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SHIFTING SANDS

September 17, 2017

In the aftermath of hurricanes Harvey and Irma many of us have seen the destruction across much of the south, from Florida to Texas, caused by these massive storms.  We have witnessed interviews with victims who lost all of their earthly possessions. Like many of you, Clare and I have prayed for people we know and those we do not.

After watching the national news I commented to Clare that the emotions of the victims were, on a much larger scale, the same shock and dismay I have seen when our children built sand castles at the beach. If you build a sand castle you do so with the full knowledge that it will not last. Even so, to see it destroyed by the incoming tide evokes a sense of loss.

When our children were young Clare insisted that the toys and books we purchased for them be things that would endure. Over the years many of the items our children enjoyed have remained almost as good as new. Now our grandchildren play with the toys and read the books that have been preserved in good condition by their grandmother.

Two of our six-year-old granddaughters were enchanted by a vintage Fisher-Price toy hourglass. The sturdy toy features yellow plastic endcaps, clear plastic funnels, and an orange handle made to fit a child’s hand. When the toy is flipped hundreds of tiny multicolored plastic beads drain from one funnel to the other. The transfer takes all of five seconds.

The toy could not be used an hourglass. It will not even time a three-minute egg. It certainly can’t be used to time a thorough toothbrushing. I remember miniature hourglasses that served those purposes. The purpose of the toy is to dazzle and fascinate a child. Perfect!

The hourglass has a long history. Marine sandglasses have been recorded since the fourteenth century. The written records about it were found in logbooks of European ships. Marine sandglasses were the most dependable measurement of time while at sea.

During the voyage of Ferdinand Magellan around the globe, eighteen hourglasses from Barcelona were in the ship’s inventory. It was the job of a ship’s page to turn the hourglasses and thus provide the times for the ship’s log. Noon was the reference time for navigation, which did not depend on the glass, because the sun would be at its zenith.

Hourglasses were commonly seen in use in churches, homes, and work places to measure sermons, cooking time, and time spent on breaks from labor. Wonder if they worked to rein in long-winded preachers?

Watching our granddaughters take turns flipping the toy hourglass back and forth brought me to a moment of reflection. I thought about the way sand attracts children of all ages.

When we lived in Pfafftown, North Carolina, I constructed a sandbox for our children. I used salt-treated lumber and filled it with several bags full of play sand. The sandbox was a big hit, the perfect place for Tonka Trucks and other toy earth-moving vehicles to be employed by little hands. The area was large enough to accommodate several children engaging in parallel play.

Unfortunately, several of the large feral cats that roamed the neighborhood discovered the sandbox and converted it to their own purposes rendering the places unsuitable for child’s play. The magnificent sandbox eventually became a raised-bed vegetable garden.

Each summer many families make a trip to the coast to enjoy the sun, the surf, and the sand. Our family goes to Pawleys Island. Our children and grandchildren have made building a sand castle a regular beach activity. Perhaps you have seen some of the massive works of art rendered by professional sand castle builders. In our family we are all amateurs. We make up the design as we go along. Maybe we are not so heavily invested because we understand the inevitable end to every sand castle.

A vacation at the beach is an ongoing encounter with sand.  It seems to be everywhere, not only on the beach, but also in places it does not belong – in our shoes, in our hair, in our bed, and in our laundry room when we return to our inland home.

The Hebrew scriptures refer to the sand of the sea repeatedly to describe things that are immeasurable: the descendants of Abraham (Genesis 22:17), the wisdom of Solomon (I Kings 4:29), and the strength of armies (Joshua 11:4).  The Bible reminds us that sand is everywhere, something every beach lover knows.

Sand is also a symbol of instability.  You only have to stand in the surf and feel the tide pull the sand from beneath your feet to know how unreliable sand can be.  In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus told a parable to his disciples. Two men were building houses.  One built his house on a rock; the other built his house on the sand.  When the storms came, the house on the rock stood firm; the house on the sand fell flat.

Ocean currents and the wind move the sand around to other locations. Along the Outer Banks of North Carolina the confluence of two great ocean currents moves tons of sand. The cold Labrador Current flows from the north while the warm Gulf Stream curls from the south. Just off of Cape Hatteras the currents meet. The cold water of the Labrador sinks beneath the warmer Gulf Stream. The sand of the ocean floor forms a series of troughs and hills. Known as Diamond Shoals this is a treacherous, ever-shifting series of shallow, underwater sandbars. This enormous scrub board effect demonstrates the power of shifting sand.

North Carolina’s Barrier Islands, which lie thirty miles off the mainland, have been frequent targets of Atlantic storms. Those storms moving over the shoals that extend eight miles out into the sea have caused more than one thousand wrecks. Known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic, these shoals have become the final resting place for ships, sailors, and passengers.

Huge sand dunes such as Jockey’s Ridge, North Carolina, or the massive sand dunes near the tip of Cape Cod at Provincetown, Massachusetts, are naturally occurring sand formations.  Most sand dunes along the coast, however, have been created so the beach can be preserved.  Sand dunes are held in place by strategically located fences, and by established plantings of sea oats important to control of beach erosion. It is the reason sea oats are protected by law.

At Nags Head, North Carolina, I saw a man backing a bulldozer into the surf and pushing piles of wet sand back up onto the beach.  When he took a cigarette break from his work, I asked him what he was doing.

“I’m taking sand out of the ocean and pushing it back up on the beach to try to protect the property of people who were crazy enough to build out here.  I’ve got news for them,” he said.  “The ocean is winning.”

Further inland, it is clear that sand has been a part of the natural history of the Carolinas for a very long time. The Sandhills is a region in the interior of South Carolina. It is a strip of ancient beach dunes which divides the Piedmont from the coastal plain. It provides evidence of the former coastline when the ocean level was much higher. Typical ocean fossils are found along the front edges. My good friend, South Carolina naturalist, Rudy Mancke, has found amazing fossils specimens deposited centuries ago and miles from the current coastline.

The Sandhills have been a major agricultural region for the Palmetto State. My in-laws had the most gorgeous garden there in the sandy loam of Lexington County.

Since the debut in 1965, the title sequence of “Days of Our Lives” featured an hourglass, with sand slowly trickling to the bottom against the backdrop of a partly cloudy sky. The familiar voice of Macdonald Carey spoke, “Like sands through the hourglass, so are the ‘Days of Our Lives.’”

I watched our granddaughters play with the hourglass and thought about what lies ahead for them. While we never know what the future holds, I can imagine those little girls learning the recipes passed down from their great-grandmother who lived in the sandhills. I can imagine beach trips, and summer storms. My hope is that they will be firmly grounded, not on sand, but on solid ground.

The homes and beach houses along the coast are basically sand castles. They will not last forever. The same is true of most of our structures. Hurricanes like Harvey and Irma remind us that very few of the things we make will last. In the end, only the way we treat other people, the way we love our neighbor, will have any permanence at all.

Hebrew scripture teaches us an important lesson about life lived in the midst of the shifting sands of time, in times of storm and times of calm.

So teach us to number our days,

That we may gain a heart of wisdom. (Psalm 90:12)

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