The sand man

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Thursday, November 15th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: collections.

People collect all sorts of things.

Coins. Stamps. Decorative plates. Trading cards, Cookbooks.

Hobbyists sometimes spend a lifetime adding to their collection, and don’t I know it.

EICHER: All right, so I’m on a Seinfeld roll today. Thinking about unusual collectibles. Remember this one?

FRANK: Where’s the TV Guide?

GEORGE: What TV Guide?

FRANK: I’m missing TV Guide volume forty-one, number thirty-one.

JERRY: Uh, Elaine took it to read on the subway. …

FRANK: (shouting) How could you let her take the TV Guide?!

GEORGE: (to Jerry) He collects them.

JERRY: You collect TV Guide?

EICHER: You think that’s unique?

WORLD Radio correspondent Jenny Lind Schmitt recently caught up with an arenophile.

AUDIO: [Sound of arriving, sitting down to eat]

JENNY LIND SCHMITT, REPORTER: Gilbert Brabant lives outside Lyon, France, in the farmhouse that’s been in his family for generations. And as this is France, the visit begins with a meal. Only after the roast chicken, cheese course, apple tart and coffee does he begin his story.

AUDIO: [Sound of drawers opening]

In the corner of the dining room is a tall, wooden chest that once held newspaper type. The drawers are shallow and wide. Every tray contains 60 glass vials, arranged in neat rows. Each vial contains 30 milliliters of sand.

AUDIO: [Sound at the cabinet]

It all started about 20 years ago, on a vacation. Brabant took his family to a new beach. His children claimed the sand was “lighter and finer” than their usual beach. Brabant told them that was nonsense. He said all sand was the same. To prove it, he scooped up a handful to compare to the sand from their regular beach.

French translation: At the beginning it was just out of curiosity and to show that I was the boss …and that the boss is always right. (Laughs.)   

Turns out, the kids were right. Brabant learned that sand is not at all the same.  He began bringing home more samples from other beaches to compare. And was amazed at the enormous diversity in something so commonplace.

AUDIO: [Sounds of voices and shaking vials of sand]

A hobby was born. Word soon got out, and friends and family started bringing him sand. Red sand, black sand, orange sand, pink sand… and every gradation of gray and brown imaginable.

There is even green sand. It exists in only three places in nature. His is from Hawaii, where volcanic activity creates olivine close to the sea.

BRABANT: [Explaining the green sand of Hawaii]

As his collection grew, Brabant switched to smaller containers to keep things manageable. Another chest of drawers in his living room holds the rest of his collection. Each of these drawers holds 220 small square plastic boxes, carefully labeled with origin, continent, and a number to mark order.

AUDIO: [Looking through little test tubes of sand]

In 2006, Brabant discovered there’s an online world of sand collectors. They’re called “arenophiles.” Finding them was a watershed moment for him.  

AUDIO: [French voices and shaking vials of sand]

Members of the arenophile association sign a pledge they won’t buy, or sell sand. Only trading is permitted. If Brabant gets sand from a rare location, he puts some in his collection box and saves the rest to trade with other collectors.

That’s how most people obtain sand from difficult places, like the Vatican. When workers removed paving stones to repair a fountain in St. Peter’s Square, a few arenophiles swooped in to seize the moment.

Brabant’s initial dream was to collect sand from every nation on earth. He fulfilled it last year when he traded for sand from North Korea.

So now he has a new goal: Sand from every region of France and every state of the United States. He only needs 16 more states.

SCHMITT: North Carolina, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas…

Collecting sand is an education in geography. He’s got sand from places most people don’t know exist!

BRABANT: [Explaining industrial size limits for sand]

It’s also an education in geology. Scientists define sand as any particle from one-sixteenth of a millimeter to two millimeters in size. If it’s smaller, that’s clay. Anything larger is gravel.

The differences in size not only give it a distinct appearance, but also a unique sound.

AUDIO: [Sound of sand in vials/Brabant talking about microscope]

Brabant gets out his microscope. A delicate, miniature world suddenly comes into view. The green sand looks like tiny cut jewels.

SCHMITT: Wow! it’s incredible. Have a look.

Other sand from Hawaii is full of what scientists call foraminifera—the cast off shells of miniscule single-celled sea creatures. One looks like a sea urchin spine—only smaller than a pinprick.

AUDIO: [Sound of Hawaiian sand]

Brabant has saved the best for last: Sand from an island near Okinawa, Japan. When we look under the microscope, the white grains are in the shape of stars. Thousands of tiny stars in a spoonful of sand.

SCHMITT: “C’est la folie!”

So why collect sand? Brabant says the real quest isn’t the sand. It’s not the creation. But the Creator.

French translation: What we know of creation is truly a tiny, tiny, tiny piece. And you realize that our perspective, and therefore, our understanding, is very limited in relation to the universe, in relation to creation. And for me, that shows that we should be very humble, especially humble in relation to our knowledge of God and to our understanding of our Creator.

So Brabant says next time you go to the beach, be careful where you step. You never know what marvels may lie just under your feet.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Jenny Lind Schmitt reporting from Saint-Didier-de-Formans, France.

(Photo/Jenny Lind Schmitt)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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One comment on “The sand man

  1. thank you jenny and the whole team even if I did not understand everything
    I will be delighted to introduce you to the wonders of creation if you come to France.
    The Sand Man 🙂

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