Shannon Garden-Smith

The passage of time
Is flicking dimly up on the screen
I can't see the lines
I used to think I could read between
Perhaps my brains have turned to sand

Brian Eno, “Golden Hours” (1975)

“Sand is basically always a metaphor. It’s a metaphor for time. It’s a metaphor for infinity and unquantifiability,” opines poet Ariana Reines in an interview about her 2019 book, A Sand Book. She continues, “And, that’s weird because it means, in somes ways, it’s like the background of an idea that we can’t really get clear on…. It’s like the negative space of reality. Something happening to us right now, something happening to us all the time somehow becomes the foreground.” A few minutes earlier Reines relayed how two thirds of the earth’s land mass is desertifying. Desertification wiped out the ancient civilization of Sumer, she tells, and it’s a cataclysmic situation today according to many scientists. 1

The notion that so much land is becoming desert would seem at odds with Business Insider’s report that “the world is running out of sand.”2 Scholar of architectural history and theory Mark Jarzombek offers some insight, writing in e-flux last year, “Architecture today is addicted to four basic products: steel, concrete, glass, and plastic. Each is a figure in the hyper-industrial world in which we live. We are living in the golden age of the Quadrivium Industrial Complex.”3 Of these four products, sand is the primary component of two, concrete and glass (now the cheapest surface for cladding buildings). But, desert sand is unfit for these production purposes—it’s particles too round. Only the sand bourne of thousands and thousands and thousands of years of rain pelting mountain rock, only the sand found in the bottom of river beds and oceans is usable in this golden age. 4

A few months ago, I shared a physical iteration of this collection of shoe print images with Amish Morrell. He wondered if I’d heard of the 11,000-year-old footprints found in a layer of blue clay near Hanlan’s Point in Toronto? The ancient prints were discovered by crews constructing a waterworks tunnel in 1908 and promptly obliterated—covered over with concrete because of pressure to complete the job speedily. 5

I started taking the photos several months after returning to Toronto, not knowing why. The shift back to the city was difficult. My body and brain fell back into well-worn routines of exhaustion, and awash in the blue-light of work emails, I felt unmoored, my capacity for thought stymied. I was being worked and working myself into the ground, but I’d started a job which had me sharing an office with Anthropologist Emily Hertzman whose presence and conversation was deeply vitalizing. She wondered if I lived high up in an apartment building? Her partner was ill at ease living in highrises. He and generations of his ancestors had lived in a house that kept them rooted to the earth. 

During that time, I would run, inevitably late, to a bus each morning, then a subway car then another to do my job until sundown before heading to a studio space nestled deeply downtown with a prominently displayed development proposal placard that threatened eviction at any moment. Somehow, within this untenable routine, I became attuned to the ground. The chance imprints of my fellow city perambulators preserved in sidewalk cement or roadpaint appeared in the minutes between my work. Sometimes I walked past a print hundreds of times, invisible until the light was just right when it would suddenly materialize, arresting me in a moment of pedestrian sublimity.

There’s a particular kind and time of day that’s best for print watching. While a sun high in the sky will work, diffuse amber light at the end of the day is best; a slice of time photographers call golden hour. It’s also the name of one of my favourite Brian Eno songs, “Golden Hours,” which appears on an album that isn’t fully “ambient,” but feels on the cusp of it. Eno extended the concept of ambient from Erik Satie’s “furniture music”—music that doesn’t exactly need to be listened to. A background happening all the time, it "mingle[s] with the sound of the knives and forks at dinner." 6

To be clear, my moments of print-spotting rapture are ever so momentary. It’s strange and mildly dangerous to stop abruptly on a busy city sidewalk or in the middle of an intersection to catch them. I’ve learned to keep moving until it’s safe to double back, and even then I need to take the picture quickly. As last winter began to wane, my print-seeking intensified; we lost the studio. With sand-brain intuition, I kept accumulating these indexes of touch cast under the shifting countenances of the sun. I wondered what they had to do with the ground really, with geological time; they seemed to share a specious likeness with the archeological. Like trace fossils, they preserve the movement of bodies, but they seemed counterfeit, somehow, in their relative contemporaneity. The concrete surfaces too fast.

“I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour,”7 writes Rebecca Solnit. Only now, on these newly decelerated walks has the temporal alchemy underfoot, the conundrum of timescales, the exquisiteness of sand that is everywhere—its non metaphorical infinitude profaned—become thinkable.

1 Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 22 Aug. 2019, Accessed 1 May 2020.
2 Ludacer, Rob. “The World Is Running out of Sand - and There's a Black Market for It Now.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 11 June 2018,

3 Jarzombek, Mark. “The Quadrivium Industrial Complex.” e-Flux, 2019,

4 Ludacer, Rob. “The World Is Running out of Sand - and There's a Black Market for It Now.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 11 June 2018,

5 Scrivener, Leslie. “The Enigma of Lake Ontario's 11,000-Year-Old Footprints.” The Toronto Star, 23 Nov. 2008,
6 Radcliffe, Mark. Crossroads: In Search of the Moments That Changed Music. Canongate Books, 2019,

7 Solnit, Rebecca. Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Granta Books, 2014.