The rise and fall of quicksand.

The state of the universe.
Aug. 23 2010 9:08 AM

Terra Infirma

The rise and fall of quicksand.

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So when was the gimmick at its peak? In the 1960s, quicksand was everywhere. It turned up in B-grade cinema and television—the Monkees once ran afoul of it—but also in legitimate, mainstream work. Lawrence of Arabia had quicksand and earned seven Oscars. There was even quicksand in the art house: The hero of Woman in the Dunes, a 1964 blast of existentialism from Japan, spends much of the movie trapped in a sand pit. (He escapes at one point, only to fall into quicksand.) In total, nearly 3 percent of the films in that era—one in 35—showed someone sinking in mud or sand or oozing clay. Compared with every decade before or since, quicksand ruled the screen.

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It's fitting that one of the earliest known depictions of quicksand comes from one of the earliest known comic strips—a 230-foot-long piece of linen embroidered with wool yarn nearly 1,000 years ago. The Bayeux Tapestry depicts the events leading up to the Norman Conquest, and in one panel, Harold, later King of England, pauses to rescue a pair of soldiers who have become trapped in the mud near Mont St. Michel.

Five hundred years later, the image of quicksand had become commonplace in European literature. In TheFaerie Queene, Spenser placed it "by the checked wave … and by the sea discolored: It called was the Quicksand of Unthriftiness." Shakespeare described his Clarence as "a quicksand of deceit." By 1727, the stuff had become so popular that Alexander Pope referred to it in his treatise on "The Art of Sinking in Poetry"—an ironic guide to the depths of literary expression. His recipe for epic verse tells how to sketch a tempest: "Mix your clouds and billows well together till they foam, and thicken your description here and there with a quicksand."

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During the Age of Discovery, quicksand lived on ocean coastlines, not in the jungle or beneath the dunes. (Spenser and Shakespeare put theirs alongside "a whirlpool of hidden jeopardy" or between the "ruthless sea" and a "ragged fatal rock.") It was, in its literal sense, a maritime hazard: European ships might be trapped in the shoals of new continents. But the saltwater peril stood in for more figurative anxieties: Explorers who ventured around the globe might disappear into a foreign landscape, gone native or something worse. Mutton-chopped Brits were being engulfed by African wilderness; the spread of civilization came with a fear of getting stuck.

For Americans, too, quicksand had a way of showing up when we pushed our borders into the unknown. The more conspicuous the entanglement, the more likely we were to visualize it as a real-world danger: In the 19th century, sinkholes dotted the literature of manifest destiny and the untamed West; in the 20th century, quicksand took over at the movies while the nation fought a colonial war in a vine-filled jungle overseas.

The use of soil dynamics as a metaphor for Vietnam began early in the 1960s. Lucien Bodard's The Quicksand War was first published in 1963; two years later, peacenik pamphleteers decried the "Quicksand in Vietnam." And in the spring of 1965, David Halberstam finished his influential account of U.S. policy, The Making of a Quagmire. While images of quicksand proliferated on the silver screen, intellectuals debated "the quicksand model" and "the quagmire myth" of U.S. policy in the pages of the New York Review of Books and elsewhere. (The two words— quicksand and quagmire—are etymologically distinct but were used interchangeably at the time.) There was even some real quicksand—the literal kind—associated with Vietnam: In 1967, the AP reported that an Army Private had been awarded a medal for heroism after pulling his sergeant from a deadly quicksand pit.  

Indeed, the fear of quicksand was so entrained in the nation's psyche that it seems to have infected another grand project of U.S. expansion—the voyage to the moon. A group of scientists led by Cornell astronomer Thomas Gold and NASA mathematician Leonard Roberts warned that the lunar surface might be so battered by galactic flotsam as to comprise a dangerous, powdered sand. Their theory—which predicted doom for a lander—was presented to the Senate in 1963. Two years later, Gold told reporters, "If I were at the controls of an Apollo vehicle hovering over the moon, I would not be willing to settle down for fear it would sink too much." (Lunar quicksand made it into the movies, too—an astronaut gets pulled under in the 1960 film 12 to the Moon.)

Did Hollywood quicksand offer some catharsis, then, by giving form to the nation's colonial anxieties? Or did quicksand somehow flow in reverse, from the movie gag to the metaphor? The obsession with sinking in all its varieties—cinematic, metaphorical, astronomical—may reflect something deeper still: a sense of upheaval and a search for steady ground. On Aug. 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial: "Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood," he said. In an era of radical change, the perils of muck and dust must have seemed self-evident. The landscape was shifting beneath our feet.

Excerpt from the "I Have a Dream" speech, 1963

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If we can explain the rise of quicksand by lumping it in with hula hoops, the Apollo missions, and other icons of the 1960s, then we've answered just half the question. What explains quicksand's fall? Is this a story of natural selection—an idea, once so well-adapted to its environment, that lost its niche? We know the gag limped its way through the 1980s, beyond Vietnam and through the end of the Cold War. Was this merely its dwindling path to extinction? Or did something else hasten its demise?

The quicksand fans have their own theories, of course. "The mystique of quicksand faded with the sophistication and urbanization of the country," explains one longtime member of the community who asked to remain anonymous. In his teenage years, "Jesse" set off in search of deep mud on an almost weekly basis. His favorite destinations were the outdoor quarries where sand is washed and prepared in giant hollow berms hundreds of feet long and 30 feet deep. "These areas were my own personal Disneyland, where I acted out scenes created in my imagination."

Such imaginative games were more accessible to children from rural areas, he suggests; the fantasy of wilderness peril makes more sense if you grew up near the wilderness. Quicksand, then, might be another victim of urban sprawl. It's true that the spread of American cities into the countryside does overlap, more or less, with the decline of the adventure gag. More than 10 million acres of forest were turned into buildings, lawns, and pavement over the course of the 1980s and 1990s. At the start of quicksand's halcyon era, one-third of Americans were living in the suburbs. By 1990, when the gag was nearly done for, that number had grown to one-half.  

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