It is a new year, and the promise and optimism of the first week of 2016 was evident in the activities of Islanders. Many took to their favorite beaches for a first day walk to start the year off on the right foot. I was one of them.

Along with the Island’s natural splendor and horizons, beachcombers saw a lot of sand. There are many of us that notice and wonder at the beauty of the beach’s surface. I’m one of those, too. But some do it more than others. There is even a scientific discipline, an “ology,” of sand. Arenologists are folks who study sand, likely seeing what English poet William Blake eloquently described as “a world in a grain of sand.”

Rachel Carson looked to the origin and connectedness of the sand when she observed, “In every outthrust headland, in every curving beach, in every grain of sand there is the story of the earth.” 

Sand gets to the beach in a few ways, mainly via wind and water. Sand is brought onto land from the ocean through the action of waves; and, conversely, sand comes from the land too. Erosion, wind, and water work the land to deliver sand to the beaches. Humans can also add sand to the beach purposely through nourishment projects. 

Dig deeper to discover the unique qualities of sand, including size, color, shape and composition. A magnifier and magnet are two tools that will add to any examination of sand.

The exact composition of sand can be extensive. Journalist Henry Gunwald rattled off his view of the component when he explained: “A beach is not only a sweep of sand, but shells of sea creatures, the sea glass, the seaweed, the incongruous objects washed up by the ocean.”

Rocks and minerals are two of the constituents of local sand. Minerals can be defined as naturally occurring inorganic compounds with a chemical composition consisting of the same material through and through. Rocks are usually composites, being made of more than one mineral or rock combination. 

The most commonly found mineral in sand is quartz, a mineral that is hard and persistent, so it remains after other minerals have been washed away. It also can be nice and glassy, and when at the right angle to the sun, be pleasing to the eye — surely a clue to the attraction of beaches. Quartz can be clear, white or pink, red, brown and even green. Other minerals found in sand include feldspar, mica (flakes of black/silver), magnetite (use a magnet to attract it for amusement), hornblende, biotite and calcite, among many others.

Rock varieties on the beach can also be numerous, and include basalt, sandstone, granite, limestone and more. Another category of materials that make up sand is biogenic objects. Biogenic materials describe fragments of marine organisms such as shells, skeletons and other persistent structures of these organisms. And, lastly (rather sadly), all beaches also contain human-derived materials such as glass, plastics and concrete that have broken down and joined the array of natural constituents on our shores.

Who among us hasn’t been disappointed by having to explain to a young niece or nephew, or a daughter or son, that a find on a beach is merely something that somebody threw away a while ago?

Sizes of beach materials can range from the smallest silts to larger sands, pebbles, cobbles and up to boulders. Colors of beaches across the globe have their own fascination. Tropical islands are known for white sands rich in calcium carbonate from biogenic sources, or the famous pink sands of Bermuda, resulting from the dissolved shells of an organism called red foraminifera. Black sands can be spectacular, too, the result of volcanic glass or black basalt; and green sands likely contain the mineral olivine.

No matter the color, size or origin of your local sands, my advice for you in this new year is to keep your eye on the prize and not get bogged down. The Canadian writer and poet Robert W. Service suggested that “It isn’t the mountain ahead that wears you out; it’s the grain of sand in your shoe.”

But I think it’s maybe the feel of sand in your shoe that will help you enjoy your place in the world and kick away an awful lot of the stresses of the world.

Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown, and author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature.