Imagine a group of people gathered on a beach. They all carry small buckets, but they aren’t normal sand pails. They are precisely molded replicas, in miniature, of five of earth’s mountains, all nestled together: Kilimanjaro, Shasta, Stromboli, Fuji, and Uluru. The beachgoers are about to scoop up sand in their buckets and create a forest of tiny mountains on the beach.
That’s what happened recently on Portobello Beach, near Edinburgh. It was just one of twenty-five similar events taking place around the coast of the U.K. during the spring and summer of 2019, the brainchild of Scottish artist Katie Paterson. The mountains were ephemeral. Soon the tide would come in and wash them away. You can learn more about the project here.
Katie invited writers, scientists and others to create short texts in response to the project, to be read out at the beginning of each event. When she asked if I would be interested in writing something for the Portobello event I didn’t hesitate. Here is what I wrote; it is a reflection on the location, on time, on the five mountains Katie chose to model, and a few other things as well. I’ve included several pictures from the day.
Mountains in Portobello (© 2019 Doug Macdougall)
Mountains in Portobello: who would have thought
that these small peaks, precise, to scale,
would grace this beach?
This beach once trod by smugglers, Victorian ladies, Walter Scott.
And George the fourth, in his military finery.
Fuji, Shasta, Uluru. Stromboli.
What is it about mountains
that so beguiles us?
Cathedrals of rock reaching for the sky,
beckoning us to climb their summits
for the sheer joy of pitting ourselves
against a worthy adversary.
Or maybe just for the view.
Fuji, a postcard perfect cone,
a holy mountain, part of the volcanic ring of fire
that rims the great Pacific where ocean crust
dives deep below the surface, until the planet’s inner heat
turns it to magma.
Across the wide Pacific Shasta,
a ring of fire California cousin,
stands proud, and sacred too,
the tribes who lived in her shadow
said she was inhabited by spirits.
John Muir, that son of Dunbar who
began his life not far from here
nearly ended it on her peak, until he found
a hot spring near the summit
to shelter him from a raging blizzard.
Fiery Stromboli, rising from the sea,
her lava fountains guiding wayward sailors
like a lighthouse.
She too was born of plate tectonics,
of Africa sliding under Europe until again internal heat
turned solid stone to liquid lava.
And in Africa famed Kilimanjaro,
a different kind of volcano,
hot plume from deep within the earth
rising up, splitting apart a continent,
pushing the famous peak up to the clouds
her summit dusted with snow.
Finally Uluru, smallest of our five;
looming red above the desert,
this mountain no volcano
just a block of sandstone,
grains of quartz and feldspar, cemented,
tilted up toward the sky.
And here in Portobello our tiny seaside mountains
shaped by human hands, no plate tectonics required,
are also made of sand –
sand from other mountains, distant in time, in space,
mountains forged in fire, raised high,
they had their fleeting moments in the sun
before they too were worn away,
until no trace remained, except this sand.
Quartz, feldspar, mica. Zircon.
Minute grains, winnowed by tropical rivers,
scooped up by roving glaciers,
piled here by North Sea waves.
Piled up again by us.
One man who walked this beach
in centuries past, a man who some say
is the one who found time,
once wrote – thinking of sand and mountains and time –
that there is ‘no vestige of a beginning,
no prospect of an end.’
I think about his insight as we gather here
to watch our mountains rise and fall,
leaving nothing behind.
A speeded-up geological cycle
that Mr. Hutton would appreciate.
Time stretched, time shortened.
Four billion years and more
have shaped this earth so far,
more billions still to come.
What will they bring? More mountains to be sure,
more grains of sand cracked from those rocky peaks
and carried to some future sea.
A future sea not one of us will know,
a sea with shorelines, inlets, headlands, cliffs,
and beaches just like this one, but so far away in time
that our imaginations fail.
We cannot even comprehend their presence.
What feet will walk those beaches,
what creatures dig their sand?
What tides will wash them,
what storms will roil their quiet shores?
We cannot know, but here, on this beach,
we need no future-guessing.
We know the rising tide will swirl around
our small, sandy mountains
until they slowly tilt and crumble,
dissolve into the flat, monotonous shore,
gone in a geological instant.
Tomorrow who will know
that these miniature mountains
ever existed here?
Perhaps our memories will recall
how we shaped a Fuji, or a Shasta,
and maybe a grain of quartz or two
will remember vaguely how,
on its four hundred millionth birthday,
it somehow found itself a part of something strange,
a mountain on a beach.