It all began with a Boson field, a trillionth of a second after the big bang. Photons, electrons, fermions and Quarks. For an instant there was a void of no mass, no density, and then the Higgs Bosons turned on. Mass was bestowed upon the particles. In the Higgs Field things came into being. Objects took on form. This was the initial clumping together of stuff, the creation of forces and bonds. Out of nothing a something was born. Things came together and came apart in a dynamic of transference that eventually spawned life itself. Molecules coalesced to form stars, and from the stars everything we’ve ever known came into being.
It’s hard going in the blowing sand. I stoop over and lean into the wind, conjuring Peter O’Toole struggling across the dunes of Arabia. I am eating sand and spitting it out the sides of my mouth with deft movements of my tongue. My glasses provide some protection but my eyes tear incessantly. My vision is obscured. I can see only a few yards ahead. So fierce is this wind that it has cut channels on the beach deep enough so that I vanish between them and lose sight of the ocean before me.
I don’t know where I am going. I don’t know why I am here. What madness is this, that brings me, with a camera, to this place on this day? I don’t know. But I trust that the reason for this pilgrimage will become clear. Sometimes I’ll walk ten miles for a single bone, or a single photograph, or a stone that fits perfectly in the palm of my hand. When I trust, the universe shows me what I need to heal and grow. There is no such thing as a waste of time. No effort to see and understand is ever in vain.
Before me stands a dune newly formed, a bold, sweeping curve of blown sand whose leeward edge is so sharp, so finely sculpted, that is seems impossible to imagine that it’s an accident formed by natural forces. Only upon close inspection does it become apparent that it is fluid. The dune is on the move.
I stoop for a closer look at its edge and I can see thousands upon thousands of individual grains of sand being blow off the lip of the dune. They seem to be leaping, like lemmings, diving into the air, falling, sliding down its face. The dune is moving, inching its way across the beach at a glacial pace. I drop my hiking poles and my daypack to see if I can capture this. I raise the camera and back-peddle, trying to frame a shot, and then I stumble and fall.
When I ligt my head I discover a hidden world. In the lee of the dune are large clumps of sand dotting the beach. The clumps are oddly shaped and pointing into the wind, like sailboats at mooring. I crawl on my belly with a pivoting motion of my hips and elbows, raising my camera aloft. I shimmy for a closer look at the nearest clump. And when I get there I am stunned. Stunned isn’t even the right word for what I feel. I am gob-smacked. I’m awestruck at what I discover. And when I realize what it is before me, I weep with the joy of the newly anointed.
About the size of football, a clump of sand, sculpted by the blowing wind into a streamlined shape of elegance and beauty so finely rendered and detailed, so ethereal, so surreal, that it produces within me a jarring and uncanny sensation. I am trembling. A sand sculpture. A miracle occurrence. A transitory object that only forms under the right conditions. It’s blowing away bit by bit, shape-shifting, losing its form. In an hour it will be gone. My timing was impeccable.
From this vantage point, at ground level, I can see that all the other clumps of sand nearby have been similarly sculpted by the wind. I am aware that this is one a most rare and precious gift. For these structures are for my eyes only. They are a blessing granted to me and, in that moment, me alone.
I have walked this beach scores of times and never before have I seen this phenomenon. The wind is blowing so fiercely that the lighter, drier sand on the surface of the beach is being lifted into the air while the heavier, wetter sand remains, in dense mounds that have coalesced around clumps of seaweed or in small recessions just below the lee of the dune. To my delight and wonder I find dozens of them.
They are wind ships and like snowflakes, each is a unique geometric marvel. Marked by striations and strata of varying densities, they reveal in miniature the grand sweep of geological time as if rendered by a toymaker, or some visual effects artist. And like the fleeting Rorschach shapes of clouds, they each evoke something majestic, something prehistoric.
Finely chiseled, regal in their bearing, they seem to have proudly risen from the earth rather than have been stripped away from it. I want to take them home; though I know I cannot possess them. They’re not meant to be kept or owned. Like Navajo sand paintings they are destined for immediate destruction the moment they reach the threshold of their perfection.
They speak of impermanence, these ships made out of wind. They speak of fleeting beauty and the fragility of form. Though they are not themselves alive, they evoke a fossil-like quality conveying a feeling of the once-living – eroded wood and ancient bone. They remind me of the great pillars of weathered rock in Southwestern Utah and the deserts of Arizona, and I imagine that what I feel must be similar to how the Anasazi felt when they discovered Monument Valley. I am like a giant who has stumbled upon the Grand Canyon. The only difference is that of scale.
I was, in that instant, a child again. I could have been in one of many places that lived in my mind’s eye as a boy. I stared out across a prehistoric landscape of epic scope. It was D.H. Lawrence’s Sahara, George Lucas’ Tatooine, Frank Herbert’s Dune. I was huge and I was dwarfed. All powerful and yet fragile as the sand structures themselves. This feeling, the simultaneous notion of vastness and smallness, was jarring and disorienting. It was an otherworldly sensation that I count now as one of the most profound spiritual moments of my life. It was an ineffable moment, that even now I struggle to describe.
With little regard for my camera I began to document these little monuments, the air awash in blowing sand. I stepped carefully around each one. Several of them crumbled before I could set up a shot, because my body, its mass, disrupted the wind currents around them causing the sand to shift and collapse. I moved quickly to document what I saw, unaware that even amok time, I was still a slave to it.
It was Memorial Day when I found the wind ships. It was memorial day. And what must I remember? My little life is small but precious. My little life is short. My grandfather died fighting for a boy he would never meet in the flesh. The spirit transcends the body. Everything is in flux. We are here one moment and gone the next. The life of one human being is utterly dwarfed by the scale of time. Faces wither, bodies decay. We are shedding little bits of ourselves, constantly. The petty squabbles of nations are meaningless in the vastness of space. But still we love; and are loved. The heart is more than a pump. The soul matters more than its housing. The souls of the dead are not lost when the bodies that contain them are stripped of their coverings. Amidst all the ugliness and cruelty and hate there is beauty and light, everywhere. If only we would let go all that consumes us and stoop over to examine the little things that speak, in whispers.
On July 4th of the year I discovered the wind ships came the announcement from Switzerland that scientists at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN have finally discovered evidence of the elusive Higgs-Boson, a wave particle that may be the answer to why objects have mass. Everything we have ever known or observed from the dawn of man – every tree, every rock, every grain of sand – owes its very existence to something so fleeting, so infinitesimally small, that it cannot be directly observed, and required billions of dollars and thousands of brilliant human beings just to find. Something millions of times smaller than a grain of sand, but that is ubiquitous, holds us, and all this stuff around us, together.
The closer I get to things, the more I see and understand. But seeing is not believing, being is believing. I am merely one in a trillion. I am a grain of blowing sand. You are a grain of blowing sand. And sometimes we clump together to form beautiful shapes of streamlined elegance that exist for mere moments, like hot sparks rising from a fire. My camera is, ostensibly, my loadstone, my talisman. It is my Higgs-Boson, it gives me mass. But even if I did not bring it with me on that day and I did not bring back these images for you to see as proof, the gift I was given would have been no less precious.
I carry a camera to keep what I see, to reveal and to remember. Because I am feeble, and my mind is fragile and weak. My memory is my most treasured gift. But photographs help me to remember not just what I have seen, but what I have become and what I’m becoming.
o O o
*Much of this post appeared first in Stone Voices Magazine.