Thursday, March 31, 2011

Aeolian wonders: singing sands

Did you know that there are singing sands on every continent of the world? Not something you think of, is it? The above picture is taken from the Algodones Sand Dunes in California. I don't know if the sands shown in the above picture can sing or not...I wasn't there. *sigh*

In all likelihood, these sands don't sing. The phenomenon is becoming less common with every atom of pollution. The songs sand can make are created by the vibrational patterns of certain shapes/types of sand rubbing against each other. Pollution can cause those tiny bits of sands to erode into shapes which cannot create music against each other. Yet another reason to carpool! There's also the actual physical damage we humans do to dune systems; driving over them, building on them, etc. Which is sad; I like the idea of sand being able to sing.

According to some interesting folks at, the sounds singing sands emit are definitively musical. For example, "The dunes at Mar de Dunas in Chile produce F, while those at Ghord Lahmar, Morocco are G sharp.  A low C (about two octaves below middle C) have been heard at Sand Mountain in Nevada, although sometimes it fluctuates to a low B and even C sharp." I wonder what influence these chords had on the peoples whose cultures grew around them--for instance, there are chords in the Arabic world which don't exist in, say, the Western world. Makes you wonder to what extent the natural world influence the creative sides of human culture. Usually we forcibly think of our interactions with nature the other way around, as if the dynamic relationship only goes one way.

 Personally, I've never heard sands sing in real life, but when I was a little girl, I would go with my grandpa down to the riverfront of a small, blah town in the middle of the middle of nowhere that always smelled like fresh baked bread.  There on the hills overlooking the thick river were these monster sand dunes, perfect for playing on, even if they turned my feet an awful hoof color. Lol. I would run for hours, topping one dune after another. At the tops of the dunes I could see for a good twenty miles to the north, east and west. Mostly the view was farmland but it was pretty incredible--or maybe I was a weird kid--who knows. I've always liked high, windy places. Anyway, the spots where the dunes connected were often tricky to get in and out of; if I shifted my feet wrong the sands would groan and moan like they were trying to eat my legs right off my body. That's the closest I've ever gotten to singing sands, a bunch of big fat groaning and moaning as I struggled to get my scrawny legs up a dune.

Incidentally, those dunes aren't there any more. There's a casino in their place.

There's an Annie Dillard quote that runs something like, "But we must ask why it is beautiful." I'm a big fan of Annie Dillard--she writes a great deal about sand in For The Time Being, now that I think about it. Am I just a geek that I really dig the idea of singing sand? Sure, probably. But I also think it's a testament to our humanity, kinda. Stories say that originally tribes and explorers thought the singing sands were voices of the departed, voices of lost souls, voices of ancestral guides, etc. Now we have our bypasses ("well, you've got to build bypasses!") and our smartphones and fabulous designer shoes, but singing sands? Not for much longer; there are apparently only 30 spots left in the world...

Alright, I'm done being preachy! Here's a clip from NOVA--the narration is kind of irksome, but the sands have a pretty clear sound to them.

Upcoming: Friday TCE prompt thirteen--a short story about a girl called "Little Joy."

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