The new Surfer’s Journal arrived recently and more than ever, in this era of digitized peering into palm-sized devices, its glossy pages resonate with glimpses of the surfing life from across the world and over the decades. Authentic and tangible, the Journal always surprises. One essay in particular, titled “Melt That Clock,” by Norris Eppes from Florida, posits that surfing realigns our conception of time.
Acting on the movements of tide, wind and swell, surfers utilize time in a way that is more similar to pre-industrial cultures than the one that the majority of us currently participate in: namely, the culture that structures time into immovable blocks of “productivity,” giving rise to the insipid (if all too true) phrase, “Time is money…”
“Episodic time” versus “time-is-money” are the terms Eppes borrows from the economists, anthropologists and historians he quotes. The notion of surfers using time differently than the rest of mainstream America has been celebrated by the likes of Timothy Leary, the proponent of psychedelics as path-to-enlightenment in the 1960s, as well as Steve Pezman, founder of The Surfer’s Journal. I celebrate it too, I think, when I write about attempting to experience nature and travel as my Irish and Danish ancestors might have, when I sailed my boat down the coast of Baja in “Voyage of the Cormorant.”
Being able to arrange one’s life on “episodic time” instead of “time-is-money time” is of course the very definition of privilege, yet some people – many surfers among them – make real sacrifices to achieve an open calendar, or to do away with calendars entirely. Covid-19 restrictions paradoxically freed-up whole sectors of workers to surf-then-work, which has been great for those of us making surfboards for a living and less-great for those who had already figured-out how to live outside time-punch employment to surf as conditions dictate.
My favorite line from Eppes’ essay is: “Surfing rewires your mind to conceptualize time close to how your ancestors thought about their days.” Yes, indeed! But even with a “regular job,” (of which I’ve had many) there are still opportunities to live “episodically,” particularly through surfing. Whether it’s crack-of-dawn missions to snag a few waves before the shift starts, or paddling out in terrible conditions because it’s the only free time available, some manner of ocean magic is almost always available.
More and more, as I gather in these decades of living, I’m coming to believe that time is elastic: that it’s sometimes squeezed down tight and everything is urgent and stressful, and in other periods it opens up and meanders. But it does seem to go quickly, and I have to remind myself to slow down and savor these years with our little ones at home (especially since at nine and six respectively – they’re not so little anymore).
Ancient sailing technologies and techniques allow me to experience time outside of the technological maw, to glimpse what “whale time” might be like. But I’ve learned that a man alone in an open boat needs community and some level of infrastructure to survive. Wilderness travel is one thing, but a life among loved ones and friends is what sustains me. Still, I remain wary of the toll that “time-is-money time” demands from us to live in a beautiful spot on the coast of California in the 21st-century.
Yearning for a vanished world, a world of small harbors and warm hearths, leaves me homesick for places I’ve never really known (even if I have traveled a bit surfing in misty old Ireland and down in Aotearoa/New Zealand where my people migrated). And I think about how the old ways of being in time seem to have been obliterated by Amazon trucks and the iPhone, and before them by IBM and McDonald’s, and before them by slavery, colonization and industrialization.
This post-post-modern moment, however, is remarkable for the ready communication that the internet provides. It’s a baby-with-the-bathwater thing when it comes to the perils of technology in the present day, since I can read what @saf_te_pia, a man of Maori descent, posts on Instagram about the legacies of colonialization even as my attempts at the impossible task of knowing the world as it was before have only left me with questions.
Specifically, how might my Anglo-Irish ancestors have migrated from West County Cork to Patea, Taranaki – the home of Ngati Ruanui Maori – without participating in (British) state-sanctioned violence? How might great-great grandfather John Beamish and uncle Allyen and all the others like them have gone down to the other side of the world and adapted into the existing society, perhaps making a new people, mixed of Polynesian and European skills and knowledges?
These “new people” do exist of course, mixed through and through. Combat has defined human existence, but if we care at all about subjugation of people, of the natural world, of the “old ways,” then we are obliged to understand the past and do something to make it right again. Nature regenerates given half a chance. And I think that cultures can regenerate too. It’s all the same stuff: plants, people, animals, soil, river, sea and sky. Conceptions of time – “episodic” or “time-is-money” – create ways of being. From here on out we’ll do well to utilize aspects from both ways of thinking, ancient and modern.