Tuesday, January 2, 2007

The meaning of surfing

Parts of this article will appear in 'Why Lawyers Should Surf'' (co-authored with Dr Michelle Tempest) which is now available on Waterstone's website here or can be ordered from XPL Publishing on 0870 079 8897 (p&p is included). Extracts from the book can be found here. To see a review of the book in The Independent click here.

If the ocean is the earth’s heart, then the tides are its steady beat. Surfers spend hours sitting on their boards rising and falling with the waves and marching to and from the surf in time with the tides. It is no wonder then that many describe surfing as itself a religion. Others, such as Tom Blake, one of the fathers of modern surfing, described nature as God. Still others would say that nature was a revelation of the glory of God.

The human connection with the ocean is primeval and touches the very depths of our souls. Evolutionists might suggest that it has something to do with the fact that all species originated in the sea. Biblical references might be made to the first paragraph of the Bible in which it was said that “the spirit of God moved across the waters”, to Noah and the great flood, Moses and the parting of the Red Sea, Jonah and the whale and even Jesus himself walking on water. Psychologists on the other hand might suggest that it is due to our time in the womb or the fact perhaps that like the earth itself we are made of around 90% water. As Goethe put it, “All is born of water; all is sustained by water.”

Rudyard Kipling described words as “the most powerful drug used by mankind.” However, the very act of using such man-made tools can in itself limit the experience. This was illustrated by the explorer Marco Polo who reported that when Kublai Khan asked him why he had not talked about his home, Venice, he replied that:

“Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased…Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice at once, if I speak of it. Or perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little.”

To some extent, surfers feel like that about surfing. Trying to objectify the experience into mere words risks diminishing the feeling. It simply exposes the limitations of words themselves. To try and grasp at its essence is to grasp at thin air if one is searching for anything literal. It is perhaps only in poetry and the evocation of life’s mysteries that one can approach the essence of surfing with any accuracy. The following words from William Blake, for example, in many ways get a lot closer to describing surfing than simply talking about riding down the face of a wave:

“To see the World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.”

This was echoed by the words of Rachel Carson when she said, “In every outthrust headland, in every curving beach, in every grain of sand there is the story of the earth.” As far back as 1777, words were showing their limitations in the face of the breaking wave when in an account of the voyages of Captain James Cook, it was said of canoe surfing:

“I could not help concluding that this man felt the most supreme pleasure while he was driven on so fast and so smoothly by the sea”.

For it is far more than pleasure. It is a connection with nature, the world, with God. Some might say it is love itself. It is a sense of timelessness, of other worldliness yet at the same time as connected to this world as it is possible to be. In The Four Quartets, T.S.Eliot describes “the still point of the turning world”:

"At the still point of the turning world…
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
The inner freedom from the practical desire,
The release from action and suffering, release from the inner
And the outer compulsion, yet surrounded
By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving,
…both a new world
And the old made explicit, understood
In the completion of its partial ecstasy."


To use an image from Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the still point is like the axis on a wheel, never moving whilst all around is action. Alternatively, one could look to the physics of surfing and recognise that despite appearances the water merely rises and falls. It does not move forward with the wave but instead simply transmits the energy on. Further still, the atom remains constant whilst the quantum energy never ceases.

Perhaps it is that our minds, our very beings always return to the sea, to our roots. Rachel Carson said:

"For all at last return to the sea –
To Oceanus, the ocean river.
Like the ever-flowing stream of time,
The beginning and the end"


Perhaps that’s the point. Just as all the rivers flow inexorably towards their ultimate source, the ocean, perhaps our lives equally flow back towards their beginnings. The meanderings merely part of the journey. T.S.Eliot wrote in The Four Quartets:

“In my beginning is my end…
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”


The ocean as the metaphor to explore life, our relationships with each other, love, God. The ocean as a conduit. Without form and void and yet a connection to something greater, something we can only imagine in the fringes of our thoughts. The ocean as the depths of our subconsciousness. In The Face of the Deep, Thomas Farber said:

“When we look out at the vast blue, we see not ocean, exactly, but surface: master trickster, chameleon, boundary between water and atmosphere, barrier or seal between two realities. Undulating, dancing, bending, stretching, reflecting on each side the world it faces while obscuring the other. From above, the illusion that reality remains the same as far as the mind can see, that even the other side of the mirror is more of the familiar, if distorted. Still, what’s concealed makes itself deeply felt—we know there’s more than meets the eye.”

The breaking wave as the boundary with the conscious mind, the route into the subconscious. Jung’s anima and animus in one. The guide to the subconscious. The light to the shadow. The wave as a gift from God. As love itself.

Perhaps it is something to do with the timeless quality of the ocean. The fact that whilst it never remains the same, it appears on the surface to be unmarked by the ravages of time. Mountains, valleys, living creatures. They all bow to time’s dominion. The ocean on the other hand appears as a constant. As Henry David Thoreau said:

“We do not associate the idea of antiquity with the ocean, nor wonder how it looked a thousand year, as we do of the land, for it was equally wild and unfathomable always.”

However, just because its physical appearance on the surface does not change, that is not to say that events do not take their toll and this is perhaps never more clearly illustrated than the present day when the ocean is being polluted to such an extent that many forms of sea-life are now struggling to survive.

Water’s memory is more subtle but no less profound. Perhaps again, a symbol of the subconscious. A.R.Ammons, “The very longest swell in the ocean, I suspect, carries the deepest memory.” Keats, “Wide sea, that one continuous murmur breeds along the pebbled shore of memory!” Bill Green in Water, Ice and Stone:

“I remember what [Linus] Pauling had written about water. I…was utterly taken by the mystery of it: how water retained, like a childhood memory, a trace of its past as ice. How it never forgot that. How it carried that singular fact with it – in its bonds and structures, in its very being – all the way to boiling point, to where it no longer existed as a liquid. It was water’s memory that explained to much. That explained everything, really.”

The voice from our souls, our relationship to the world around us, the meaning of life. To ignore these deep murmurings is to turn away from life itself, just as it is to turn away from the sea. Edith Sitwell once wrote:

"What are you staring at, mariner man
Wrinkled as sea-sand and old as the sea?”


As we sit out the back and quietly wonder we understand. We can feel the connection even if we all struggle quite to put it into words.

The above photographs were taken by and are copyright of Dr Michelle Tempest.

1 comment:

Tiago Grosso said...

Hi! Nice blog!!! Check out mine. http://algarvesurfphotos.blogspot.com