Interview: Charles O. Pilkey and Orrin H. Pilkey on Lessons from the Sand

Co-authors Charles O. Pilkey and Orrin H. Pilkey talk with Marisa Vitulli about their new book, Lessons from the Sand: Family-Friendly Science Activities You Can Do on a Carolina Beach.


Lessons from the Sand: Family-Friendly Science Activities You Can Do on a Carolina Beach, by Charles O. Pilkey and Orrin H. PilkeyQ: Who is the primary audience for this book?

Charles Pilkey: The book is intended for families with kids up to middle school age. We hope parents will do the activities together with their children.

Orrin Pilkey: We also think that the activities herein are a goldmine for high school students doing science projects. The activities could give older kids a start, and they can follow up and proceed into the wild blue yonder as far as their imagination will carry them.

Q: Orrin, in the past, you’ve worked on projects for adults. What inspired you to tailor this one for younger readers?

OP: There is so little written about the real science of beaches, and kids need to appreciate beaches beyond being places to play miniature golf. This book is unique in its scientific basis. I’ve led a number of field trips to the beach for children, and I love their curiosity and willingness to learn. I’d guess 90% of the activities are concerned with things most children will miss altogether. It’s easy to see why because a beach is such a fun place. I also have two 12 year-old grandchildren and a great grandchild (amazingly, all are above average in everything!). These are my inspirations.

Q: How does this book work for families with children of different ages?

CP: Some of the more advanced activities in chapter 8, which measure salinity, use microscopes, and involve Google Earth maps, might be more suitable for older kids. Middle school and high school students, with a little fine-tuning, could expand many activities into high school science projects.

Q: Speaking of family, Charles, you did the illustrations and wrote most of the activities for Lessons from the Sand, and, Orrin, you wrote the activities connected to barrier islands and beach features. What was it like working as a father-and-son team?

CP: I’ve worked with my father on other books but only as an illustrator. This is the first time we’ve collaborated as writers. A little over half the activities I wrote on my own. For most of the others, especially those in chapters 2 and 4, my father wrote a rough outline, which I then expanded into a full activity. When an activity was finished, he checked it for scientific accuracy. The system worked well.

Q: Lessons from the Sand is organized into sections of activities and science experiments instead of traditional explanatory chapters. Why did you choose this particular format, and how would you like the book to be read?

CP: Kids learn best by doing. We decided an activity approach with a minimum of lecturing would be more inspiring than traditional pedagogy. I like to think of the book as a door through which young minds can pass and discover on their own the beauty and scientific wonders of a Carolina beach. Lessons from the Sand was designed to be as much an aesthetic experience as an intellectual one (hence the illustrations and literary quotes). All too often, the beauty in nature tends to be overlooked by traditional science texts. As stated in the “How to Use This Book” chapter, the activities do not have to be done from start to finish in numerical order. Better the readers skip around, choosing those activities that are most interesting.

Q: Do families need to bring any special equipment with them to the beach in order to do these activities?

CP: Families need to bring the following special equipment to the beach: imagination, curiosity, patience, and eyes that can see the world in a fresh way. Of course, they will need a microscope to look at plankton and a hydrometer to measure salinity. For some activities, families can improvise if lacking the required items (as listed under “What You Need”). For example, if no orange or timepiece is on hand for Activity 4 “Longshore Currents,” you can get a rough idea of current velocity by observing how fast bubbles or driftwood move in the surf and compare that velocity to how fast or slow someone can walk.

Q: In the book, you talk about your own family outings by the sea. When you were designing and illustrating these activities, were there any vacation memories that led to certain experiments being included?

CP: “Plankton” (Activity 36) was inspired by a Cub Scout camping trip on the USS Yorktown (not recommended for claustrophobes!). The trip included an oceanography class in which the scouts examined plankton under a microscope. The opening story for “Fossils” (Activity 26) is based on what actually happened one afternoon on Myrtle Beach while my son and I were hunting for fossil sharks’ teeth. I got the idea for “Beach Tracker” (Activity 18) after finding bobcat tracks on Huntington Beach. “Night” (Activity 40) came from several unrelated experiences, all revelatory of some of the cool (but largely unknown) things you can see on a beach after sunset: green flashes glimpsed from a Hawaiian beach; ghost crabs huddled in their burrows, illuminated by a flashlight on Shackleford Banks; phosphorescence glowing in the waters off Atlantic Beach (NC); camping on a Costa Rican beach only to be rudely awakened by a pair of coatis, crawling over my sleeping bag in the dead of night.

