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.

(Continued from Page 4)

In any case, it's trivial to say that science has "debunked" quicksand. If anything, recent work on unstable granular media has revealed a far more diverse and complex set of phenomena than anyone imagined. Traditional scientific accounts describe just one type—the classic "artesian quicksand" shown in the MythBusters episode. That's ordinary sand that has been saturated with upwelling moisture: Given enough water, the sand liquefies, and the grains start to flow like a viscous fluid. But in the past 10 years or so, physicists have started looking at more interesting formations of sediment, in places where grains of sand or clay are assembled in delicate, latticelike structures. Step in one of these, and it collapses like a house of cards—before reforming in a dense pack around your feet. Researchers now debate evidence of dry desert quicksands and treacherous pits of powdered snow. The physicist Dirk Kadau has described so-called "living quicksands" on the shores of drying lagoons in Brazil. There's even quicksand in grain silos, where several dozen U.S. farm workers perish every year, drowned in flax or millet.

The new science of quicksand doesn't have to be a killjoy for adventure stories. If anything, they should enrich the gag with fresh possibilities. In real life, pools of mud are as weird and dangerous as ever.

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In the scorching midday heat of late July, Michael Bloomberg stopped in at a playground in lower Manhattan. The press sat in plastic chairs arranged in rows on a bed of spongy turf; behind the mayor's podium was an array of brightly-colored pipes and jumbo phonograph horns. Over to his right was an enormous sand pit, spread over two levels and 3,000 square feet, with a fountain in the middle. "This is one of the most spectacular and unique playgrounds in the world," the mayor said.

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After five years of preparation and research, the city was opening its brand-new, $7.5 million "Imagination Playground"—a project designed by architect David Rockwell and widely seen as the harbinger of a fresh philosophy of child recreation. "We've encouraged using sand and water to make mud," Rockwell tells me as we watch two boys from the YMCA roll a wheelbarrow toward a table specially designed for creating muck. "The city is committed to having more sandboxes," he says. (In fact, the number has already increased by 25 percent since the mid-1990s.) "They see this as kind of a pilot."

If the sandbox is coming back, could quicksand be far behind?

In other ways, too, the time may be right for a renewed preoccupation with sinking. The country faces a lingering conflict overseas; by all accounts, the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have trapped us in a quagmire of rising death tolls and unpaid bills—we've already spent $1.15 trillion, half again as much as Vietnam. (The '60s parallels are mounting: Today's wars have even produced their own version of the Pentagon Papers.) Meanwhile, the quicksands of racial prejudice have lately given way to the gay marriage quicksand.

Photograph of David Rockwell's "Imagination Playground" in lower Manhattan.
David Rockwell's "Imagination Playground" in lower Manhattan

Yet the return of the adventure gag, if not the full-blown anxiety, seems somehow implausible. Haven't we become too interconnected for quicksand's spell to work? There's less fear of getting stuck when every cell phone has GPS and Google Maps, and less room for entanglement when the world is crisscrossed already by a web of information. If quicksand stands in for the antique dangers of far-off lands, it's an analog fear in a digital age.

What about the quicksand fans, then? The Internet ushered in their golden age by helping loners find each other across oceans and mountain ranges and gulfs of shame. Did it also destroy what they love most? It's been a few years since Crypto published a new version of his list; as quicksand disappeared from movies and TV, the quicksand fans gradually shed their nostalgia. These days, they're spending less time digging up classic scenes from the 1960s and more time downloading low-budget quicksand porn—soft-core fetish videos showing female models floundering in bogs and mud pits. Jesse, whose interest in the subject was never sexual, has abandoned the message boards in frustration.

Maybe quicksand has evolved, after all. You won't find it anymore in foreign landscapes or on Hollywood soundstages. Its habitat has shifted. Pools of muck now spring up in the wilds of online fandom or at the woolly corners of the Internet. Members of the quicksand community are at once embroiled in the past and neglectful of it; they have their own movies, after all, and their own sinking adventures to share. A digital tribe has lifted the adventure gag from pop culture and reconfigured it at the center of their social network. Quicksand may be gone from the mainstream, but there's still a place where it exerts its legendary pull.

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Correction, Aug. 23, 2010: This article originally misspelled County as Country in The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.

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