Surfers as Modern Day Transcendentalists

Anderson surfing the Cliffs.

Nearly 200 years ago in the spring of 1845, Henry David Thoreau borrowed an ax and began collecting lumber for his cabin that he intended to build at Walden Pond. For about two years Thoreau lived at Walden Pond and practiced simple living.

He dedicated his life for a couple of years to learning to live off the land with as little as possible, rejecting any sort of luxurious living and argued that the comforts of life served as hindrances to the advancement of mankind. 

It was here at Walden Pond where Thoreau wrote his most celebrated work “Walden Or, Life in the Woods.” Thoreau was a part of a much larger movement at the time known as transcendentalism and his contemporaries included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller and Walt Whitman.

Transcendentalism is the widely celebrated philosophical idea of embracing nature and opposing materialism. Many transcendentalists believed that one could find their spirituality in themselves and through nature, and humans had an inherently good nature but the pitfalls of society and its systems corrupted them. They were considered some of the first environmentalists; they held progressive views on feminism and were abolitionists. 

Today, transcendentalist thought isn’t very widely known or accepted; however, I would argue that transcendentalism is alive and well. Much like how Thoreau rejected society’s constructs and decided to live off the land and appreciate nature, surfers are the largest group of people still implementing this style of living. 

Whether they are aware of it or not, many surfers are living a life that Thoreau and Emerson intended. From the beginning of surf culture in the United States in the 1950s, surfers have been rejecting society’s constructs to live on the beach and chase waves with as little as they possibly need. Thoreau advocated for civil disobedience, which surfers advocate for as well, whether they know it or not. 

Thoreau says in his 1849 essay, “Civil Disobedience,” that “unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?” 

In the 1950s through 1960s, the popular surf spot Trestles in San Clemente was closed off to the public and was an extension of the Camp Pendleton military base. However, this did not stop locals from conquering the waves at Trestles. Men and women hungry for world-class waves would dodge military police and stay out in the water for hours as Marine MP’s stood on the beach waiting to catch them. 

Much like Thoreau said, unjust laws exist and the only way to amend those laws is to break them. Early pioneers of California were practicing civil disobedience without even realizing it. Their distaste for the military’s prohibition of world class waves was so bad they risked arrest for it. 

The surfers’ protest worked. In 1971, Trestles was opened to the public and still remains one of California’s best waves, proving Thoreau’s method of civil disobedience in practice is extremely effective.

Ralph Waldo Emerson is perhaps the most recognized transcendentalist and wrote a great deal of essays in his lifetime. His most renowned work is “Self Reliance,” published in 1841. He says, “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has established for you; the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events.” 

Surfers pride themselves on having individual style. Similar to Emersonian thought, in which he encourages readers to follow their true inner voice, surfing is a form of self expression. Each surfer truly expresses themself on a wave. Some have an aggressive style, others a more fluid and loose one. Self-expression the way Emerson intended is hard to find today, but anyone who paddles out to any surf break can find a variety of forms of self-expression. 

Thoreau was perhaps the best embodiment of Emerson’s idea of following an inner voice and dedicating to non conformity. In Walden’s “Where I Lived And What I Lived For” essay, Thoreau describes why he went to the woods and tried to find meaning in nature: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” 

In love with nature and more particularly the ocean, surfers learn how to live when they are out at sea. Just them, the board and a vast body of water, surfers find peace and identity in the art of surfing. Much like Thoreau, surfers live in a quiet solitude in the ocean. Even someone who goes surfing once a month is still practicing Thoreau’s idea of finding solitude and meaning within nature. Others take this more seriously, completely abandoning their lives to go chase waves and be with nature. Either way, both types of surfers still embody Thoreau’s words. 

Our society longs to forget the words of Thoreau and Emerson. It is so focused on personal advancement and obtaining more things, a better job, or a better house. Many still choose to reject this construct— anyone who gets out in nature, a hiker or rock climber perhaps. The surfer, however, has a special itch to get back out to the ocean. Surfing has provided a rebirth of transcendentalist living. It forces men and women to follow their inner self, reject society’s systems and chase waves. Surfing is special in that way; it brings people an immense amount of happiness and meaning, and I believe that’s what Thoreau wanted us to obtain from experiencing nature. 

Written By: Steve Anderson