Book Review: The World In A Grain

Cover page The World In A Grain by Vince Beiser.

Last Saturday, a special Dutch season started: Sinterklaas1. He traditionally arrives in a steam ship in some camera pleasing port and starts his tour through the country. Eventually he commemorates his name day (December 6th) by leaving presents for all children on the eve before. Usually this is celebrated with children and/or parents giving each other presents in elaborate packaging and clumsy rhymes. So, this might be a good occasion to recommend a book for your wish list.

Somewhere I found a copy of ‘The World in a Grain’ by Vince Beiser2. Actually, it was the subtitle, ‘The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization’ that caught my attention. As you may have noticed, I am very interested in sand. And, it is good, to occasionally take a step back and contemplate how our product contributes to civilisation and the world as we know it.

Photo of American-Canadian journalist Vince Beiser (Credit: Wikipedia).

Vince Beiser3 is an American-Canadian journalist and the book is easy to read. The chapters are arranged to the subject where sand is coming from and its contribution to society. Beginning with the origin of sand, the erosion of rock, and the locations where it ends up and can be extracted. The most basic application of sand is construction sand to create infrastructure: reclaimed land, ballast material for roads and railways, general landscaping etc. Than, the applications become more refined: concrete, asphalt, fracking, foundries, glass making, eventually all the way to high end products as computer chips and smart phones. Each application requiring its own type of sand.

Soil sample exhibit at the Damen Dredging Experience.

Proceeding through the book, you will be surprised about how dependent we’ve become on such a small unit of our universe. And that is exactly where Beiser is alarming us about. Not only that at some point in the future, sand will become a scarce commodity, it already is. As with all scarce materials, they become precious and attract activity that is not always benefitting all stakeholders. This usually involves violence and crime. And Beiser has been exploring this dark side of the trade for his book.

His experience as criminal-justice journalist has helped him to uncover social injustice, where some greedy individuals were profiting from resources that ought to serve the wellbeing of all mankind. Beautiful beaches that have been scooped away. Rivers that changed their course and deprived communities from irrigation. Pastoral landscape, that was torn up and left behind devastated. He visited some sites and spoke to victims and activists. At some occasions, he was even threatened himself.

Progressing through the book, I even felt ashamed that I was taking part in an industry that allegedly rapes nature and deprives future generations of their rightful heritage. He reported severe cases from undeveloped countries, but even well-known names in our dredging industry have been mentioned. According to Beiser, there is no direct solution, as the demand is still on the rise, but I think there is: cooperation in governance. Share with others the experience on sand mining, the market possibilities and communicate with all stakeholders involved. Personally, I am involved in CEDA4, but there are many more platforms: IADC, EuDA, EMSAGG, PIANC etc. And as always: think about what you are doing and what does it leave future generations with.

OK, one last bonus link for those who don’t like reading a whole book. I think the producers of the Dutch children’s TV show ‘Buitendienst’5, last Friday, have been reading this book also.

Het grote zandmysterie (Credit: De Buitendienst).

References

  1. Sinterklaas, Wikipedia
  2. The World in a Grain, Amazon
  3. Vince Beiser, Wikipedia
  4. Dredging Management Commission, CEDA
  5. Het grote zandmysterie, NPO Zapp

See also

Book Review: Moddergeuzen

Front cover Moddergeuzen by C. Baardman (Credit: JN Voorhoeve, Den Haag)

Summer is in full progress. People are already taking holidays. So, it is time for another book recommendation to take with you and pass your leisure time. Another favourite book from my dredging library is ‘Moddergeuzen’, or ‘Mud Beggars’, by C. Baardman1. However, the English translation doesn’t convey the right feeling about it. In Dutch the ‘Geuzen’ were patriotic nobleman, who fought against the Spanish oppression in the 80 year war2. Beggars sounds so derogatory.

In contrast to ‘Mannen van Sliedrecht’, from my previous review3, ‘Moddergeuzen’ is more describing the personal life of the crew on board the dredges, instead of the big historical picture. Baardman is able to bring all the crew members to life. At least to me. Either by reminding me of stories I heard from my family, or even by similar events I experienced personally. Still, there are some main characters. Most notably Leen Hoornaar and his son Jan. There are also other family ties between the crew members, as was and still is often the case on the Dutch dredges. Somehow, all those stories by and discussions with dad at the kitchen table do convey more knowledge insight and experience, than education at school does. (You need school! What your parents can tell you is your bonus to stand out from the crowd.)