Q: Do either of you have a favorite activity from the book?

CP: My favorite activity is “Murder Mystery” (Activity 30). It’s fun and playful but illustrates an important point: a shell is more than a pretty object. It’s part of a once-living animal that competed fiercely with other animals for limited resources. The activity lifts the veil off the face of the world, revealing the underlying reality of nature, which is, as Tennyson noted, “red in tooth and claw.”

OP: I love “Shell Orientation” (Activity 25) because it involves both observation and experimentation (dropping shells in the surf zone), and there is a real and solid conclusion. It is also a fairly simple one but it still requires some exercise and effort. It also illustrates a beach process.

Q: Orrin, you point out that beaches from Maine to Florida are vastly different landscapes with diverse kinds of plant life and sand. How can the book’s activities be adapted to work on the beaches of other states? 

OP: No adaptation is needed. Of course, the vegetation in dunes is very different, but, on the beach proper, there is a great deal of sameness. In fact, I have visited beaches on all seven continents, and this book could, in significant part, be used almost anywhere there is a sandy open-ocean beach. The exceptions are wave and current activities like those in chapter 1. They can’t be applied on rocky or gravelly beaches (although the activities in the book might give some hints for activities on those kind of beaches).

Q: How will these activities explore the effects of beach erosion and the part we play in this harmful process?

OP: Some activities directly address erosion and how to spot it on a calm summer day. And the processes talked about in the book are the processes that cause erosion. For example, longshore currents, which readers will measure, are the vehicle for both benevolent and damaging sand transport. Activities like the ones in chapter 7 also include looking at seawalls and groins and other artificial constructions—always a bad thing for the beach but sometimes a good thing for cottages.

Q: What can users of this book do to protect our beaches?

CP: The best thing you can do to protect beaches is to change your lifestyle: reduce your use of plastic; don’t drive on the beach, etc. Lead by example and tell others how to do the same. You can also join one of the many environmental organizations listed at the end of the book.

Q: What was the most challenging aspect of putting this project together?

CP: Illustrating with color pencils (something I’ve been doing since early childhood) is as easy as riding a bike, as easy as breathing. Writing, alas, is a painfully slow and tedious process, rather like extracting a deep splinter with dull tweezers. Some say this is due to my being a perfectionist—it’s not my fault the rest of the world is so sloppy! But I think it’s intrinsic to the writing process. Yeats compared writing to scrubbing a kitchen pavement “on your marrow bones, like a pauper.” How my father could write more than forty books is beyond comprehension. And how writers can possibly make a living is a still greater mystery.

OP: I felt the fact that many Carolina beaches are nourished and thus have “unnatural” beach sand made our task more difficult. The activities that involved measurements required some thinking about how to do them meaningfully but simply.

Q: After reading this book, I was struck by just how much at the beach I had taken for granted. If you could pick one theme, lesson, or impression that your readers should take away with them after reading Lessons from the Sand, what would it be?

CP: The most important theme of this book is that beaches are not inert, wave-washed piles of sand. They are the homes, food sources, and nesting areas for uncountable species, both large and small. Moreover, beaches constantly shift through time according to the rhythms of wind, tide, and climate change. Therefore, tread softly on the beach, for you tread on the homes of others. Build softly, for you build on unstable ground. A second theme or subtheme for the book is how science advances through observation, inquiry, and experiment (i.e., the scientific method).

OP: I agree with Charles’s beautiful writing on this point. The beach is one of the world’s most dynamic environments, both biologically and geologically, and one of the most unstable.

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Charles O. Pilkey is an artist and writer living in Mint Hill, North Carolina. Orrin H. Pilkey is James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of Earth Sciences at Duke University and coauthor of How to Read a North Carolina Beach. Their book, Lessons from the Sand: Family-Friendly Science Activities You Can Do on a Carolina Beach is now available.