Evolution, expiration, the gods, and wave riding as viewed from a tropical seawall.

Light / Dark


Dave Rastovich: great Australian surfer, bright spirit, environmental activist. Very blue eyes, very white teeth. 

In the film Fishpeople: Lives Transformed by the Sea, he says, “I don’t want to get too esoteric when I’m talking about the surfing experience. The idea that wavelengths stop and the energy of a wave that’s traveled, you know, that started perhaps in solar wind between the sun and Earth, and then created pressure above our atmosphere, and then moved through the upper atmosphere down to create downward pressure, which makes the wind, which the wind then makes enough pressure to create waves, and then we ride these waves, and that it all stops there, um, is not something that everyone thinks happens, that the wave and the energy of the wave stops at the shoreline.” 

Something not everyone thinks happens. For years, as a passionate, mediocre, small-wave longboarder, I’d have said what seemed obvious: When waves finally reach the beach, their energy stops. They seem to expire—from the Latin, “to breathe out.” Expired: a word I used in some of my older writing describing kids on shortboards at Makaha on Oahu. As they approached shore, hitting the backwash from the shorebreak off the steep beach, “playing like porpoises,” they’d do 360s, then surf the backwash out against the flow of incoming waves and surfers. 

Why, then, years ago, did I write that “in from so unutterably far away, the waves finally expire”? And/or why did I assume I understood how anything “finally” ends? Breathes its last breath? For instance, what did I know about  grieving loss of the lives of others? Or, antici- patorily, prematurely, grieving loss of my own? 

By the Beautiful Sea

The northern tropics, again on this small beach, no more than 60 yards long. My church and office, as I think of it. “Natural” beauty in so benign a climate insistently visible, palpable. Also insistently visible and palpable, if ever less or more complexly “natural,” the human beautiful/not-so-beautiful. 

New moons, full moons. Spring tides, neap tides. Daily flow of our species on this beach. People known to me and unknown. Regulars, strangers. Endless selfies by another pair of thong-bikinied, ever-taller teens—posing, showing, laughing, posing again. Homeless person angrily talking to himself or to absent others, then prone on the sand. Dead asleep, dead to the world. Two tourists from Boston, the couple’s banter and accents instantly, vividly evoking the place I was born and raised, place I left behind. Surfers heading out, out, swell building. Glenn on longboard towing his boogie-boarded young son to the break. Getting him acquainted. Addicted. 

Swimmers, waders, couples spooning in the shallows. Older woman in one-piece “bathing costume.” Harry, checking messages,  dropping his $1,200 phone in the water. Chil- dren building castles, digging moats. Cheri in  her usual spot, dozing as she sunbathes. Yoga  instructor from Detroit, forthright world traveler—yoga in Africa!—but really/really liking  it here. Thinkin’ he might stay, though who knows. Fellow with suitcase-boombox volume turned up: self-amplified. Self, amplified. Young local guy perched on the seawall railing in lotus position, still yet to fall. Sunset watchers with phones awaiting the green flash. Fairy terns and frigate birds surveying from above. Sunset, the long afterglow. Night/fall.  

At first light, however, self the only human soul around. The almost eerie calm of vast, seemingly still waters. Windless. The enormous as-if-flat span, gray-green/blue/blue-black to  the horizon. Also, almost shocking, the difference in scale between the computer screen at  my desk and the immensity extending out from shore. Meanwhile, tide falling. And my tide? 

Sunrise. Right on time. As usual. 

This small beach. Ghost crab mounds. Not crab high-rises or burial cairns, but sand claw-cleared from burrows. Nearby, a conger eel, puhi uha, about a foot long, big around as your big finger, light gray with circular bands of pale, almost-white blue. Small sharp teeth. Black irises. Young. Dead. Ghost crabs perched at tunnel mouths, eyes on elongated stalks, monitoring as I examine. 

These crabs, this eel: beyond amazing,  what became life, how evolved. Life and, in tan- dem, death. In Darwin’s Worms, Adam Phillips  quotes Stephen Jay Gould: “The basic theory of natural selection offers no statement about general progress, and supplies no mechanism whereby overall advance might be expected.”  Phillips adds, “Nature…is a prodigal process go- ing nowhere special, sponsored by destruction  and suffering. What is wonderful and inspiring  is the possibility of infinite variation and exqui- site adaptation; what is daunting and terrible is  the cost. Nature is abundant and unremittingly cruel from, as it were, a personal point of view.” 

Just Like Always 

Back on the small beach. Mid-June. Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn over Diamond Head before dawn. Earth’s very own moon once more full. Low tide, roar of waves breaking out on the reef, slosh of wavelets at my feet, brief surges of blurs and film of whitewater on sand. 

