Localism Works

“May you be blessed with worthy enemies”- Ancient Bedouin saying.

There is such infinite dirty pleasure in burning a righteous kook. Especially when it’s done subtly, with impeccable style, like a beautifully turned glorietta at the Plaza Del Toros. After the third malicious drop-in by some skinhead poser local, The Burn takes on the grandiloquent nature of a storied duel. Your cheek is stinging and one’s honor is screaming for satisfaction.

So the set peak arrives and you both scratch for the boil. You have priority, but of course the local has no qualms about fishhooking to your outside leaving you to either pull back or eat his wake again. But this time you match him stroke for stroke, dropping in simultaneously and skillfully freefalling rail-to-rail down the steep harrowing face. Speeding into the first section, you’re drafting so close can see the glint of his earring, his cloying musk. But mostly you see his ass-a taunting, contemptuous gesture. You don’t make a sound.

Without warning you shear off abruptly beneath your nemesis, executing a deep elegant go-behind that slings you out front in an instant. The local makes a showboat re-entry to suddenly discover your ass in his face. You hear a yelp, a singular meaty explicative of horrified surprise. And with a small, tight grin of malignant joy, you slowly, deliciously begin to tap the brakes.

Suddenly the wave throws and you deftly slip in a funneling portal an instant before it slams shut on your foe’s head.

You emerge into daylight, silently spiking the ball hard into an imaginary end zone. Kicking out with a signature flourish you almost hear cheering from the palisades. You wouldn’t be surprised to see roses and perfumed scarves raining down.

It’s your best ride of the day. It’s also your last. Best to prone out to the beach because by the time you paddle back out to the drop zone the Cold War of surf localism will have escalated beyond verbal assaults.

None of this elaborate revenge cycle takes a behavioral science Ph.D. to figure out. It’s hardwired into our evolutionary core. Both you and the local are playing out ancient biological scripts: Intruding Man versus Territorial Man. The struggle for space and resources-in this case good waves and the ability to ride them alone-is the leading cause of conflict in the animal (including human) kingdom. Tolerance and altruism between like species-especially in such a loner activity as surfing-are relatively alien concepts in the wild.

A lot of it is also just Darwinian sexual politics. In Robert Ardrey’s 1997 milestone study, “The Territorial Imperative,” he compares the mating displays of the Ugandan kob (a large African antelope) to the chesty, bellowing behavior one might find at any frat-night kegger-or even Swami’s on a moderately good weekend. Each eligible buck-usually 15 or so of the strongest or most imposing out of perhaps 1,000-will stake out a small grassy “stamping ground” and jealously defend their turf against all challengers. The does mince by and choose to mate with the most dominant males (often nearly all of them in succession).

“The human male, encountering a stamping ground for the first time, cannot fail to identify himself with the contestants before him,” writes Ardrey. “And despite his most secret dreams of sex and riot he will thank a merciful evolutionary destiny that made him a man and not a Ugandan kob; it’s all just a bit too much trouble.”

Fast-forward a few epochs to early 21st century, observations of Homo sapiens, subgenus surfer. Substitute waves for women and you see this same testosterone-fueled behavior echoed out in any crowded line-up. Surfers, for all their pious claims of camaraderie and brotherhood, tend to be a divided, fractious tribe. The near-pathological need of one surfer to out-cool the other is carried straight from the parking lot to the line-up.