Dancing with Nature: Why Surfing Is Never About Conquering

Tony Butt

by on

Updated 75d ago

You are over a mile out to sea. You are on your own and the surf is a solid 15 feet, with a few bigger sets. You have been monitoring the rainfall patterns for the last month, to make sure the riverflow at the opposite end of the beach was enough to form a channel; otherwise you would have had no hope of getting out the back.

And before you set a foot in the water, you watched it for about an hour, carefully assessing the dynamics of the swell, tide, rips, wind and clouds. It took you about an hour to get past the shorebreak, and about another hour to paddle along the coast to the line up.

Forecast and live cam: Nazare

There's so much in our environment to be thankful for. The burns on a wave feel so small, compartively.

Your senses are on overdrive. You carefully monitor the line up markers; a mountain and a gap in the forest in front; a large white house and a distant hill to one side. You find that there is a slight drift to the north. You cautiously observe the cloud conditions to make sure any rain or fog isn’t going to block those markers in the near future. They are essential safety features as well as being distant reminders of the world you have temporarily left behind.

The sets are coming about every 15 minutes, with five waves in each set and the second or third one the biggest. There are no jet skis, no drones and nobody taking photos. A school of dolphins swims past just before you see a set looming on the horizon. You let the first two waves go. The next one has your name written all over it.

Paddling into position, you are on autopilot. Head down, no going back, no hesitating. You feel the board lifting and accelerating forward and, suddenly, you are on your feet hurtling down the face at a hundred miles an hour.

The light cross-offshore wind is magnified a hundred times up the face. On the way down you notice every bump, crease and contour in the surface of the wave. The journey from the top of the wave to the bottom is over in a split second; and, yet, a million thoughts run through your head. You squeak around the bottom corner, turn up into the middle of the wave, race along for about another 50 metres and ease the board over the back of the wave. You look back towards the place where you took off, which now looks unbelievably far away. Only then do you reflect on what happened. It felt more like you were an observer, watching yourself surfing while the surfing was doing itself. Like a musician who feels like the instrument is playing itself

Only then do you reflect on what happened. It felt more like you were an observer, watching yourself surfing while the surfing was doing itself. Like a musician who feels like the instrument is playing itself.

You don’t have time to feel fear. Your brainpower is fully taken up by the task at hand, so it can’t entertain preoccupations about the future. Neither can it register things like the passage of time, the past, or anything outside your immediate surroundings. Your world has been reduced to the here and now. External things like your Instagram account, the XXL awards, jet-skis, cameras and contests, simply do not exist.

The author of this piece, Tony Butt, in exactly the situation he is describing from more than two decades ago.

The author of this piece, Tony Butt, in exactly the situation he is describing from more than two decades ago.

© 2020 - Jakue.

You do not feel like you are trying to dominate the situation. That would be futile. Instead, you feel like you are part of your surroundings, seamlessly blending in. Not just with the wave itself, but with all the other elements in your here-and-now universe. Anybody watching from the top of the cliff might think you are crazy. You feel like you have come home.

That last point is really important. If you are lucky enough to have experiences like the one above, you will probably find it easy to understand that we humans really are nothing special on this planet. We are just a small part of the workings, no more or less important than the other animals, plants, rocks or bacteria. The concept just creeps up on you. And, before you know it, it becomes so obvious that any other way of thinking seems absurd, almost disingenuous.

But I don’t want to get too lost in philosophy. I wanted to talk about some studies that were made on how doing close-to-nature activities (like riding big waves in remote locations) helps us realise experientially that we are part of nature. And how this, in turn, makes us feel that it is our duty to spread the message that we need to be a bit more humble and stop destroying our environment, before it turns around and destroys us back. It is our duty to spread the message that we need to be a bit more humble and stop destroying our environment, before it turns around and destroys us back

Psychologists have been studying the positive effects of close-to-nature activities for many years. Dr Eric Brymer is one of the world’s leading experts on the subject. He has done some ground-breaking work, particularly when it comes to activities that are, let’s say, a bit more risky than usual.

