A Case for Play

A six-foot wave rose out of the Pacific glass, sparkling blue against the bruised pink after-light of the October sunset. I had a half-second to gawk in awe (and a smidge of fear) before I took a deep breath and flipped my surfboard, hanging on to the rails from below like an upturned turtle. The turbulent whitewater spun me twice and yanked me back upright.

I shook the water from my ears and paddled out to the lineup. It was a fairly crowded sunset session, so I did my best to dodge dozens of neoprene-clad arms and legs that came flailing my way. The tide was low, the moon was rising full, and the waves were thick and lazy. It was a perfect day to play.

A few weeks ago, I started graduate school studying science communication at the University of California at Santa Cruz. I joined a group of ten students with backgrounds in biology or chemistry or astrophysics who have pivoted from research to storytelling. The program is incredibly informative, incredibly practical, and incredibly intense. My roommate Gillian and I have since made it our mission to keep perspective. We have resolved to play.

We will write the articles, do the interviews, and read the papers, but we will also spend lots of time in the sun – biking the cliffside drives, hiking through Redwoods to nowhere, combing Pacific tidepools, and cartwheeling across the sand– whatever it takes to get out of our minds and into our bodies and appreciate this land. In search of awe and wonder, we set out a few times a week with a friend’s loaner surfboards strapped to the roof rack. We choose a beach, yank on our wetsuits (this is difficult), and wade through a tide of bird poop to shake out our brains and remind ourselves how to play.

Rachel Carson writes in her book, The Sense of Wonder:

If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.

Play is healing. It helps our brains make complex connections and keeps us calm in turbulent times. It reminds us to be aware of our bodies. Maybe more than anything, play helps us take ourselves, the world, and our graduate programs a little less seriously.

Playing outside is even better. Outdoor-enthusiastic scientists have shown that time under the sun helps relax our minds and bodies. Fresh air stimulates creativity, helps us work through complicated problems, and boosts sleep. Out here, it’s not just surfers who have this figured out. Most mornings I see cold plungers wading into the water or photographers with comically long lenses seeking out birds on eucalyptus branches. Our neighbors keep an eye on moon and tide charts so they know when to take their little ones to the tide pools to comb for hermit crabs and anemones. It can be as simple as watching a beetle blaze a trail through loose dirt, walking barefoot anywhere, or opening the kitchen window.

Gillian and I slid our surfboards through slimy green kelp and floating pneumatocysts – air-filled bulbs that present the flat leaves to the sun. The wide fronds tangled with my fingers and grabbed the leash velcroed to my left ankle, yanking me back a few inches.

Hundreds of pelicans and seagulls crowded the whitewash for suppertime. They divebombed the surface in unison like a fleet of fighter pilots, spraying water and bird poop inches from my bare feet. I never saw the sardines and anchovies, but I did witness the victims’ small masses slipping down the throats of the victors. We laughed and shrieked and paddled towards strangers who grinned with us and wrinkled their noses at the hovering stench of wet bird.

The northern California air temperature drops fast with the sun, leaving a hazy purple-pink gradient around the mountain silhouette across Monterey Bay. Despite ear-to-ear grins and an abundance of awe and wonder, we decided on one more wave. I sat up just as a round, gray-speckled head broke the surface. Two shiny black eyes darted my way, and the harbor seal slipped back beneath the water without a ripple. I squealed and kicked over to Gillian, who had unironically started to sing Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” Three or four seals bobbed like six-foot soup potatoes, buoyant and aimless until they disappeared. We watched them until Gillian’s toe circulation gave out and my nose went numb, and then set off to catch a wave back to shore. I popped up, got snagged on some kelp, and tipped backward into the water. There’s nothing like getting the wind knocked out of you to clear your head of deadlines.

“Is the exploration of the natural world just a pleasant way to pass the golden hours of childhood or is there something deeper? I am sure there is something deeper, something lasting and significant. Those who dwell, as scientists or laymen, among the beauties and mysteries of the earth, are never alone or weary of life.” – Rachel Carson

We peeled off our suits and strapped the boards to the roof, collapsing into piles of towels and cranking the heat in the car. Other surfers dotted the parking lot, chattering about wave conditions and wishing each other luck.

I am lucky to call Santa Cruz home, even just for a little while. From the world-class waves to the redwoods around campus, I am consistently reminded to find peace in turbulence and gain perspective from play, even if it’s just taking a moment to sit on a bench and absorb the California sun.

Wetsuit-clad, barefoot cyclists rode by us carrying nothing but their boards and heading home happy. Gillian and I traded stories about near-catastrophic collisions with strangers or rocks or pelicans or our own boards. We giddily recounted a handful of smooth rides and successful turns. After we finished showing off fast-developing bruises and still-bleeding cuts, we sat back, turned up Louis Armstrong, and made plans to go out for sunrise.

RCC National Environment Leadership Fellow (Presidential) – Molly Herring – University of Santa Cruz

RCC Presidential Fellow Molly Herring is pursuing a Masters in Science Communications from UC Santa Cruz. She recently graduated from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill with a double major in Biology and Global Studies and a minor in Creative Nonfiction. Molly was born in the North Carolina Appalachian Mountains and raised between Richmond and the beaches of Sandbridge, Virginia, but has journaled from the kitchen tables and living room floors of host families all over the world. She has been published in Oceanographic Magazine, Coastal Review, The Marine Diaries, and Cellar Door.