As the approaching morning sun added a blush of light to the eastern sky, the trainman climbed aboard the silent, resting locomotive. As was part of his morning ritual he set about preparing the massive engine for a day’s work. He knew that today would be an uphill day, as they would be gradually climbing from the eastern plains towards the foothills of the southern Rocky Mountains.
With that agenda in mind, he took extra care and caution as he went about his routine tasks. For he knew that the day’s work for the engine would stress its capabilities and require careful and constant tending from the train’s support crew throughout the journey. So, in the cool of the morning, he busied himself with making sure the all of the routine steps involved in the care and feeding of a steam locomotive were tended to.
First he did a thorough walk-around to make sure none of the wheels were chocked, or otherwise blocked or impeded. Once satisfied of that, he checked one of the most crucial components of the machine’s makeup - the water supply. He did this by means of the sighting glass. This small vertical tube, always directly in the line of sight of the engine’s operators was of utmost importance. It’s simple design, basically a section of glass piping, allowed the trainman to visualize the water level in the engine’s boiler, just forward of the firebox. Too much water and the engine’s output would quickly become inefficient; and could ultimately allow water to digest into the power-delivering cylinders, which, in turn, could quickly cause extreme a mechanical breakdown scenario.
On the other hand, and greatly more concerning, would be having too little water in the boiler. If that happened, there was the very real risk of the firebox becoming overheated from the extreme steam temperatures, to the point of failure. The softened firebox walls could then fail by rupturing, resulting in a jet of high powered steam being blown through the firebox directly into the crew’s cabin. The threat of such a horrible death was not taken lightly by the train’s crew. Our trainman checked, and rechecked the boiler water level in the sight tube; going so far as to purge the sight tube by opening a lower level and letting the water drain then making sure it refilled from the top. The crew would also check the level of the portable water supply carried atop the engine to make sure it had been correctly topped off the evening before when the engine had been shutdown for the night. Running out of water between water supply stations was never a good thing.
With water being one of the key components for the ancient formula for making the steam that would power up this hulking mass of machinery, he set about on making sure the other critical component was available. This he did with a quick glance over his shoulder to the tender car that was coupled to the locomotive, eyeing the small mountain of dark coal chunks. The chemistry and process was simple, yet complex at a deeper level. But at its simplest, the coal would produce fire, and thus heat; the heat would transfer its energy to the water, and the water would magically metamorphose into steam. And through a clever concoction of tubing, cylinders, and connecting rods, that steam would manifest its energy by slowly rotating the massive drive wheels to move the heavy freight cars along steel rails bolted to the ground. Such was the science of trains.
Making sure that the train could roll forward, was only part of the critical startup duties of the trainman. For he next checked the brakes to make sure they were tightly applied, he verified that the regulator was closed, and that the reversing lever was in mid-gear, and the brake cylinder drain cocks were open.
One important step in the checklist of things to do to make sure the train could go and could stop, was to make sure the sand dome was full of the correct grade of sand and that it was prepared and suited for its intended purpose. The sand dome was situated high atop, and in the middle of, the locomotive’s body.
Here it served two purposes; it dried the sand, and it allowed for gravity feed as a delivery mechanism. Both of those characteristics were a critical part of the process of train sanding. The sand was stored and maintained in optimal condition for its intended purpose and, as long as it was in optimal condition, it could make use of the free transport and application method provided by gravity. Optimal condition is the most important element of the train sand formula; if allowed to have too much moisture the sand would clump and thus clog the feeder tubes that allowed the reservoir to empty itself.
So what is train sanding? Consider the nature of train tracks and locomotive wheels; smooth steel wheels rolling on smooth steel rails. Now consider the massive tonnage of mass that a locomotive was expected to leverage into motion from a standstill, overcoming the tremendous inertia of gravity against all that weight; and likewise, consider the opposite situation when a locomotive was expected to bring the careening load of hundreds of thousands of cargo to a safe stop, all while using those same slick wheels rolling on slick rails. Throw in the added impediments of sloping terrain, both uphill and downhill, and the occasional wet, or snowy, or icy, or leaf-covered tracks and you can begin to see the root cause and the seriousness of the situation. After all, the point of actual contact between the large-circumferenced wheels and the relatively narrow rails was a scant few square inches at most.