Back in 2009, Brymer, along with Dr Tonia Gray, published a pioneering study that set the scene for a whole body of further research right up to the present day. Basically, they set out to learn what goes through the minds of people who do dangerous activities in natural environments. They wanted to find out if the popular image of these activities really bears any relation to reality. The popular image is of ‘fearless gladiators cheating death by pitting themselves against nature’, or, perhaps, people with dysfunctional childhoods doing crazy things because they have a death-wish.

What's the forecast this weekend? See HERE

Here, Eric Brymer relates his finding to base jumping but the same premise should be given to surfing too.

Brymer was sure there was more to it than this. He hypothesised that there was a much deeper, spiritual motivation, and that trying to ‘conquer nature’ was the last thing these people had on their minds.

The study was based on carefully designed interviews with a large number of people. The interviewers chose people who, in their own words, “performed activities where a mismanaged mistake or accident would most likely result in serious injury or death”. They included surfers, but also wingsuit flyers, waterfall kayakers and free-solo climbers, with ages ranging from about 30 to 70. Importantly, they weren’t given a clue about the original hypothesis or any preconceived ideas; they were just told to try and express what they felt.

The results were fascinating. They not only confirmed Brymer’s original hypothesis, but they also revealed some other really interesting points. For example, in the participants’ answers there was a distinct lack of referral to the concept of risk or danger. This is in direct contrast to the popular notion that the high risk is the chief motivation for doing it. The participants said that once they were immersed in the task at hand they didn’t feel the danger because they didn’t see their surroundings as a threat. In fact, many felt much safer being out on the mountain or in the ocean than, say, driving on the road or walking around in a city at night.

While still giving the waves, mountains and weather a healthy respect, the partakers didn’t think of them as some kind of unknown, evil force, to be conquered or dominated. They made the point that the environment doesn’t care whether you are there or not – it is totally uninterested in you or your actions. Therefore, the concept of dominating or attaining control becomes meaningless.

Most significantly, there was the continual referral to a feeling of having no choice but to blend in with your environment. It was a feeling of becoming part of nature, instead of trying to challenge nature as a separate entity. Once this concept was accepted, the participants said that it gave them a deep-rooted sense of satisfaction. Some even described it the way some people describe religious experiences – like coming home after being lost.

Even here, when the chips are down at the highest level, it is never a gladiatorial battle. It is there as an action, not as a need to conquer.

Of course, the fact that doing close-to-nature activities makes us feel happy and makes us feel ‘at home’, is not rocket science. As a species, we spent at least 99 per cent of our existence in the natural environment. Every day, we needed to have strategies to avoid being taken out by the forces around us. We needed to find ways of blending in with our environment rather than trying to fight against it. It probably never occurred to us that we were anything but just another part of Nature.

Only recently have we started living in an artificial environment surrounded by human inventions and poor imitations of Nature. Nowadays, not only are we not getting enough excitement in our lives, we are also not doing what we have been genetically programmed to do. No wonder so many people are unhealthy, unhappy and dying of stress-related illnesses.

In Brymer and Gray’s study, some of the participants explained how they had been drawn to environmental activism. People who live in the modern world, but who have been lucky enough to enjoy close-to-Nature activities for most of their lives, usually don’t need to be convinced that we humans are destroying our own natural resources. They often end up wanting to spread the message that we must protect those natural resources before the planet turns around and bites us back.

Some of the people who have the clearest perspective on all this are those who live in societies where ancient traditions are still respected. So-called ‘indigenous’ people who arrived on the continents where they live, thousands of years before we, the European colonisers, arrived there. People who still live closer to Nature than we do, or, at least, still remember how their ancestors lived.

But traditional people are not being listened to. They are, at best, ridiculed or ignored; at worst, slaughtered by hitmen paid by multinational companies. So perhaps it is up to us as ‘action-sports participants’, as a kind of tribe in western society, to spread the message: that happiness doesn’t depend on iPhones, jet-skis, money or status; and the further we detach ourselves from Nature the less chance we will have of understanding how we are destroying it.

We don’t have much time left (not much more than ten years according to the experts – see HERE) to do something about it before the shit really does hit the fan; before ecological suicide and societal collapse become inevitable. For me, personally, as a surfing ambassador and environmental activist, it eclipses everything else I do in my life.