Surfing, sawing and new perspective/Dan Schneider

My first surf was at Seaside Reef south of Encinitas, Calif. The waves broke a few feet high, rolling over a smooth and sandy Pacific Ocean floor (I was situated up the beach a ways from the actual reef, where local surfers were catching bigger waves). Waves were frequent but often unstable and hard to catch.

A few days and a few sessions later, I surfed at the classic surf spot Trestles Beach, farther north on the California coast. At Trestles, the floor beneath the waves was scattered with rocks. Where I was on the outskirts of the surf break, away from the crowds of seasoned surfers, rideable waves were few. But these were stable waves, supporting the surfboard like a concrete foundation.

It fascinated me, the difference in wave quality rendered by such a subtle difference as substrate – rocks versus smooth sand – which is just one of the factors influencing wave development. Surfers are familiar with more of them: the effects of tide, of wind, of time of day.

A surfer’s relationship to the shape of water is illustrative of an impact outdoor activity, outdoor expertise, has on people who have and pursue it: it creates a new set of values with which to interpret natural phenomena.

A botanist can understand a place in terms of the plants that are growing there.

Fly fishermen read a complex story in the varying currents, bends, depths, pebbles, temperatures and shadows of a trout stream.

This past weekend I completed a U.S. Forest Service sawyer certification class, north of Bergland in the Ottawa National Forest, which provided a new way of looking at fallen logs and standing timber. To safely fell a tree, or to buck a tree already fallen, requires a purpose-minded assessment of physical factors in the tree and in its environment.

Take a log fallen across a trail (there are a number of these crossing my adopted section of the North Country National Scenic Trail, also in the Ottawa, and the necessity of their removal is what prompted my taking the sawyer training). A fallen log is an inert object, something to be stepped over or walked around. But it is acted on by a number of forces, which come to bear on the act of sawing it up. Gravity, for instance, creates tension on one side of an elevated log, compression on the other. Its effects must be taken into account, as opening a kerf on the compression side of a log is a good way to get your saw stuck.

Felling a tree has its own set of considerations. The species of tree (the strength of its wood), the direction of the wind (and its intensity), whether the tree is living or dead, the presence or absence of rotted wood: all of these influence the placement, shape, and depth of the cuts necessary to bring the tree safely to the ground. These considerations exist whether a chainsaw is used or a crosscut saw.

To look at a fallen log with a saw in hand changes your perspective.

To look at incoming waves with a surfboard in hand does likewise.

Specialized activities in the outdoors, whether recreation or labor, provide a specialized lens through which to view the natural world.