The ocean is many things to many people in a symbolic sense, but in a physically concrete context it is the archetypal ancestral home of all biological life on the planet. I make periodic pilgrimages to my Grandcestor the Sea, as occasioned by the prompting of my personal internal chaos quotient's alarm and early warning system.
The Ocean as Lover
Pacific North Coast….0830 hours
The kelp fields are enormous, stretching hundreds of meters off shore in all directions. Eventually descending into the steel blue depths of the cold Pacific, their bulbous heads bow low before each approaching wave as if Neptune’s chariot itself were passing by, each genuflecting with a respectful nod beneath the steaming thunder that attends the passage of his entourage.
The Pacific waters along the California North Coast have an oily, mottled appearance as the glints of morning sun catch the wavetops on each breaker just before it crests. As each line of advancing water rushes higher upon the back of the spent and retreating flood, a deeper brownish hue becomes apparent, reflecting the thick kelp growth that lies just below the surface. How different this is from the deep waters just off the Molokai North Coast, where the white cresting caps of the waves seem to be borne on the shoulders of some immensely powerful giant of shocking cobalt blue, who lives in the unimaginably deep abyss at the foot of the sea cliffs.
Here and there among the buoyant kelp beds a sea otter rises, his identity betrayed by a flitting quicksilver motion that darts beneath the approaching wall of dark gray water. There are a number of these playful creatures rolling among the waves, perhaps an indication of the presence of plentiful food along this part of the coast. Given several centuries of widespread human depredations along this coast, it is little short of miraculous to me that large colonies of sea otter thrive as well as they seem to in this area. Once hunted to near-extinction, they have rebounded with gratifying determination to reclaim their ancestral feasting grounds.
Watching the sea is an endless joy. Nature’s supremely archetypal (and so much more relaxing) inspiration for the television set; with never the same program showing and a cast of uniquely original characters that no screenwriter could ever improve upon, I could sit and watch the sea for hours. That great seething gray mass of fluid energy that is the ocean courses, constantly changing, never in exactly the same manner, and always in unceasing motion. At such moments, snug here in my protected perch above the breaking waves, I am reminded again of the total insignificance of mankind’s impertinent behavior upon its surface, viewed against the vastness of its hidden depths. Two sea gulls wheel in echelon above the crest of a particularly perfect breaker, flying through its frothing banner of mist with casual disdain: it’s hard to improve upon such a brilliantly natural set of interactions and yet we pathetic little beings constantly try, in our fragile and impermanent manner.
In particular, I am reminded of my own laughable efforts to ride those waves on a surfboard, something I have never been good at despite decades of idealistic, wishful desire to be adept at the sport. There’s something almost sacrilegious about trying to ride those perfect waves on a plank that never fails to trip up headlong against my sense of the absurd, as I watch the rollers steam in like so many waves of assault craft taking a beach. Invariably, when I reflect on my own lack of coordination, my awareness rolls inexorably on to those who are adept at sliding on the crests of those waves, for they command the respect of this poor student for the effortless expertise of the learned master.
When I was young, I was caught up (seemingly with half the population under 20) in the adolescent fancy of the ‘Endless Summer’, Bruce Brown’s memorable quest by several teenaged surfers for ‘the perfect wave’. Of course at that time the irony of this phrase (‘the perfect wave’) failed to register on me, since ALL waves are engendered perfect by nature and it is simply more human impertinence to ascribe degrees of perfection to these already perfectly constructed fluid models of inertial mass and stored energy. Despite this fact, the glorious possibilities of the moment, more a projection of my imagination than any figment of inherent reality, exerted their maximal hold on my own dreams of youthful immortality. The dreamy ideal of being one of those bronze gods of the surf, an object of desire to all those bikinied females that adorned the beaches, was at once intoxicating and immeasurably energizing. It seemed the ultimate fulfillment of a teenaged male fantasy to be one of those surfers, each embodied with an exotic mix of graceful strength, alluring desire, and each powerfully sexual in their subtle interactions with the ocean.
In those days we young men dwelt exclusively within the narrow bounds of our own feverishly focused and highly artificial excitements. Surfing was (so we unquestioningly felt, at the time) the exclusive object of vested male prerogative. Women, when we thought about them at all (which was all the time, of course), were relegated to a safely compartmentalized peripheral area of hormonal construct that not only bore no association with reality other than pure gratification of the physical impulse, but to that narrow role they were objectified as being to a rarefied extreme. They were there to serve us as objects of lust, love, visual excitement, and titillation with about as much individual uniqueness and personal reality as hollow glass ornaments on a Christmas tree. It never dawned on us in our most remote mindfulness that a ‘mere female’ could also relate to the ocean in such a highly charged psychosexual manner, or even in a purely platonic manner, for that matter.
