Walking in the Sand

Today, I walked in sand.

Very fine, very dry sand is a fluid; it flows around your feet when you step in it, and runs downhill in little rivulets; the wind blows across its surface and sends up a spray, a mist of microscopic particles that caresses your bare legs and wets your clothes with a golden film of grit.  It engulfs in the collective mass of its atoms everything that stands in its path, a flash flood—though times in decades—that drowns beneath it anything too slow to get out of its way. Plants, rocks, tools, huts, houses and cities all succumb to the advance of the silica tide.

Walking on sand works where walking on water does not because the friction between the fundamental particles of the sand fluid exceeds that between water molecules. Step in the ocean, and the water parts before your foot: it displaced the water throughout the ocean, and could be measured an world away, if we but had instruments sensitive enough. But sand is not so yielding. It will accommodate your foot up to a certain point, allowing you to displace its particles; but at some point you have pushed too much, and no more sand will move before your step. The obstinacy of sand is what lets us walk on it. Its fluidity is what makes the walking hard.

In the desert, where this fine, dry sand lives, the wind whips up the its surface into an everlasting tempest. Towering sunburnt waves rise in formation, beating toward the sky in their decades-long, silent uprising against the tyranny of the wind. The dunes are everlasting, yet ever-changing. Moment by moment the wind sculpts and shapes their surfaces, adding here, subtracting there, so that the patterns written in breezy calligraphy down the slopes are never the same, whether comparing between points in space or points in time. But cease to consider the details of the patterns; stand upright, shield your eyes, and consider the sand en masse.  By looking at the dunes writ large, you are seeing statistically; andthe  statistics of the sands are constant throughout your view. The consistent distribution of rivulet widths, lengths, and branching patterns; the distributions of the dune heights and angles; the regularity of these can be seen at a glance. And so it goes—sand particles, on our scale, are identical; they form wildly different patterns when we observe their interactions up close; and their behavior becomes regular again as we pull away further. The sands are like people. We are all made from the same mould, from the same physical stuff; yet each one of us is radically different from every other one; yet societies the world over display a surprising regularity in customs and habits.

Who knows who the first people were to walk these sands? Did they survive the encounter, or did they grow weary, stop for a short rest, and then, when their rest extended too long, drown in the hot glacial deluge? Might they now form part of these sands on which I am walking?

It must have been thousands of years ago. Everything has changed since then. When the sun has gone down, I can see lights on the horizon—a city is nearby, filled with the buzz of electricity and information and civilization. The dome overhead, in which then hung only stars, now is home to airplanes and satellites whose trajectories may be followed across the ebony skies. And I can stand in this spot with no worries about what I shall eat, or what I shall drink, or if I shall ever make it to my destination. Indeed, this is my destination.

But to say all has changed is to think too small. If I ignore the city, and ignore the satellites, and look at the dunes; there, there I see what that first traveler saw. As if side by side, we see the same patterns in the sand and the shield our eyes from the same sun. In all probability my lungs contain several oxygen and nitrogen atoms that were in his lungs as he stood here, he sharing my view and I his. And there is an immutability to this; man may be about his business, changing everything in his power to change, and yet in the sand the patterns persist. Man may not change those. He may dig up the sand, and pour it out on a far  continent; but the wind will follow it there, and caress it into its eternal shapes, and it will continue to flow and engulf as it has since the beginning of time.

When the wind is blowing, my footprints disappear almost immediately as I walk away. My walk has not disturbed the sand in its massive progress. It does not care. Of whatever significance my walk is to me, the sand does not care.

Let’s remember this. Our universes revolve around ourselves because we see through our own eyes and act through our own bodies. But in realizing that our volition extends only as far as ourselves, we break the illusion that our wants and desires order the objective universe.  Even the most powerful people on Earth have no power to change the forces of nature, the combination of winds and friction that sculpt they sands. We are small, and our ambitions are small.

Our efforts are of grand import in our own lives; we have the power to shape our destinies and overcome odds. We are empowered to leave footprints in the sand, and to choose the direction in which they go. The philosophy of Jailbreak is all about thoughtfully choosing that path. If possible, we may lead others to a limited degree. But let us not have too grand an opinion of ourselves.  It is to our benefit to acknowledge that we are part of a grander scheme, and the wind will wipe away our traces when we are gone. And this is for the good; those who come after us will have the view unspoiled.

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