środa, 7 września 2011

The art and craft of building sandcastles

Whenever I find myself on a beach, I simply cannot lie down on a fluffy towel, absorb the sun and do nothing. My mind likes being entertained and all those mental processes which keep it busy cannot be switched off. There is no button inside my head which I could press to stop observing, digesting and analysing the world around me.

A good way of keeping my mind entertained is to engage myself in building sandcastles. You may say that it is a childish activity which only lets you kill time and pretend that you are doing something. One digs into the sand, either with such exquisite tools like a bucket and a spade or simply using one's hands, then one forms structures which are ethereal and will survive for only several hours. Is there a purpose in such an absurd activity? I would say that building sandcastles is one of the most challenging, and at the same time most entertaining, activities with which you can occupy your brain.

In order to build a sandcastle we need only one substance. Yes, you are right: we need sand. Technically speaking, as the dictionary on my Mac informs me, sand consists of tiny grains of worndown or disintegrated rock, mainly siliceous, which is finer than gravel. Sand is a very safe building material. It is not a brick which may fall on you foot. It is not a stone or piece of rock with sharp edges. Scorched by the hot sun, sand is clean, virtually free of germs or bacteria. And once you get to the beach, sand comes free.

There are two kinds of tools one can use to build sandcastles. If you come to the beach with your child, as I do, you are certainly equipped with the bucket and the spade. The bucket is convenient when you want to dig quickly or move a large amount of sand, but it is used not only for handling sand; sometimes you need water. Personally, I find the spade more useful: you can dig wells and trenches with it, you can shape towers or form perfectly square corners. A smaller spade works better: it is more rigid and has a shorter handle, which makes it easier for you to reach difficult places. But even those tools are not necessary because you can always make do with your own hands.

Human hands are precise instruments which can be used for a variety of tasks. With a swiping gesture you can quickly move aside dry sand and prepare the construction site. You can push and pile sand with one or two hands. When your basic structure is ready, you can pat the surfaces to flatten them or you can rub them to make them smooth. With you hands, you can form towers and turrets, or shape battlements and bridges. Hands are also perfect tools to dig wells, moats or passages. So, you don't need a bulldozer nor an excavator, a bucket nor a spade. Your own hands are enough.

Let's make it über-obvious: the amazing fact is that you need no glue, no cement, no electricity, no equipment to start building. The material is waiting, and it is easy to form and shape. Fine grains of sand will stick one to another, and this property lets us build sophisticated structures with no extra materials. We need simple tools, but they are either cheap or we carry them with ourselves. To build, we only need energy produced by our bodies. There is no need for a power plant or even electricity generators. It makes things very simple and effective, and we can start building straight away.

Although sand is a simple building material, we have to learn and understand its properties to use it effectively. I do not mean that you should go to the library of the local polytechnic and study books. Far from it. The very experience will teach you that dry sand is not useful for anything. Sand mixed with water is too liquid and cannot be used to form towers or decorative balls. You have to experiment and, sooner or later, by instinct you will discover what works best. 

There are different techniques of building sandcastles. You can make a pile of sand, pat it and then carve buildings with a spade. You work in a completely different way, namely shape various elements with your hands. You can use wet sand to model the structure by adding different elements. One of the sandcastle which Olga and I made was built mainly with balls piled carefully one upon another. I saw an interesting technique utilised by a woman who dug out one handful of almost liquid sand at a time using her hand like pincers and then let it "drip" slowly, forming towers and peaks which resembled Master Gaudi's surrealistic spires of La Sagrada Familia.

Building sandcastles may be a simple, intuitive activity. You just close you eyes (not literally, mind you) and let it flow. You can do just the opposite – open your eyes wide, look at what other people are doing, steal some ideas and use them as a springboard for your own fantasies. You may start with a carefully crafted plan (I usually determine where my "quarry" will be located) or you may choose to copy an existing building. Whatever works for you, honey-bunny.