Yet another early summer’s school— shoal!—of small fish just beyond the shorebreak. A mass of Hawaiian sardines and halalu (young akule). Densely packed, moving as a single swarm. Cloud. Confusing both predators and the non-predating, seeking-to-make-contact self.

Many thousands. Millions? Too many to try to count, in any case, and not a single one stepping aside to identify itself. 

Jules de Balincourt, MALPAIS BAD LANDS, 2008, oil on panel, 80 x 70 inches, courtesy of the artist

Your Inner Fish 

We’re evolved from no-longer gill-breathing tetrapods that clambered ashore nearly 400 million years ago. Fins into four limbs, genetic codes that were precursors of human joints, lungs, heart ventricles. Breathing air might have saved tetrapods from the later mass extinction, reduced oxygen in the ocean killing off many water species.

Taxonomy. Animals (the kingdom Animalia): multicellular life-forms moving independently and feeding on other organisms. Vertebrate animals in the phylum Chordata have lateral gill slits, at least in embryo, and, often, a head, a tail, and bilaterally symmetrical bodies. Also a digestive system where it’s food in one end, excrement out the other. True of both yours truly and the weke‘ā (yellowstripe goatfish) I hang out with in a cranny in the reef just off the small beach I call my church and office. 

Chordates. For most fish, being on land means quick death by suffocation, though amphibious fish can survive as long as a month. I don’t know what fish feel, but terrestrial air-breathing Chordates like us do experience discomfort in unfamiliar situations, of which old age surely can be one. For the elderly, feeling not merely out of place but out of their element, the idiom “like a fish out of water” may ring a bell.

Venus Aphrodite

Yet again the small beach. Sand underfoot from shell fragments and reef ground down by wave action. And, more of the proximate wondrous, from “bioerosion.” Labors of living sea creatures, starring the thousand-toothed uhu. Parrotfish: grazing, grinding, munching. Coral in, sand out.

Hawaiians named this spot Kaluahole, cavern of the āholehole, fish once incredibly plentiful. In nineteenth-century storyteller Moke Manu’s telling, ‘Ai‘ai, son of the ‘aumakua (god) of fishermen, was sent to teach about fishing techniques, sites, and conservation while setting up fishing shrines. Here, ‘Ai‘ai placed a large fish-attracting stone in the water that drew in āhole. Even in the recent past this channel and these reefs teemed with marine life. But not anymore: apartment buildings right on shore, streams walled off, garden chemicals, leaking septic tanks, overfishing…

On the seawall, the only public access to this beach. Now and then there’s a homeless man up and over a fence, dozing in someone’s yard, or a dog walker surveying the channel, surfers paddling past a snorkeler, a couple  embracing. And, as if replicated by spontaneous regeneration, another pair of bikinied  teenagers posing for and taking pictures of each other, then texting, texting. Via social media, this formerly not-much-known beach now a  selfie mecca. No more guitars or ukuleles: everyone their own smartphone DJ. And, so many  “friends” near and far, no need to interact with living others.

We’re evolved from no-longer gill-breathing tetrapods that clambered ashore nearly 400 million years ago. Fins into four limbs, genetic codes that were precursors of human joints, lungs, heart ventricles.

I sometimes tease it’s a no-smartphone beach, but of course I’m just…joking. If asked, though no one asks, I might add: 

1. Smartphone in hand, people are never just where they are. Where, then, are they? 

2. Smartphone in hand, most people are never all alone. Good thing? 

3. Smartphones and fear of silence? Of death? 

4. Smartphones and corporate control?

I could rant in this way, but of course see the benefits of access to so much information and for added safety. Am glad my wife has a smartphone. Still…old-school. Querulous. (Too) eager to warn. But how to slow or contain change?

One evening, after sunset but before nightfall, I was up on the seawall. As usual taking in the afterglow, just back to shore from the reef, communing with “my” cluster of weke‘ā. Farther down the seawall a father and son were fishing with small poles, the boy about 7 or 8, both of them stationary, intent. That patient boy remarkable. Just then Sam approached, about to surf. He used to be here almost daily after work, would drink a beer before heading out. Married now with two young kids, living on the other side of the island. “COVID lets us telecommute,” he said. “Couldn’t handle it all otherwise. Horrible to think of the upside of a pandemic.” Waving, he headed down the stairs. Eager to keep moving: summer swell beginning to pick up.

These summer swells, waves rising, rising,  sheer scale of the ocean overwhelming the hu- man, just the way I’ve always hungered for. Not  merely for the joy of it. No: to put the human in perspective. In its place. But, not for the first time, the ocean’s inexorably uncaring power had been washing too much of me away. Despite, say, recent sessions in the shallows with those swirling—intergalactic!—shoals of just-spawned sardines and halalu.

