The drive to build such fleeting structures as sand castles must satisfy some ancient urge.
Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, which is a fancy way of saying that children are barbarians. I see this every summer at the beach when my kids build sand castles.
The younger the child, the more primitive the architecture. Joel, who is six, favors the ancient motte-and-bailey design: a mound surrounded by a wall. As the Saxons knew, it was relatively quick and easy to build. On a beach you can scrape one up in a couple of minutes, using dry sand. Recently Joel discovered an interesting variation, in which he dug all the sand for the walls out of the middle, creating a shallow depression he could fill with water from his bucket, then get in and splash around. Sort of a fortified wallow.
Nine-year-old Danny has evolved a more sophisticated sand castle, like those built by the Normans who conquered the Saxons. The simple mound has become a powerful keep, its frowning battlements decorated with clamshells and driftwood. The outerworks — a curtain wall with towers — are connected to the keep by an ingenious system of tunnels and walled roads, and the whole is protected by a moat teeming with man-eating hermit crabs.
It’s not so easy to get Liza, 12 going on 20, to build a sand castle. The gunpowder of adolescence is rapidly rendering such fortifications obsolete. But in unguarded moments she will conjure up 19th-century confections like those of mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, all crenellations and fairy-tale romance, or experiment with the drip-castle’s surreal rococo ornamentation.
I no longer build sand castles, but serve as design consultant and laborer. My biggest contribution is to insist that my children always build at low tide. An unbesieged fortress is a boring thing. The fun is in the frantic, doomed battle with the oncoming waves — plugging holes, digging diversion ditches, dealing with sudden lunges from the flanks. Inevitably, the Huns breach the walls, the Mexicans swarm into the Alamo, and the gallant defenders are overwhelmed. An hour after the last man has fallen, all that’s left is a low mound and perhaps the ruins of a wall — a mystery for some archaeologist, walking his dog at sunset, to ponder.
Excerpt from “Castles in the Sand,” Yankee Magazine, July 1989.