To See A World In A Grain Of Sand

It was the end of Summer.

We had spent it in the South of France, near Perpignan, not far from the Spanish border. It was our last swim, we would then pack our towels, picnic material, beach umbrella, get in the car and drive the 10 km back to my grandmother’s holiday house. I would have been 8 or 9 that Summer.

The beach was not particularly beautiful, it was a never-ending stretch of lazy, event-less rather large sand strip leading to a somewhat grey and dull Mediterranean Sea.

Years later I would be able to compare this spot to what could be defined, based on my own vocabulary and experiences, as a beautiful beach. But to me, this particular beach, that Summer, was everything.We would spend full days there, not worrying about the sun, because it was not considered dangerous yet. So, on this last day as I was packing my stuff, already nostalgic, I grabbed a handful of sand and put it in my pocket. As a souvenir for when, back home to my routine, to Winter, to a city where the sea was so far away, I could look at it and remember that feeling, walking bare feet on a powdery material, feeling free. The sand was a dark-brown colour, not particularly soft, still wet. But it made its way back home, sat in a glass container, with a label on it which stated where it was picked and when.

This was the first sample of a large sand collection which I preciously and obsessively gathered from all over the world during 15 years or so.

It wasn’t long before everybody around me became aware of this obsession and started bringing back samples from their own travels. But of course, I had some rules established and I would only accept sand from people I knew, family or friends, so that each sample could have its own known story and become a memory staple, linking it back to somebody or, much better, to a place I visited and hopefully enjoyed.

Shelves in my childhood bedroom were filling up with sand samples from various and sometimes very unusual places from either the other end of the world or not far from home.

I constantly marveled at the diversity of shapes, colours, textures and even smells each sample had. Like human faces, they were each different and unique.

I could spend days dreaming about places I would like to visit one day or places I had been to and would like to return.

My first sand from Africa (a beach near Mombasa,Kenya) became my most treasured possession at the age of 17, the first trip I had taken outside of Europe or the US. This trip made a huge impression on me on many aspects but the emotions I felt when discovering for the first time the red-coloured soil of Amboseli National Park and the talc-like white sand of Bamburi beach are still ingrained in my memory and vividly remembered, with almost chirurgical precisions, every time I look at the samples.

Some samples are unexpected, like the talc used b yballet dancers collected in the backstage of the Paris Opera House, where I had sneaked in as a teenager one afternoon with a friend.

The notion of “sand” became an iteration for everything that was coming from the earth in a fine or coarser grain structure – soil, sand, talc, tiny corals or shells dust – would make their way into the collection.

Finding containers to keep them safe and enhanced was becoming my biggest challenge as they needed to be as-transparent-as-possible glass, not too big, with a sturdy lid and not expensive given my limited resources. It was the time of film cameras, so I used to keep large stocks of camera film plastic boxes which I would distribute to anyone going somewhere, anywhere, so they could fill them with precious samples, one film box was the perfect sample size I needed.

Of course eventually my collection reached a plateau and stayed there for a very long time because I had moved continent, to a city where sand was available in limitless quantities (Sydney) and left the collection behind at my parents' (and every time they moved house they packed and carried to their new house the entire collection and I cannot thank them enough for keeping up with me and understanding how important it was).

At the peak of the collection I probably had reached 500 samples, if not more (this collection was not documented and archived, it was spontaneous and disorganised purposely, so I never analysed how many samples were really gathered). I loved every single one of them, with some preferred children though, because they reminded me of something special I personally experienced:

  • The purest fine white sand, from the deserted motu Auira in Maupiti Island, French Polynesia, the quintessential tropical paradise
  • An ochre-coloured, very fine sand collected on top of a dune in Merzouga, Eastern Morocco very close to the Algerian border. I can still feel the sensation of the sand burnt by the Saharan sun just by looking at my glass bottle.
  • The pink and white sand from Capo di Feno in Corsica. The pink, almost red parts are made of small coral elements and are scattered throughout the beach. I remember spending hours on that beach, gathering grain after grain of this incredible pink-reds and so I would fill a bottle with only the pink bits, not the white ones.
  • The surreal red soil of the Australian outback, a sight so powerful the driving through these never-ending dry and deserted landscapes is one of the most exhilarating experience ever.
  • My first sand from Japan, not even sand, more like dirt soil, collected from a flower pot at Kansai airport the day I arrived in the country for the very first time. I have seen many beautiful Japanese beaches with proper sand since then, but this sample is priceless, it encapsulates the longing I had to visit Japan since I was a little girl.

As I now reflect on how important this collection became in my life, I realise it was the first step in my long history of trying to learn from the diversity of the world and to find relevant and meaningful souvenirs from places I would go to and immensely enjoying the emotions these material souvenirs would give me, carrying memories that would outlive the passing of time.

Atelier Ikiwa sure wasn’t on my mind as a 9-year-old on that French beach but I find fascinating the realisation that everything eventually makes sense and if finding the object that would give areal emotion is now my obsession, it is the same quest that got me kneeling down to pick some sand all these years ago. 

 NB: whilst collecting sand seems like a harmless hobby it can in fact have a major impact on ecosystems in particular with the development of mass-tourism, so it is sadly not an activity I can endorse any longer (I stopped collecting sand about 20 years ago). In fact, some destinations are now considering picking sand, rocks or shells a crime which can be heavily fined.‍

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild FlowerHold infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
William Blake

A piece written by Laurence Corteggiani
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