How a teenage surfer came to understand the idea of a finite earth
Surfing is about the waves, the wind and the atmosphere. As a teenager, I would sit in silence on my surfboard a hundred metres or so out from the beach, above a reef. I’d look out to sea, feeling easy swells pass beneath me as I waited for the next set of larger, surfable waves. On the horizon the atmosphere seemed to disappear into the ocean in an enormous arc, a hemisphere of blues, greens, whites and greys extending as far as I could see. Wavy lines in the distance would signal the arrival of the next set of waves and I’d swing round, paddling frantically as a mountain of glassy water moved towards me. Flashing across the face of a living column of water, watching the sky and sea rotate around you – often I’d scream out loud with the thrill of it. No matter how good a surfer you are, there will always be a wave that will defeat you, leaving you disoriented and buried under tonnes of swirling seawater. When I look back, I see my life as a series of tipping points, times when something or someone sent my life along a different path. One of those points was discovering surfing.
As a young surfer and ever since, I’ve tuned in to the atmosphere. Watching its changing moods is a rewarding and spiritual experience. Every day it puts on a different show, high wispy cirrus clouds of ice crystals change into dense, iron-grey storm clouds with wind and rain. Then after the rain has passed, rhythms of dancing light and an intoxicating smell hang in the air. Bright sunshine bakes vapours from the earth into the atmosphere. In the surf zone, light blends with waves and the smell of seaweed. All your senses work together as your mind and being harmonise with the atmosphere.
I grew up in rural Taranaki. Like many young people raised in the countryside, I developed an early connection with the ocean, rivers and land. It was intuitive because we were outside most of the time in the sun and rain, swimming and playing and watching changes in the atmosphere above. I didn’t know it then, but the same feelings are universal. Indigenous peoples all over the planet relate to what might be called an ‘Earth mother’. The Māori Earth mother, Papatūānuku, gives birth to all things, including people. We share an innate sense that the oceans, air, land and all living things are somehow joined in a web of life.
My surfing fraternity and others had already noticed that stored sewage was often dumped into the sea during southerly storms. If the wind forecast was wrong, raw sewage washed up on New Plymouth’s beaches and floated alongside us in the waves
New Plymouth was a wonderful place to grow up. It was big enough that, as a teenager, you could meet lots of friends. But it was small enough that a short ride on a bike could take you to native bush around pristine lakes and rivers and the wonderful environment that encircled the town. The black-sand surf beaches and offshore reefs to the north and west gave way to the bush and farms inland, with the almost perfect volcanic cone of Mt Taranaki dominating the landscape. Back then, any notion of global air and water pollution felt remote. New Zealand’s population was only 2.4 million, and to many New Plymouth’s environment appeared pristine.
But was it? My surfing fraternity and others had already noticed that stored sewage was often dumped into the sea during southerly storms. If the wind forecast was wrong, raw sewage washed up on New Plymouth’s beaches and floated alongside us in the waves. This shocked and disgusted me as a teenager who was beginning to appreciate the environment and the remarkable role of the oceans in shaping our planet.
I’d seen streets and roadsides littered with rubbish that people simply threw out of car windows. Precious native bush was still being logged, leaving massive scars on the land and creating steep erosion-prone hillsides. Smoke from scrub and bush burning often turned the sky grey. I was outraged. Yet in the New Zealand of sixty years ago, there was no perception that these actions were actually damaging an environment that people would want to enjoy. Pollution was not talked about and certainly not widely understood. ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ was a common attitude back then. The problem is, garbage is never out of sight for long. Waste disposed of in one location has a habit of turning up elsewhere. In New Zealand and many other countries, old coastal landfills are being breached by rising sea levels caused by climate change. Frequent storm events are beginning to expose dangerous toxic wastes, like asbestos and heavy metals, heedlessly disposed of decades earlier.
As a teenager I seethed with a quiet anger. You didn’t need complicated mathematics or physics to understand the idea of a finite earth. If you kept on filling the air, oceans and land with wastes while exploiting non-renewable resources at an increasing rate, you were going to have both pollution and resource problems. It was obvious, even to a 17-year-old, that unchecked global population growth with no restraint on resource consumption and emissions was going to lead to the collapse of the ecosystems that our lives and livelihoods depended on. If you continue to fill a finite space like the atmosphere with contamination, at some stage the damage will be obvious. I had always perceived this as a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’.