Meanwhile, more of the human. A bikinied young woman, not just Asian but, odds were, “local Asian,” perhaps 20, looking out toward the reefs and horizon beyond. No smartphone in hand. I teased I’d mistaken her for a lifeguard, which made her smile, then told her about “my” goatfish.

The next evening, she was staring toward the surf breaks to the southeast, Suicides and Graveyards, again no phone visible. Among the young, lately, unheard of. Her staring,  meanwhile, brought to mind childhood fam- ily visits to Nantucket Island, 5,000 miles and  70-something years away. Rooftop walkways  said to have been built for mariners’ wives scan- ning the horizon for return of whaling ships:  widow’s walks. When I asked this young woman if she was a surf widow, she laughed, told me her boyfriend was out at Graveyards. I could barely see figures riding the waves, eyes not as sharp as they’d once been. Could she, I asked, really pick her boyfriend out from several hundred yards away? Another laugh: He had red hair.

As we spoke, I told her I’d been an obsessed small-wave longboarder back in the day. And did she go out to Graveyards with her boyfriend?  No, but once in a while bodysurfed with girlfriends. Conversation continuing, I explained I’d  once taught at the university here, still taught on the mainland. First names exchanged, Chloe said she was going to college on the mainland. Home for the summer. Missing Hawaii when away.

In the tropics I don’t often think of Greek mythology, the many local sagas—mo‘olelo—of Hawaiian deities to be learned about, reckoned with. But Chloe’s name, epithet of Demeter, Greek goddess of the harvest, put me in mind of The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli. Goddess of love just born and fully adult. Conceived— what a story!—by fertilized seafoam from the genitals of castrated god Uranus. In the painting, propelled by winds from the god Zephyr, Venus is about to arrive on shore. Naked, standing in a huge shell, right forearm nearly covering one breast, fingers spread above or just touching the other. Flow of golden hair tucked in left hand covering genitals. Modest, but not ashamed. And here on the seawall, evoking memory of Botticelli’s painting, micro- or mini-kinied young Chloe. Seemingly free of pretension. Unremarkable but remarkable.

Right at sunset, middle-aged Randy, Graveyards devotee, came down the seawall. Still enough light on the water to read waves. “We’re blessed, Tom,” Randy said, his usual greeting. “Where we’re meant to be. Right?” And then, briefly weighing with me whether or not to go out, issue never in doubt, sighing about the growing force of the currents, Randy said, “I know who I am.” Adding, “And I also know who I’m not.” Which made both Chloeand me laugh with him. Then, as if destined to have to go, down the seawall stairs Randy went. Dropped his shortboard in the water, fastening the leash around his ankle. Finally, crossing himself before folding his hands in prayer and  bowing—deities honored, bases covered—pad- dling out the channel.

“Randy will see your boyfriend at Grave- yards,” I said to Chloe. “The only break he surfs,  almost every day at this hour. Short sessions.” As she and I spoke, her matter-of-factness, and my sense there was no place else she was trying to be, made me think that if we kept talking I might tell her about…well, what would I tell her about? Nantucket Island circa 1950? Venus, Aphrodite? My friend Brad’s suicide? What Robert Hass termed “acceleration in the occasions for mourning”? Hear what she made of any of it? This when I’d been short-tempered, down on/tired of/sick of the species. Self included. In a “all these things must come to pass” frame of mind, too much of the sorrows Matthew said Jesus foresaw—“for nation shall rise against nation…famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places.”

Tribulations: What a great word! Distress, trouble. That was me all over. By and in the ocean that had saved me so many times, yet, lately, “at sea.”

But now, as Chloe and I spoke, we were watching her boyfriend paddling in. Soon, wrapping his leash around his board, he came up the stairs, very cheerful and at ease. “How was?” I asked, and he laughed. “Not in surf shape,” he said, admirably observing the code of surfer self-deprecation, shaking his red-haired head. Then off the two of them went.

Another long afterglow. Night falling fast, Randy was back in the shallows from Graveyards, as usual making loud barking seal sounds ricocheting off nearby buildings as only he could. Time to leave the beach, my wife expecting me. Fist-bumping Randy as I went, both of us yet again, yes, blessed.

The next evening and several evenings after, in from séances with the goatfish, I looked for Chloe on the seawall, but she wasn’t there. Swell having disappeared, waves at Graveyards infinitesimal. No reason to be there unless her boyfriend was surfing? Already back on the mainland? Kinda disappointing. On the other hand, I had to laugh: might’ve been lucky to encounter Chloe just those two times, just as she was. Just as I saw her in those moments: ordinary but extraordinary. A third time, who knows, she might’ve been on her phone.

Excerpted from the author’s forthcoming book, Penultimates: The Now & the Not-Yet.