From the social point of view, building sandcastles gives you flexibility. Some of us are not team players, but playing in a team is not obligatory, you can still build on your own. Maybe it will take a little more time, maybe you will have to put a little more effort into building. But all the pride and joy of looking at the completed structure will be entirely yours. Those social creatures who like doing everything "with somebody" will also be satisfied. What is better than digging, forming shaping, producing ornaments or collecting seashells which will be used as decorative touches? Even when you want to have the cookie and eat the cookie, i.e. if you want to keep to yourself and be part of the team, you can still take upon yourself a task which will require independence. I can translate it into simple English: grab that bucket and bring us some water!

We are not done with the social sphere yet. You may not realise this, but your own sandcastle is an expenditure of time and energy, it is an investment. As all investments, it has to be cultivated and protected. We can see the very human nature showing its claws and teeth, screaming "Mine! Mine! Mine!", even when it is in the form of a six-year old extending a hand to stop a toddler who is about to stomp on your just-emerging structure. One cannot beat the basic instinct...

Building sandcastles has educational value. First of all, it teaches you patience. Rome was not built in a day, your sandcastle will not be built in a minute. Suddenly you realise that one of your assets – apart from sand, buckets, spades and sea water – is time. To produce something astonishing, or at least intriguing, you need to spend even a couple of hours. Your reward will be all the murmurs and gasps of "look-at-this" and "that's a fine one". Most probably you will be back in your room, showering and trying to get rid of this damn building material, but your sandcastle will still produce some nods and smiles.

Another educational aspect of building sandcastles is learning a bit of physics and engineering. You will soon discover that you have to be careful while crafting a bridge or building a tower. Some things cannot be done and this has to be accepted. Physical limitations do exist and you cannot produce a skinny arch or re-create a palm tree. Each structure has its capacity and when you do something wrong, things start falling apart. You will also see how erosion and degeneration work.

Education is not always fun. You may discover to your surprise that the location of your structure was not so well-chosen. A gust of wind, a bigger wave, and you end up where you started – with a formless pile of sand. And your co-builders may suddenly become an obstacle to  completing the project: they may get tired and escape; they may lose interest; or they may have a bunch of their own ideas which completely clash with yours. Well, we call it life and these are priceless little lessons. 

But building sandcastles is something more; it lets you become an architect and builder at the same time. You can design a structure and help it come to life. You can foresee problems, plan your solutions and test them to see what works. You can modify, expand and change things, seeing the results immediately. You can test your fantasies against reality, which is a unique chance to see if the world of your dreams will survive confronted with solid, tangible matter. Isn't it entertaining enough for your brain?

And it is all about this confrontation: will solid, tangible matter beat you or will your fantasies win? You will soon discover that writing English textbooks is like building sandcastles. Your building material will be simple and plentiful: letters and words are always at your disposal. Your tools will be simple and cheap: you only need your hands and some energy to write or type. You will work on your own (if it suits you) or you will build a team (if that is what you like). You will find out that adaptation and flexibility are key to survival. And you will soon discover that time is your most precious asset.

As I wrote before, sandcastles are ethereal. They may only survive for a couple of hours or a night, but we still put effort into building them. Whatever for? The answer is simple: because it is fun. And so is writing English textbooks. Although they are ethereal things (can you name any English textbook used twenty or thirty years ago?), they are still well worth the effort. One may point out that nobody is paid for building sandcastles and it is the opposite with textbooks. Technically, it is true but if you were to ask me, I would say that it is about testing my fantasies against hard reality. Will my sandcastle (or textbook) produce some nods and gasps? Will I walk away feeling that my structure (or book) is presentable? Will somebody's kick destroy everything or will I manage to protect my little project?

You can see now that building sandcastles and writing English textbooks is the same for me. It is about the fun of starting and finishing. It is about the joy of keeping things simple and effective. It is about the pleasure of seeing my projects completed. And it is about this little confrontation: will solid, tangible matter beat me or will my fantasies win?