Since the age of 12 I’d been attending New Plymouth Boys’ High School, a hellish experience that imprinted itself forever on my psyche. Somehow, I’d started at the school about a year younger than anyone else; I was small, and was the youngest of over a thousand students at the school. From day one I was systematically bullied by bigger kids. I’d arrive in the morning on a country school bus and they’d be lurking near the school gates. First, they’d rip my bag away and tip my books over the ground. As I stumbled around trying to pick up the mess, they’d dart around me tearing at my clothes and punching my head. Often a sniggering group of boys looked on.
I wasn’t the only boy targeted; other small boys were hurt and humiliated too, especially in the boarding houses. These double-storeyed dormitories were straight out of a Dickensian nightmare. Here, following a bizarre parody of nineteenth-century British boarding school life, senior boys had ‘fags’ – young boys who were enslaved, exploited and routinely punished for random ‘crimes’. Bullying at the school in those days was a noxious routine, ignored by teachers who could not have been ignorant of the inflicted terror. In my first three years of misery at the school, never once did a teacher show any kindness or intervene in any way.
Relief came each day when I scrambled into the safety of the bus for the hour’s ride back to the tiny country flat where I lived with my parents and younger brother, Steve. We had just three rooms: two bedrooms, a combined kitchen/dining/laundry area, and an outhouse toilet-bathroom that had ice on the inside of the windows during winter and no fixed door. It was a dilapidated but intensely happy home, a haven tucked away at the end of an old World War II airport with grass runways, about 15 kilometres from New Plymouth. On the other side of a small access road was a large transit camp full of displaced and homeless people with lots of children.
About once a month, Dad would buy a bottle of lemonade which he split into four equal portions and, as a family, we would sit on the front step of the flat enjoying the rare treat
Every day after school there would be at least 20 kids aged from about five to 14 playing soccer, cricket, hide and seek, bullrush – as well as games we made up, some of which were really dangerous. In one of our pretend war games we used box-wood torn out of packing crates to make razor-sharp arrows which were fired at rival ‘armies’, along with stones launched by catapults made out of old car tyre inner tubes. I vividly remember the whine that stones and arrows made as they ricocheted off the concrete blocks we hid behind when our particular army was under siege. The blocks were all that remained of the old mess huts and barracks that used to house the New Zealand Air Force. By today’s standards, most of the families I knew – especially the people at the transit camp – were barely above the poverty line. About once a month, Dad would buy a bottle of lemonade which he split into four equal portions and, as a family, we would sit on the front step of the flat enjoying the rare treat. Did I feel poor? Absolutely not.
Life in the country was the antithesis of the dreadful experiences at high school. Away from high school, my life was an idyllic mix of playing with kids from the transit camp and local farms, and learning about electronics from my dad. He was a radio and radar engineer working at the old New Plymouth airport on communications and distance-measuring equipment for aircraft. He’d worked for twenty years at various airports in East Africa as well as spending time as a radio operator on cargo ships in the Atlantic.
Dad was passionate about his hobby as a ‘ham’ or radio amateur, and used home-built radio equipment in our flat to contact other radio amateurs throughout New Zealand and the world. Through him, I developed a fascination with electronics and built simple valve, tube and transistor amplifiers as well as primitive radio sets. I also built a listening device with a microphone which I set up in our parents’ room behind their bed. Dad soon discovered this and – for some reason I didn’t then understand – quickly removed it.
Mum was a shorthand typist with a wonderful sense of humour and a great attitude to life. She was South African and spoke fluent Afrikaans, and I think that my interest in languages later in life came from her. Dad used to shout and pace up and down when he was angry, but I don’t think Steve and I ever heard a cross word from Mum.
At school I learned little in the classrooms where I was routinely kicked. Each day became a matter of survival where I desperately tried to avoid the school’s most notorious bullies. Some played for the school’s top rugby or cricket teams, as if this entitled them to a free run at bullying smaller boys. What happened to them in later life? I heard that at least one particularly nasty lout, Freddy, was jailed for assault. What a stupid and useless waste it all was. With enlightened behaviour from the teachers and the headmaster, dozens of boys could have been spared the misery which scarred some of them for life.
Taken from the opening chapter of The Alarmist: 50 years of measuring climate change by Dave Lowe (Victoria University Press, $40), shortlisted for the 2022 Ockham New Zealand national book awards for best book of non-fiction, and available in bookstores nationwide.