Sand is a fascinating, and awe-inspiring, substance. It evokes a variety of reactions, depending on our personal histories and preferences. Some smile as they contemplate lounging on warm, smooth beaches. Others may grimace as they recall desert experiences where they struggled to remain hydrated, and sandy grit seemed to work its way into all those places it didn’t belong.
Some places have lots of sand. For example, 80% of Turkmenistan is covered by sand. And yet, this doesn’t stop them from wanting more! Turkmenistan determined theirs wasn’t appropriate for building a racing track, so they paid $1.3 million for British sand.
Turkmenistan is so stark that one of its main tourist attractions is a fiery crater on a barren landscape that is called the “Door to Hell.” National Geographic participated in an expedition which included a descent into the 100 foot deep inferno.
The idea of a nation of unending sand purchasing even more, brought to my mind a familiar verse from Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” And recalling the relentless flames of their methane pit, inspired me to pen my own variation of that theme.
Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
Sand, sand, everywhere,
But not a grain to sell;
Sand, sand, everywhere,
A scorched foretaste of hell.
Lewis and Irish Sand
It is no surprise to readers of Mere Inkling, that we can find a Lewisian connection to even something so inconsequential as rocks* which have been weathered and worn into small fragments.
Like most of us, Lewis encountered sand in a variety of settings. In the 1950s he made a trip to Donegal, where he noted its distinctive beaches.
My correspondence has lately been in much the same state as yours: that is, on coming back from a holiday in Ireland I found about 60 letters to deal with. I had a lovely time over there: the best part in Donegal, all Atlantic breakers & golden sand and peat and heather and donkeys and mountains and (what is most unusual there) a heat wave and cloudless skies. Walks were much interrupted by blackberries: so big and juicy, and sweet that you just couldn’t pass without picking them.
To another friend, he wrote:
I was with a friend in Donegal which is a very fine, wild country with green mountains, rich secretive valleys, and Atlantic breakers on innumerable desolate sands.
But alas!, they get less desolate every year and it will soon be just a holiday resort like so many other places. (One always disapproves of all holiday-makers except oneself!)
Sand as a Metaphor
Everyone knows sand. That is especially true of the people who populated the lands of the Bible. From Ur to Egypt to Jerusalem, they encountered more than their share.
Because of its familiarity, and its unique traits, sand provides fertile soil [sorry] for producing metaphors. A couple, for example, from the Scriptures themselves.
[God speaking to Jacob] “I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore.”
[Description of the combined army facing the Hebrews in Canaan] “And they came out with all their troops, a great horde, in number like the sand that is on the seashore, with very many horses and chariots. And all these kings joined their forces . . .”
“How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
If I would count them, they are more than the sand.”
But sand is not simply used to illustrate multitudes or numbers.
“A stone is heavy, and sand is weighty,
but a fool’s provocation is heavier than both.”
[From a description of the Messianic Age]
“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.
For waters break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water . . .”
[God declares his power]
“Do you not fear me? declares the Lord.
Do you not tremble before me?
I placed the sand as the boundary for the sea,
a perpetual barrier that it cannot pass;
though the waves toss, they cannot prevail;
though they roar, they cannot pass over it.”
[Jesus said] “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.” (Matthew 7:26)
C.S. Lewis’ Use of Sand as a Metaphor
In Mere Christianity, Lewis alludes to Jesus’ words when he says even the best human beings will disappoint. Only the trust placed in Christ will never disappoint.
We must go on to recognise the real Giver. It is madness not to. Because, if we do not, we shall be relying on human beings. And that is going to let us down. The best of them will make mistakes; all of them will die. We must be thankful to all the people who have helped us, we must honour them and love them.
But never, never pin your whole faith on any human being: not if he is the best and wisest in the whole world. There are lots of nice things you can do with sand: but do not try building a house on it.
In Surprised by Joy, Lewis explains his concept of Joy and how it relates to longing for heaven and being in the presence of God. In his description of how flashes of wonder grace our lives, he warns we should not confuse them with the ultimate joy for which we yearn.
I saw that all my waitings and watchings for Joy, all my vain hopes to find some mental content on which I could, so to speak, lay my finger and say, “This is it,” had been a futile attempt to contemplate the enjoyed.
All that such watching and waiting ever could find would be [merely] an image . . . I knew now that they were merely the mental track left by the passage of Joy—not the wave but the wave’s imprint on the sand.
A final example comes from Lewis’ under-appreciated Pilgrim’s Regress. One of the archetypal characters, Mr. Savage, attempts to waylay young Christian from following the Landlord (i.e. God).
“But as [belief in the Landlord] is not true, there remains only one way of life fit for a man.” This other way of life was something he called Heroism, or Master-Morality, or Violence. “All the other people in between,” he said, “are ploughing the sand.”
Plowing the sand is an ancient idiom. And its meaning is fairly evident, even to those encountering it for the first time. An online dictionary says “ploughing the sand has been a proverbial image of fruitless activity since the late 16th century.” In truth, wasting one’s energies in this fruitless pursuit possesses far deeper roots.
In The Story of Troy, the author describes the efforts of Ulysses to avoid crossing the Aegean to fight a war for which he had forcibly argued. He feigned insanity to stay home.
[Ulysses] paid no heed, however, to the messages sent to him asking him to join the army at Aulis. Agamemnon resolved, therefore, to go himself to Ithaca to persuade Ulysses to take part in the expedition. He was accompanied by his brother Menelaus, and by a chief named Palamedes, a very wise and learned man as well as a brave warrior.
As soon as Ulysses heard of their arrival in Ithaca, he pretended to be insane, and he tried by a very amusing stratagem to make them believe that he was really mad. Dressing himself in his best clothes, and going down to the seashore, he began to plow the beach with a horse and an ox yoked together, and to scatter salt upon the sand instead of seed.
Fortunately for the great author, Homer, Ulysses’ ruse was exposed. And it was revealed in an act worthy of Solomon that gave dual meaning to the hero’s fruitless plowing of sand.
Palamedes, however, was more than a match in artifice for the Ithacan king. Taking Telemachus from the arms of his nurse, he placed the infant on the sand in front of the plowing team. Ulysses quickly turned the animals aside to avoid injuring his child, thus proving that he was not mad but in full possession of his senses. The king of Ithaca was therefore obliged to join the expedition to Troy.
It is my hope that you have found this post informative and entertaining . . . and that writing it does not constitute my own example of plowing the sand.
* Most sand was originally rock, although some beaches are predominantly composed of other materials. Many beaches are “almost entirely composed of worn down dead animal bits.” White sand beaches often have a different source, parrotfish excrement.
Parrotfish eat the algae that grow on coral. [Their] large, beak-like teeth (which inspire their name) help them break off and eat small pieces of coral. They have another set of teeth, called pharyngeal teeth [that] grind up the coral into small grains of sediment, which parrotfish then excrete in clouds of white powdery sand. (A single large parrotfish can produce hundreds of pounds of sand a year!) The sediment is distributed onto the reef and, eventually, can pile up above the surface of the water, forming islands like the Maldives . . .