I believe in the power of nature to temper the hubris at the core of my soul. I believe in natural forces so awesome and mysterious they have obliterated my own sense of ego and shown me the face of things that are eternal and enduring. As a child of California’s beaches, I have spent my life, working and playing around nature’s most wondrous, and dangerous, bidder: the ocean.
I am a surfer. A part of an odd tribe that exalts in that vast wilderness just beyond the urban world. My earliest steps taken (as the home movies prove) were with my father, in the ocean. Today, as a travel and sports journalist, I write about the ocean in guarded tones. I have seen its playfulness; I have also seen fury and destruction.
The moment when I came to believe, wholeheartedly, in the ocean’s power came on a sunny, cloudless day in September, a long time ago. The Santa Ana winds swept down through California’s scorched valleys, feathering the peaks of a swell generated by a storm tens of thousands of miles away from my home. Even though I was a young man, not yet 20, I had known the ocean for most of my life. I was at ease there. Comfortable. Yet, with the zeal and adrenaline of a young man’s body, I had forgotten the most basic lessons of the wilderness: stay within your limits and never go it alone. Surfers call the result of this hubris: “taking a beating.” The reference is what a wave can do to you physically, but the lessons, when heard, are more profound.
On this day, big and beautiful, and solitary, I dropped into a wave I never should have and was pitched into the monster’s mouth. Sucked back over the falls, I landed on the points of the fins on my own surfboard, driven in just below both calves. I lost feeling in both legs. As the swell poured in unabated, I fought for the shoreline.
For 15 long minutes, I struggled to stay afloat then I gave up, resigned to my fate. When a huge wave inexplicably spit me up on the sand, I looked around in a daze: the wind blew lightly as before, the birds chased each other through the sky, just as before, the sunlight gleamed off the ocean as another wave feathered and broke, just as before. Tread lightly, is the naturalist’s creed: I had nearly drowned, surfing in the Pacific Ocean, and the experience had not left a trace.
Except upon my own beliefs.
The ocean, like most places where man is an alien, is a mysterious, unknowable place that reveals its majesty only through experience. I believe in its power, I believe in its grace, and, paradoxically, on that sunlit California day, I believed in nature as a salvation. I had trifled with the ocean, and it had still thrown me back onto land where I belonged. Go be with your own kind, it had said to me. Help them to understand where you fit in the order of things. So that we can stay friends.