The sand dune is a fascinating phenomenon. From the peaceful beauty of it's silhouette against the setting sun to the warm healing qualities just walking on its offers, the sand dune holds far more than we perceive.
Each dune is unique and even unique to itself from day to day through it's constant movement. Even more unique are 'singing dunes'.
Singing dunes fall into the family of the 'musical sand' phenomenon. Musical sand is desert or beach silica that has the right abrasive qualities to make a variety of sounds when it moves over itself. The mechanics of the sound is quite like that of a cricket rubbing his legs to make a churp. Singing sand on beaches is a fairly small scale phenomenon compared to 'booming sand' which is found in desert regions hosting very large sand dunes. Although the sounding action and the quality of the sounds each type makes is essentially the same 'booming sand' is considerably more impressive in volume.
Musical sand tends to relate closer to the areas that produce a gentler more lovely tone resembling brass horns.
Even since the nineteenth century, discoveries of this sand have been reported by excited scientists and researchers in many parts of the world. Charles Darwin's "Naturalist's Voyage in the Beagle"(1832) made comments about this type of sand at Rio-de-Janeiro, Brazil and certain dunes in Chile.
Recorded reports of Ton-Fan, ( 880 A.D. China ) describes a large festival taking place on booming sand dunes. The ancient manuscript describes a mysterious sand mountain as follows: "When you ride a horse or walk on the sand dune, the sound of stepping on the sand is so loud that it reaches several dozen miles. On the 'boy's festival day', as was their custom long ago, the people living within the castle walls would climb Mt. Ming-Sha-Shan and slide down together on the sand. The sound produced by the sliding was similar to the rolling of thunder." The mountain is now called "Singing Mountain" and a nearby temple is called the "Thunder Temple". This is also one of the earliest records that make mention of sliding down the dunes and anyone who has been at the finish line of a sandboard drag race can relate to the 'rolling thunder' that the boards make.
Because musical sand is rare it is difficult to study. There are relatively few areas in the world that even have sand capable of producing these sounds. This is why many people are not aware of its existence.
One excellent dune to visit if you are interested in experiencing the phenomenon of musical sand is Sand Mountain, Nevada. Sand Mountain has both singing sand and booming sand. The singing is much like a hum while the booming is close to thunder. The native Americans of the area believed that a spirit lived in the dune making it roar thus they actively avoided Sand Mountain. When the stage coach route was established in the 1800's a stop was set at the dune for that very reason.
Pollution can degrade the sound-producing capabilities of some of these areas; for instance, several squeaking sand beaches have become silent when severely polluted. This tends to take place on beach sand that does not have the capabilities of dune sand to be blown and aerated. Pollution can settle and build up over time on stagnant sand.
While walking along the crest line of the dunes at Dumont California I ultimately decided to bound straight down the dune face close to midnight when all was quite. To my delight as each of my steps sunk into the soft sand a humming sound could be easily heard and the vibration that traveled through my shoes and up my leg was a sensation that I would describe similar to riding a Harley.
The next time you are at the dune should a clap of thunder surround you on a clear sunny day and all those who are with you dive to the ground covering their heads. Stand tall! Scan the dune's silhouette and tell them what the Doctor told you about this incredible musical sand.
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