For many of us oversexed young men, the ocean itself was a woman; that elusive object of our feverish obsessions that a psychologist could doubtless write whole volumes of field notes about. At the time I recall most clearly, the mid to late 60s, it was considered particularly fashionable (by surfers) to be fancied the solitary, misunderstood outcast, standing on the periphery of human social convention. This unspoken but universally felt angst even found actual expression in that famous song by Jack Nitzsche titled ‘The Lonely Surfer’. There was something so exclusively unique, so inexpressibly solitary in being a lonely surfer that the cachet of mythical exclusivity could almost be worn palpably, like a wetsuit. This sense of being so unique and so solitary that no one could possibly share the feelings underlying the delusion had a cathartic allure to it that appealed to those of us who were able to reflect existentially on the deeply esoteric nature of the surfing experience.
For most male surfers, surfing was of course simply the most fun, the most excitingly physical thing you could do without a woman around to complicate matters with questions centering on love objects. Surfing was pure emotion, but emotion without the constant need to articulate that sexual attraction to the water that translates into so much excitement around real women. For those of us who had far more brains than we should have been equipped with (usually in inverse proportion to our handsomely rugged, masculine good looks), this fantasy of being the waves’ exclusive lover served to ameliorate our disappointment in not drawing swarms of more physically substantial admiring females at the beach, each time we unloaded our cheaply mass-produced, ‘pop-out’ surf boards.
Thus, the lonely male surfer, no matter how close he was to the actual waves, was frequently at the crest of his self-fulfilling fantasy of exclusivity: too sexy and too romantic to be burdened by mere mortal liaisons of the inter-gender variety and too serenely complex to be understood by an ‘ordinary’ woman (a subjective determination that somewhat enabled one to rise above the bothersome questions attendant to an otherwise empty bed at the end of the day, of course). For a good many of us, it served as the most convenient rationalization for explaining why the babes weren’t lined up in queues at the door.
The simple fact that one was either a handsome hunk who didn’t have to do anything to attract woman, or not, probably didn’t even enter into the base level equation, since most of us belonged to the second category of self-imagined demigod and not the first. Therefore, the entirely artificial construct of the lonely surfer served several substantial needs. For one, it helped provide an explanation of why were not all endowed with a natural Brad Pitt sort of physical affect. For another, it conveniently sublimated the eternally frustrating search for sex within an ego-soothing framework of complicated inexplicability, burying the matrix of our narcissistic sense of sexual inadequacies at such a convenient depth of mindfulness that they might as well not exist.
As a man, I cannot even begin to pretend to understand with any exactitude categorical similarities that this process might conceivably share within a female’s awareness, but I can imagine that there were substantial tie-ins, despite any possible variance in awareness of them in the given individual’s conscious thought.
If anything a woman’s range of possible reflections on this subject would have to be far more complex, vastly more subtle in terms of a range of reflective emotions bearing on the relationship one might have with the ocean. This, by virtue of the fact that woman are generally more empathetic with respect for their affective understanding of experiential interactions and intuitive feelings on all levels, than the average male.
While testosterone surges forth towards one great overall objective of sexual coupling and planting of the seed of life’s renewal, estrogen acts in a supportive, complementary mode, providing the protected environment within which that active renewal process may safely take shape and flourish. Thus, for a man, the essential fulfillment of surfing may be a physical battle with the waves to establish subjective control. I can imagine that from a woman’s viewpoint it is less a battle against something than a cooperative effort carried out as a coequal with the waves.
Since men have traditionally been of the opinion that the ‘natural’ roles are for men to dominate and women to nourish, few men can hardly be given credit for understanding that whereas a man’s ride on the waves is likely to be expressed as a demonstration of mastery and fancied control over physical elements, a woman’s ride is likely to be more of a dance with the waves. This state of being is a far more harmonious and complementary status that implicitly presupposes inherently unconscious understanding of the physics of life at a very deep, almost cellular level: action and reaction, mass and inertia, balance and equilibrium. At least on a reflectively intuitive level this is true only to an imprecise and unqualifiable extent, since woman vary just as much as men in their mental/physical make-up from individual to individual.
If one accepts that premise, it induces further complex speculation into the question if a woman is regarded as beautiful or not, since although the same transference process a sexually unsuccessful male might invest in the surfing experience can also apply to a less beautiful female, the experience that a sexually alluring woman has surfing may have an altogether different associative sensory value.
However that may or may not be, there is no surf music written about the ‘lonely (female) surfer’, nor has there ever been written any musical allusion of that sort (to the best of my knowledge). Whatever romantic potential the image of a ‘lonely woman surfer’ has almost strikes one as nonsensical, although I have little doubt that there are a few women surfers who might see themselves through that particular filtered lens of alliterative shading.
