I found it absolutely fascinating and compelling, a dramatic example of the apparently simple presenting physicists with something complex and baffling. I knew about Per Bak’s work on sand piles, self-organizing criticality, and so on, but that was only the beginning. The first challenge was understanding some of these phenomena myself and the second finding a way of explaining them clearly (I hope), and communicating the excitement of the science. I was fortunate in that many of the researchers not only happily provided me with permission to use the images, but gave me a lot of help with understanding what was going on – together with the mysteries. And this topic I continue to find fascinating – it continues to crop up in science news and, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, I blog about the wonders of granular materials quite frequently. I recently had great fun giving a talk where there was no provision for the crutch of powerpoint illustrations, so I spent the whole time doing table-top experiments – “magic tricks” – with sand.

BR: What was the most surprising bit of scientific or historical information you came across during your research for ‘Sand’?

MW: I was astonished to discover the microscopic ecological diversity of life between grains of sand – Rachel Carson’s “Underground City.” I’m no biologist, and so the world of meiofauna and extremophiles was a revelation.

And, in a completely different way, the sand bottles of Andrew Clemens (first encountered by my wife, my trusty research assistant) were a complete surprise, an awe-inspiring example of human creativity and tenacity.

BR: A book like this requires a lot of research and I’m sure a great deal of interesting material ended up being trimmed or even completely cut out of the final version. Could you share a few facts or anecdotes you uncovered during your research that didn’t make it into the book?

MW: It’s still surprising, for a book about such an apparently mundane material as sand, how much stuff I had to leave out. This was one of the motivations for starting the blog – which I’ll return to in a later response.

There were a lot more examples of sand in art and literature that I would have liked to include, but permissions costs as well as space sent them to the cutting room floor. Bob Dylan, Salvador Dali, Andy Goldsworthy….

One noticeable omission, that I’m very conscious of and resulted from the fact that I used a river that ends in an estuary, is anything much about deltas which are, after all, some of the planet’s greatest piles of sand. And there are, of course, endless great tales from Earth’s history that sand can tell and I didn’t have the space to.

One of the fascinating and fertile areas of research was the imagery of sand in myths and sayings, cross-culturally and around the world. The stories of ropes of sand, for example, or sayings such as the definition of a one-horse town, “just a spit in the sand in the middle of nowhere,” or, from Japan, “Getting money is like digging with a needle. Spending it is like water soaking into the sand.” The Danes observe that “Many grains of sand will sink a ship” and, from India, the highly dubious and politically incorrect observation that “A woman without a man is like a spit in the sand – she dries up.” I think I’ll leave it at that……

A somewhat related point of interest is the challenge of the infamous Chapter 9 – sand in our daily lives. People either love it or hate it and I know that you’ve commented on it in your review as coming over too much like an encyclopedia. Fair enough – it does, but I have to admit that I was at a complete loss as to how to spin a story, a narrative through the staggering diversity of topics – any alternatives that I came up with seemed contrived. Hafnium and Fred Astaire? Aerogels and golf courses? Vines and quicksand? I’ll come up with something better for the movie!

BR: What’s next for you as an author? Was ‘Sand’ the one-off book you’ve always wanted to write or do you have plans to write another popular book about Earth science? What other scientific (or non-scientific) topics are you interested in enough to learn about and maybe write about someday?

MW: No, it’s certainly not a one-off (I hope). I enjoyed the process (well, most of it) so much that I intend to continue (the blog is a great outlet). Of course one of the challenges is that writing a book does not generate proper income (unless it’s Harry Potter) and certainly no-one should embark on the process with that as an aspiration. What I enjoy, and which is evident, I hope, in Sand, are connections and the inter-relationships between science, particularly geology, and our daily lives, global issues, art and literature; I have in mind a couple of topics for another book that would continue this kind of exploration, but I’d prefer to keep them to myself for the moment – sorry!

BR: Since this is a blog, I’ve got a few blog-related questions for you. I’ve noticed that your blog, Through the Sandglass, contains some material that is in ‘Sand’, but it also has some other material that I don’t remember being in the book. Have some of the topics that didn’t make it into ‘Sand’ found a home on your blog? Do you consider the primary purpose of your blog as a way to promote the book? Do you use it as a way to brainstorm topics you want to write about? Many of my readers are also science bloggers and would be interested to hear your thoughts on the connection of blog writing with book writing.

MW: I started the blog at the encouragement of the University of California Press as support and continuation of the book. I’d had nothing to do with the blogosphere before that, and I’ll readily admit that I suffered from sone of the common prejudices (“the self-absorbed ramblings and rants of adolescents of all ages. Political and social tirades from grinders of the well-honed axes of zealotry. Mindless and breathless accounts of minor celebrities and nonentities” etc.).  But I rapidly came to appreciate how wrong I was and how powerful the blogosphere can be as a communication tool. I’m now, obviously I hope, a dedicated and enthusiastic member of the community and have derived immense pleasure from all the contacts that I would never otherwise have made, and all the stuff I’ve learned.

So yes, the blog started out as a way of writing about the book material that ended up on the cutting room floor, and as a means of publicizing the book (this “virtual book tour” is an example) but it’s become much more than that. By far the majority of the material in the blog is new (not from the book) and it seems that every day the backlog of topics I want to write about grows longer. I continue to be amazed at how the theme crops up on a daily basis in such a variety of contexts – I write about what intrigues and surprises me and I’m never at a loss. I often think that now, after fourteen months of blogging, I’ve actually written another book; but I haven’t – what I’ve done is write a series of articles, connected by a theme, yes, but it’s as much as anything a form of journalism. So yes, there can be a connection between blog-writing and book-writing, but I suspect that a blog emerges more naturally from a book than the other way round. I found the results of the recent geoblogosphere survey by Lutz Geissler, Robert Huber, and Callan Bentley really resonated with me. The equally top-ranked responses to the question “why do you blog?” were “to inform”, “to share knowledge”, and “to popularise the geosciences” – followed closely by “to have fun”. Absolutely!

Note: the comment thread is still open but Michael is no longer standing by to answer immediately. But please free to leave a question if you’d like, he’ll be checking back over the next few days.

UPDATE (2/3/2010): Michael Welland has been awarded The John Burroughs Medal for excellence in natural history writing. This is very well-deserved.