That is also one of the topics Baardman addresses in his book. The old trade handed down from father to son, versus the new developments in culture, where education and knowledge gains momentum in the dredging industry. Another topic is the continuous inequality between the crew members on the one hand and the people from the office on the other hand. Regularly, socialistic thoughts are proclaimed by the crew members, but Baardman voices his idea about social improvement through the characters of Leen and Jan Hoornaar. They are the first glimmers of a work council in the industry. Another social phenomenon is the ever present religious group, that tends to be very conservative. Still, Baardman would rather identify himself as a religious writer. However, his concern to get the message across, but be careful not to look over zealous often made his books read like a regional novel4.

Well, regional is hardly applicable. Just as the dredging industry expanded all over the world, the stories in the book take place in all the now familiar dredging markets: China, Germany, Belgium, France, Rumania. Particularly the storyline in Hamburg was very interesting, as this is also the same time and region where my great grandfather has been working for some time (another story for later). The descriptions about how they must have travelled to and from the project where very illustrative.
Also the pranks they pulled on each other, or more precise on the youngest person on board where very familiar. I’ve heard the story of the coxswain being ordered to fry the cucumber, before. I don’t know if pranks are banned today. At least I don’t hear them so much anymore.

Paper model I received after building my first dredge

Times have changed. So, were the changes described at the story time in the book. Shure, there were a lot steam driven bucket ladder dredge in the adventures. And they do bring most of the exciting adventures. However, modern equipment was on the rise. Plain suction dredges and the first hopper dredges also feature in the book. Remember, hopper dredges at that time were still stationary. Free sailing trailing suction hoppers came much later. The dredge on the cover is a nice example of early twentieth century dredge design. As it happens, the National Dredging Museum in Sliedrecht has model, that looks very similar to the one depicted.

Suction hopper dredge ‘Nautilus II’ for Prins Aannemingsmaatschappij build by J&K Smit

References

  1. Moddergeuzen, Amazon
  2. Geuzen, Wikipedia
  3. Book Review: Mannen Van Sliedrecht, Discover Dredging
  4. C. Baardman: De schrijver en zijn werk, Historische Vereniging Hardinxveld-Giessendam

See also

Book Review: Mannen Van Sliedrecht

This year is coming to an end. Two weeks of holiday for me. My favourite pastime is reading. So, I thought to recommend you something to read on your holiday, also. Mmh, what kind of book should I suggest? It should be entertaining, maybe educating and for all: about dredging. And the first book that springs to my mind is ‘Mannen van Sliedrecht’ by the author K. Norel.

Opening page of ‘Mannen van Sliedrecht’

Jan Baan is the hero of the book. As a young, intelligent  and energetic boy, he is withdrawn from school, to earn some money digging peat in the Biesbosch. There he uses his intellect to organise his work and improve the equipment. From there, he works his way up through a brilliant career, ending as one of the most influential captains of dredging industry. Although Jan Baan is the protagonist, the story unfolds through the life of Dirk Punt. He is the average really hard working crewmember on the dredges. No frills, no aspiration, only loyal, honest maybe even devout and modest. Sliedrecht had thousands of those men in their workforce and in combination with the innovations by people like Jan Baan, Sliedrecht became the biggest village in the world.
Whereas Dirk Punt is modelled after a non-descript Anybody, Jan Baan is mainly based on the historical person Adriaan Volker1. He really was an innovative engineer, threading new paths in the dredging business and managing his people effectively. He became the founder of one of those big dredging companies from Sliedrecht, eventually incorporated in Koninklijke Volker Wessels Stevin2.

Adriaan Volker (Credit: Nationaal Baggermuseum)

K. Norel was not the first to write about this subject. Herman de Man started out to collect data by interviewing people that were part of that era. Alas, the second World War came along and all the collected documents were lost and Herman de Man had other priorities after losing his family. K. Norel took over and had to start from scratch again3. So, even the story behind the book is interesting. It is out of print, but over the course of time, had several reprints. You will find it in most second hand book stores and markets. You will even find copies online4.
I do have my own copy, but am reluctant to lend it out, as I am very attached to it. It was handed to me personally by my grandmother. As a twelve year old girl, she was the nanny at the Volker family to take care of Adriaan’s descendants in the mansion that is now the National Dredging Museum. She received this picture for her services. So, there you have it: my personal connection to one of my hero’s in the dredging industry.

Happy reading! Enjoy your holiday. Best wishes for the new year.

Volker children (Credit: Henk Swijnenburg)

References

  1. Adriaan Volker
  2. Koninklijke Volker Wessels Stevin
  3. Geschiedenis van Mannen van Sliedrecht
  4. Mannen van Sliedrecht online for sale

See also

Nationaal Baggermuseum