One might argue that the massive weight of the locomotive pressing the wheels against the track would, by making use of the omnipresent gravity, provide the needed force to keep slippage to a minimum; and for the most part they would be right. But, the exceptions to the rule could make or break a train journey. After all, if you can’t get the train rolling when you are ready to depart, or get it stopped when you need to - it’s not going to be a very effective journey.
And there you have the need and the solution of train sand. At some point, some common-sensical mechanic instinctively knew that applying a few grains of sand to those critical few square inches of steel against steel could work wonders toward overcoming the wheel-to-rail slippage problem.
Even Castles made of sand, fall into the sea, eventually.
- Jimi Hendrix
At its simplest, this is a collection of stories about sand. At its most complex, this a book about the earth itself, spread across billions of years of existence. An existence that has seen the earth form, and then wear away and rebuild its basic compositional structure in an inconceivably complex cycle.
Such is the story of sand. In this anthology we'll examine simple grains of sand — and the complex stories that they each have to tell. For every grain of sand has a story. Massive megaliths of stone, the size of continents, are not reduced to minuscule particles without benefit of an interesting story. These storyline plots are varied. Sometimes involving billions of years of quiet existence interrupted by a few moments of final rendering, sometimes encompassing very active timelines with multiple plot turns. But the one constant is that the epic journey of broken rock is the ultimate storyteller.
Take a moment to consider where you live. And by this, I mean consider your location on a large scale. A very large scale. Not your house, not your street, not your neighborhood, not your city, nor your state, region, or country. But, instead, expand your view to a planetary level. So think of the fact that you live on the Earth. Of course, that’s assuming you read these words around the early part of the 21st century; and of course, assuming that you are human, then it can be fairly safe to assume that you live on Earth. The planet Earth, to be exact. Think about that for a minute. All of us - all humanity for the many thousands of years that we have existed as an intelligent and unique life form, has always lived on a physical place called The Earth. For at least the last couple of hundred thousand years this has been our story, and our legacy.
Though Earth is a relatively small word, honored by its frequent capitalization, it represents a fairly unique body of matter in the Solar System. And even more importantly than that, it represents the abode of the human species; or at least the natal homeland of the species, again dependent on what point in time you are reading these words; for we have already proven that we can leave the earth so it’s inevitable that we should someday, as a species, live elsewhere also.
Aside from that bit of philosophical pondering, consider the physical characteristics of the Earth. The Earth is a sphere of rock spinning about its axis at a rate of 1,037 miles per hour. And even as it spins at this dizzying speed, it is also orbiting around a star in a galaxy, in space at an astonishing rate of 66,627 miles per hour. And consider this:, that star, which we lovingly call The Sun, is itself hurtling through the vastness of open space, caught up in the swirling vortex of a galaxy, our own Milky Way, at a rate of 525,000 miles per hour. All mind-boggling facts, yet indisputable statistics about this great ball of rock that we live on.
You may not have really ever thought of The Earth as a rock; but it is. Let's face it, the earth really is just a rock. But, you might ask, what about all the soil, all the vegetation, all the water? So I'll give you that; The Earth is a rock, with water on it. But everything else is really just rock; or a byproduct of rock. All of the soil we stand on, all of the vegetation that grows from that soil (ok, with a bit of water thrown into the mix). But think beyond that, expand this line of deep insight to include all the myriad other things that we experience that are a byproduct of this great blob of rock; things such as our buildings, roads, machines, and all the other billions of other parts of our existence here on Earth. It all started from rock. And now…it is all broken rock…and someday that will be all that is left.
And but for the fact that the Earth has a rather unique and powerful combination of circumstances that slowly but persistently break down that rock into smaller and smaller pieces, the Earth would be a barren smooth sphere of cold rock, forever. Fortunately, for us, that unique and powerful combination of circumstances is dominated by a single primary force, gravity, which creates a cascading chain of events that ultimately makes our planet of stone a habitat that we thrive on.
In addition to a physical matrix of rock, the Earth has an abundant supply of water. Gravity coerces that water to flow. Likewise, gravity acts on the turbulent atmosphere, that is heated by the Sun, and thus flows with great persistent force across the surface of the Earth. Those two forces, wind and flowing water, along with a few other natural phenomena act together to slowly destroy and re-form the very bedrock of the Earth over great expanses of time.
This constant metamorphosis of rock into new forms is a fascinating story, and that is really what this book is about.
Let’s talk about sand. We all know sand. We all know what sand is. It would be a safe bet to say that every person who has ever lived on earth has experienced sand; some of us more so than others. It’s true now, and it has always been true.
