Monday, October 9, 2006

Power of words

This is an extract from 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). Further extracts can be found here. To see a review of the book in The Independent click here.

Rudyard Kipling described words as “the most powerful drug used by mankind.” They are the bridge between peoples’ minds. The means of communicating thoughts which otherwise might be trapped in the imagination. They are a means of bringing us together. However, the very fact of using such man-made tools can in itself limit the experience. This was illustrated by Italo Calvino in Invisible Cities in which Kublai Khan asks Marco Polo why he had not talked about his home, Venice. Marco Polo replied that: “Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased…perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all 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 that way 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 in searching for anything literal. Often in these circumstances it is useful to look at the origin of words, where echoes of the thoughts of past generations are found. In Walking on Water, Andy Martin discusses the myriad means which Lorrin Andrews provides for he’enalu, the Hawaiiann word for surfing, in her Dictionary of the Hawaiian Language. He says that it splits into two words, he’e and nalu. He’e means among other things, to run, flow, slip glide and also to flee as well as to ride a surfboard. Nalu means among other things to suspend one’s judgment, to think within oneself, to search after any truth or fact, as well as the surf as it rolls in upon the beach. So, too, with the Hawaiian greeting Aloha which Drew Kampion in Stoked!: A History of Surf Culture, says is broken down literally as alo, meaning “experience” and ha meaning “breath of life”.

It can also be useful to look to poetry as a method of evoking meaning, for example, the following words from William Blake, 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 echoes Rachel Carson who said: “In every outthrust headland, in every curving beach, in every grain of sand there is the story of the earth.”

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