One thing that is becoming increasingly clearer, as decades of sub-culture research and social field investigations continue, is that there are no distinct shades of black and white when it comes to categorising male and female personalities in this particular context. It is a sad and frustratingly inconvenient fact that unlike in nature, where distinct physical categorization is more readily accommodated, within the minefield that comprises the infinitely broad range of male and female psychosexuality, there are no set standard guides to help typify one individual from another. The same frustrating status quo that makes the monogamous mating process a perilous undertaking fraught with impossible complexities acts equally to assure that uncertain second-guesses such as this (or of any kind, for that matter) are also doomed to frustrating uncertainty (you will notice that THAT fact seemingly has never deterred me, of course, from a lifelong habit of treading on unstable ground, dancing about on shallow ice, or walking blindly among live figurative land mines!).
Due to this same uncertainty factor, there is therefore no such isolatable and distinctly delineatable thing as the archetypal male or female surfing experience. Every human attempt (such as this one) to concoct a platform of uniform understanding along those lines is doomed to utter failure in even the most basic attempt to explain, definitively analyse, or inalterably set forth the precise nature of what remains perhaps one of the most highly subjective processes imaginable: that definition of what constitutes a genuinely personal individual experience.
The best any of us may hope for is a sort of greatly flawed attempt to explain the true essence of our own experiences, hoping consequently that a few of those highly personal feelings, sensations, understandings, awarenesses, and/or perceptions may strike a familiar note or resonate meaningfully within another individual. This process, at once immensely frustrating yet potentially fulfilling, is as good as a comparing of field notes on ANY human experience may ever aspire to.
Whether you have guessed it or not, all of this ruminative philosophical meandering leads directly (even if by a somewhat highly circumlocuitous path) back to my original reflection on the variations possible in the male and female surfing experience. Do men in fact view surfing as a dominating process wherein they may demonstrate their mastery over the elements? Do woman in fact view their surfing experience as a yang/yin-like Sufist dance with those same elements? Is such a black or white dissection even categorically possible or feasible? Although I suspect I have failed to show convincingly that it is not, the highly romantic nature of such speculating exerts its own fascination and manifests its own inertia in any consideration of such an impossibly complicated analysis.
There is at least no doubt that any human interaction with a fluid medium is inherently sensual by nature, since the sensory aspects of water are at once immediate and obvious. Aside from Freud’s figurative associations of water with the formation of human sexual imagery, the direct neurosensory component of interacting with water is clear and obvious to anyone who cares to observe and reflect on simple cause-effect experience.
Human beings are created and sustained in their pre-birth state suspended in an aqueous environment; there is therefore an immediate association with water among human beings that goes directly back to the womb. If one takes this associative process back several hundreds of millions of years, we eventually stumble across our ancient amphibian ancestors who lived within the oceans and breathed under water before they evolved into land-based, air-breathing forms of life. With such clear physical ties linking us to water on so many levels, it is easier to understand the less tangible and perhaps more figurative associations modern humanity may develop and speculate upon with the ocean.
Back in the 60s, as I stated earlier, men dominated the sport of surfing, having forgotten (or perhaps never realized) that in the most ancient Hawaiian tradition of surfing men and woman shared the waves equally. With the beginning of the 1950s, surfing was being newly rediscovered on the California coast, thanks to a handful of surfers who had brought the sport back to the mainland with them from Hawaii. This resurgence of interest in surfing was largely due to seeds planted by Hawaiian watermen from the turn of the century that took root on foreign shores, inspiring others (non-Hawaiians) to take up the sport, although under the constraints of conservative white American mores and Christian moral codes. There was regrettably very little interest in or awareness of the actual Hawaiian cultural context that produced the sport and it seemed just another venue in which men could demonstrate the virtues of their manly prowess.
Whereas traditional (ancient) Hawaiian morality would be regarded by western Christians as more ‘amoral’ than moral, the simple fact is that in ancient Hawaii both men and women equally enjoyed surfing. There was no inherent bias implied or assumed against women sliding over the waves on boards, and although wave sliding was more of a royal sport than one the commoners enjoyed, all levels of Hawaiian society surfed. Surfing was most often done, in that ancient manner, entirely unclothed. This contrasted utterly and completely with the excessively conservative modesty of western Christians, who had been instructed by their faith (read: Holy Bible) that women were inherently weak and emotionally delicate creatures who could no more gain understanding true ‘adventure’ than they could keep from fainting away at the slightest provocation.
To be sure, there were a few females among the new coastal generation of California surfers who refused to accept the extant social constraints that encouraged male dominance in surfing, but they were marginalized so completely and effectively that today their names are almost completely forgotten by most who follow the sport. It is nevertheless interesting to speculate what exactly constituted the nature of their especially intimate relationship with the sea.
