The Microscopic Marvel of Sand

Sand. The word settles on your mind. You can feel the weight and the shift of it, the drift. The way it yields under foot or shimmers on the wind. You think sand is going to be simple. Here on Maui it is anything but. Not bland, our sand.

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White Sand, Baldwin Beach

Sprawl upon one of Maui’s white-sand beaches with your nose to the dune, and you may have a Horton Hears a Who revelation. The more closely you look, the more the sands open kaleidoscopically to your eyes. Calcium carbonate seashells, casings and carapaces, coral-reef fragments and sprigs of hard, calcareous algae—these sift themselves at the whim of swells and tides, and bank against our shores, looking innocently homogenous at a distance of a few feet.

Peering intently, you see that you are not on a uniform pile of white whatever; you lie prone on amber globules, itsy emeralds, lumpy fragments of red and black rock, crumbles of crimson crab, lavender urchin spikes, and a host of white bits of calcium-based, organic architecture snapped off the living city of the reef. It’s this calcium that helps “white” to be the coolest of our sands—reflective, light and porous.

Microscopic sand

The continent’s white sand is the shavings of rock, much of it carried to the coasts by rivers. Under a microscope it is a lovely amalgam of microgems, glitzy quartz, and mineral particles. In Hawaii, however, our sands sing of the sea, offering up as evidence the candy-cane twist of a sea snail’s home, the royal purple nubbins of a lobster’s legs, or all those little fragments of once-proud coral heads, white as can be and crinkled, porous, striated, laddered, or rubbed as perfectly round as your inquisitive eyes.

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