The drift of sands in time and space
By Joy E. Moses-Hall
Sunday, July 22, 2018
If you spent an afternoon impatiently vacuuming up hundreds of thousands of sand grains from your hair and shoes and are perhaps a little annoyed at their persistence, know that they are grains of history, a long and patient history.
Each one is an artifact, a memento of a long-ago place and time, of a journey and a chemistry that uniquely brought it to your sandal. It is a story of building up and tearing down, of washing out and blowing in, of wobbling over and carrying on and rippling and toppling and rolling.
Most of our North Carolina sand is made of quartz, the same mineral that makes up glass, but in a more precise atomic arrangement. Quartz crystals are rock-solid and nearly indestructible.
Long ago and far away, before plants and animals populated the familiar land and water of Earth’s surface, those crystals erupted in volcanoes somewhere — maybe South America, maybe Africa, maybe Knightdale. The lava blasts formed continents of big quartz-mix rocks.
That quartz-mix was the start of a dream vacation, as wind and rain and ice huffed and puffed and sliced and spliced grain from grain upon grain, scouring away bits from the continent. Quartz bits are hard and durable, and instead of dissolving or recombining or grinding to powder, they persisted, dragged off the tall mountains and dispersed into small molehills, piling up breeze by breeze and wave by wave, relentlessly reassembling what wind and rain tore down, weighing deeper and deeper, squeezing together tighter and tighter, and hotter and hotter, baking into a solid loaf of deep continent.
The continents, jockeyed around by flowing magma beneath, crumpled together, and paused, and stretched apart, and broke. The stretching and crumpling elevated the deep quartz. Above, the wind and rain again huffed and puffed, tearing away overlying sediment, and the quartz rebounded higher, until it was facing into the winds and rains. Quartz is strong but under the twin blades of air and water, it was shaved to fragments that washed and waned. Ever seeking downhill, rivers spread sand from hill to dale and winds swept sand from dune to swale.
These are the grains that found their way to the beaches of North Carolina. Even now, they wander in and out, submerging and emerging with tides and storms and ice ages. Each relic sand grain, each with its own chaotic path through time and terrain, bears the scars of its own convoluted journey.
One hundred miles isn’t all that far for a sand grain to travel. In a fast river, a small quartz fragment could lurch start-to-finish in a week. But for the Moses family, it was a ten-year journey.
Friends and neighbors in the mountains in Shokan, New York, loved beaches -- Massachusetts, Virginia, even Ocracoke, NC, were familiar summer settings. But our family headed inland, all the way inland, the other way, to the continental middle. For us, the best vacations involved a good bit of staring out a car window, rather than dragging over a dune or swishing through sediment. When one family member wears a wheelchair, every family member favors the perspective of sitting. Beaches clog up the wheels and joints. So we went everywhere else first: the purple mountains, the golden prairies, the fruited plain, the shining cities on the hills. We took photos through the windshield and opened the windows to feel the stirring air. We drove to the edges of gorges to look down and to the bottoms of canyons to look up, swashing over and under like grains of sand looking for a continent to land on.
Until, in 1974, there was nowhere else to go.
So, at the edge of the continent, Mom removed her walking paraphernalia -- braces and crutches and shoes -- and Dad lifted her onto his shoulders and carried her to the sand. Unshackled and helpless, she could feel it between her fingers, lift it by the handful and watch it flow from high to low. You don’t really need peppy legs to sandbathe.
But you do need them to feel the ocean bliss. You need legs to wobble you to the lapping ripples, into the tumbling surf, over the rip and tide of the swaying shore.
Or you need Dad to carry you.
Mom could float, although her legs just dangled. It was determination rather than bliss that held her upright when the waves plundered. But she swam in the ocean that day as she hadn’t in years, unencumbered by the evils of polio. Drifting, like sand, washing in and blowing out, wobbling over the ravages of virus and yet carrying on, rippling and toppling and rolling with the punches. It was an artifact moment, a memento of a long-ago place and time, of a journey and a chemistry that uniquely brought us to here.
Follow @jmoseshall on Facebook. Joy Moses-Hall teaches physics and astronomy at Pitt Community College. She has a Ph.D. in oceanography and is the author of the novel Wretched Refuge.