Looking far back in time we can surmise that our ancestors lived in very close contact with sand throughout their lives and on a daily basis. They walked, slept, lived, loved, and died on sand. Sand would have been a persistent part of their everyday lives. Part of their housing, one of their tools - and most probably often unintentionally ingested with their food. Sand and people are so very closely linked. And as our societies have advanced from the stone age, through the bronze age, and on into the iron age one might think we have distanced ourselves from the dirty world of living in sand. But, have we really?
We may see ourselves as having risen to a loftier perch than our sand-treading ancestors. But we must acknowledge a couple of clear exceptions to that thought. Undoubtedly, many modern-day populations still live an existence with a close daily connection to sand. Also, many others of us work in professions where sand is experienced either as a direct part of that work or as an unwelcome, but intrinsic, nuisance. Nonetheless, with those two innate truths, for the rest of us we must still ask the question; how far are we really removed from a sandy existence?
Even today, in modern urban communities, we are all intimately connected to sand, though not as intrinsically as the daily lives of our forebears, or the noted exceptions above, we all still encounter sand daily. Depending on one’s current habitat, as well as one’s vocation and recreational proclivities, any one of us touches sand often. More often, and in many more ways, than we might be aware.
Much of this sand exposure comes in simple ways, such as when we sweep sand from our floors and toss it in the trash. We brush sand from our clothing after a day at the beach. We walk on sand as we stroll through a garden or a park. We see mechanized street sweepers brushing up loose sand from our roadways. We feel the somewhat pleasing crunch of sand underfoot as we walk along our sidewalks and parking lots.
However, if you take a moment to pause and step back from your accustomed surroundings, you might be a bit surprised by how we still have a continued association, and I’ll venture to say, even a deep-seated dependency on sand.
Sand is the great equalizer; it impacts everyone, regardless of their location, their education level, their class level, their political leanings, their religious convictions. Sand is everywhere, and we all touch sand daily.
Sand is universal; it is ubiquitous. It literally covers the earth. Have you ever wondered how sand is formed? We see the finished product, we hold it in the palm of our hand, a simple grain of sand. But we need to ask ourselves the question; where does sand come from? This bit of knowledge and understanding may turn out to be a humbling experience for the average human being. Knowing the genesis and journey of sand pushes us to marvel and understand the vast time expanse that has built our earth, and that continues to change the earth's structure, and our daily lives. Having a feel for our place in this ever evolving great expanse of time and the changing earth helps us understand, and perhaps be awed by our place in all of this. It is a truly mind-boggling story, and it impacts us all. This impact has spanned the long history of the human species, it affects us all in this current generation daily, and it will forever have an impact, both on us and on the planet long after we have ceased to be denizens of Earth.
Sand doesn’t “come” from anywhere; that is to say, there is no natal source for sand. It is not made. It is not formed. It is not manufactured. It does not grow. And, as pointed out earlier, it is not magic. But sand does have source. And it is often a long and tortuous journey for our simple grain of sand to come to its current stage of its existence. And as we’ll see later, that ‘stage of its existence’ idea is key to understanding that simple grain of sand.
So, where does sand come from? It’s not that sand doesn’t have a genesis, and it’s not that sand is created by magic. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Sand is created, but it is not a beautiful, serene creation; as the very nature of that word implies. The creation of sand is a long, tortuous process. And it is not a singular creation. It is more of a combination of destructive forces resulting in a breakdown of pre-existing natural substances. Again, let’s make it clear, the creation of sand is a long, tortuous process.
Depending on the circumstances, the length of time can be unfathomably long, stretching billions of years into the past. Likewise, the process can be violent and savage, as can be many things in nature.
Sand comes from nowhere, but it is constantly on the move - traveling.
At its simplest level of definition, sand is merely broken down rock. As such, we need to understand and accept that rock itself starts out huge, often as massive solid objects, blobs of matter that more often than not forms into a cohesive unit measuring many hundreds of miles in diameter, or in circumference, or in length and width; objects so massive that it is hard for us on the human scale to imagine or visualize such mammoth entities as being cohesive single structures.
Notice that in the preceding paragraph I said that all rock “forms”. Forms from what, one would logically ask next. To put a twist and a timeline spin on our question, we have to admit that very often rock forms from sand. Such is sandstone. It is important to note that in fact much of the sand in sandstone is actually decomposed rock, that is to say, it is the minute broken down bits of the other two types of rock found on the earth: Igneous and metamorphic.