There is the notable example of one well-regarded and accomplished local woman surfer from Oahu whose regard for the ocean of her ‘aina’ can only be described as passionate. In fact for her, the ocean was an incomparable and singular life-giving source of energy renewal, such was the extent of her regard for the ocean from which her ancient culture arose. For most women I would venture to speculate that their relationship was considerably simpler than that.
Consider for the moment that the oceans are the single source from which all life on Earth arose, the primordial soup that nourished the combination of chemicals and minerals from which not just human life, but in fact ALL life on this planet, descended from. Think therefore of the oceans as the great mother of all biological life. I would like to think that this fact is not lost on many women who have the ability to reflect on higher levels. Women who can detach themselves from the dross of squalid, everyday, common life to span the archetypal gap between the concept of the Great Mother Ocean and the nurturing role of mothers everywhere, from the highest to the lowest forms of life around us.
Again, however, everything hinges on the ability of an individual to ascribe value to objects and/or experience. From the straight forward and uncomplicated basic regard for surfing as a physical activity, all the way through the spectrum of possibilities to the distal extreme (a transcendent experience combining both physical and aesthetic intangibles). When the stimulus for regard stems from BOTH the object of regard AND the subject of it, there is far more potential for complex shades of meaningful interaction on both sides of the process, quite understandably.
Thus, a woman surfer who is not just adept at surfing but who is visually pleasing to the eye complicates the potential in a manifold manner.
Returning to the ancient Hawaiians, it is known that surfing was far more than just physical activity to the ancient culture of the islands, for the waves frequently served as a preferred method of matching up those who were attracted to each other. If a man and woman found each other attractive, they would often dance a complicated ballet with each other on their boards, ending the pas de deux by coming ashore and making love to each other fresh from the waves.
There can be few more powerfully symbolic examples of such a naturalistic expression of profoundly raw sexual attraction, at least to my manner of thought, than this mating of a man and woman freshly emerged from the life-sustaining ocean, that greatest symbolic mother of all biological life on the planet.
The Hawaiians understood this, free from any man-conceived moral constraints and unencumbered by Judeo-Christian codes of behavior. Christian society, on the other hand, was tightly bound by strong ethical ligatures arising from their extremely conservative religious beliefs. It was bad enough (by the Hawaiian missionaries’ notion) that men and women cavorted on the waves in the altogether, and in each other’s company; to cap that activity by rutting nakedly on the sand afterwards was the sheerest of profane acts. Sadly, stripped of all the religious mumbo-jumbo behavioral codifications of the Christians, the natural flow of love-making, first by the Hawaiian individuals with the sea and then with each other, had the most beautifully pure logic behind it. Whatever natural and unforced beauty it presented was, of course, sadly missed completely by the newly arrived Christian arbiters of morality.
The act of loving the sea was fully and perfectly reflected in the loving of individuals in the ancient Hawaiian culture, since by the reckoning of the ancient ones, there was no distinct border between the two. Nor, for that matter, was there any need for one, unless a kapu (‘taboo’) had been initiated by royalty for their own secular purposes.
None of these insights, feelings, beliefs, attitudes, or outlooks had been bought to the mainland revival of 1950s/60s surfing along with the vehicle of the surfboard itself. For an apt analogue, think for a moment of a scenario in which an alien culture has landed on Earth at some distant time, and left a vehicle that enabled light-speed travel across the cosmos. With no accompanying context to help place its use in the proper cultural perspective, who knows what humankind might end up doing with it. The same analog could be applied to the migration of the concept of sliding across waves on a board: no moral outlooks, no social codes, no cultural or religious baggage would have attended the fact. As a result, none of the ancient Hawaiians’ regard for the integrity of wave riding as a logical act and extension of love would have obtained on the California coast, although there’s no doubt at all that teenaged surfers did not miss the connection between sexual desire and prowess on the waves. Those who excelled at surfing could sometimes have their pick of the few women who were drawn by the new sport.
To understand the mindset of that relatively ‘square’ era is to understand only to a small extent the accepted mores of the men and women who rode the waves that washed California’s coastline. For one thing, America’s traditionally intense phobia of homosexuality was reinforced by the strict moral codes that dominated early 50s American culture. Sensuality and natural sexuality were seen only as sinful social aberrations and not as healthy manifestations of the youthful individual’s exuberant joy of life. Following that logic, it is natural that the surfboard acquired a contextually appropriate (Christian American) place in American culture of the 50s and 60s that reflected none of the fully lifestyle-integrated intrinsic values of the culture that gave it to us (Hawaii).
Therefore, as the sport of surfing reestablished itself in the new cultural surroundings (California’s coast), it is safe to say that surfing assumed an almost entirely new social identity in America.
Malama pono, Kalikiano