How Surfing Taught Journalist Johnie Gall Her Place in Nature
Learning to take accountability and embrace natural fibers to help preserve our oceans for everyone
The day the exhaust fell off my Land Rover Discovery, I was driving to the ocean. Stevie Nick’s gold-dusted vocals, rising melodically from crackling speakers, were interrupted by the metallic screams of car parts on pavement. Sparks sliced through the soft morning light in my side mirrors. I sighed and slipped the well-worn AAA card from my wallet. My penchant for impractical decisions had arrived bearing yet another lesson in patience.
I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point in my life, I started to rebel against practicality. When my friends were getting engaged, I was moving across the country with a few bags and even fewer dollars. As my peers were finding comfort in the forward momentum of their career paths, I felt suffocated by trajectories and trends and crowds. So when the Land Rover finally took its last rattling breaths, I replaced it with something even older and less reliable: a 1980 Land Cruiser, imported from Australia with a right-hand driver and pop-top camper.
I spent most of my childhood feeling anonymous and adrift, unsure of how I fit into the systems around me. It wasn’t until I read the book “Tracks” by Robyn Davidson that I began to understand why. As a young woman, she left her life in the city and walked 1,700 miles across the deserts of west Australia with her dog and three camels. As I devoured each page, I remember feeling seen, finally able to grasp at these ideas I’d never been able to articulate. I needed that kind of space and solitude. I needed to exist in places where, even squinting, it’s impossible to make out a border. I sought that same deep and untamed connection to nature. Unconfined. Unpredicted. That’s when I started surfing.
One of my more impractical decisions was draining my bank account to go live in a van in New Zealand—not once, not twice, but three times. My friends and I drove winding roads, climbed lung-shredding trails, surfed some of the longest left-hand breaks in the world, and fell asleep in rusty huts, lulled into dreams by the rumble of distant rockslides. It’s where I first learned about Freda du Faur.
In December of 1910, she became the first woman to summit Aoraki / Mount Cook. Her chaperon (a porter who she was forced to accommodate because it would be “indecent” for her to spend the night with her fellow male climber), proved incompetent and had to be held up by De Faur when he slipped on the rope. She still made record time.
"In the ocean, there’s an order to things—in how you interact with nature, with community, with self."
Sitting in that hut in New Zealand, reading about a long-dead mountaineer, I realized that what had been unsettling me about my own experience as a surfer and outdoorswoman was a disconnect between my choices and my environment. While the rest of nature exists in balance, we’ve made ourselves the exception. For centuries we’ve dominated instead of existing within nature, extracting its resources with hostility and disregard. In our quest to create order, we bred chaos. The problems we’ve tried to solve have led to new problems we couldn’t have imagined. It’s not our fault, really. It’s just how we’ve made sense of a world we forgot how to understand.
What I love most about being in the water is the feeling of purity. Only the ocean isn’t nearly as pure as it was. The plastic waste, petrochemicals, and microfibers we use to make our clothing choke the arteries that run to the sea, bleeding waste into the waves. The human-made debris on our shorelines is 85% microfibers, the tiny particles that escape from our synthetic shirts and shorts every time we wash them. Every wash cycle releases up to 700,000 plastic particles into our waterways. How can I seek to find my place in nature if I’m part of the reason it’s being disrupted? When the ripple effect of simply washing my clothing extends into the deepest trenches and highest summits of our earth?
A lot of people are afraid of the ocean. They call it volatile and unpredictable, a breeding ground for rogue waves that gobble up unsuspecting tourists and reef breaks that cut into our fleshy parts like knives. But in truth, the ocean exists with a finely tuned balance of order and predictability. It’s both ancient and continuously renewed. The creatures that live beneath its surface have evolved to hold nearly the same form for millions of years. It’s us who changed. We may still be 60% water, but ever since shedding our pectoral fins and crawling on our bellies away from home, we’ve become the volatile and unpredictable ones.
I recently spent six months traveling around the world learning about plastic pollution from the people on the frontlines of the fight against it—scientists and nonprofit founders and indigenous activists. The plastics we consume on land are very rarely recycled, and the plastics already in the ocean don’t just exist in some convenient “garbage patch” in the middle of the Pacific. Instead, they drift, drown and deconstruct into micro- and nanoplastics in every corner of every ocean, getting smaller and smaller but never decomposing. We can’t account for 99% of the plastic we believe to actually be in the ocean, nor do we really understand how it’s affecting our health and environment.
"Human-made debris on our shorelines is 85% microfibers. Every wash cycle up to 700,000 plastic particles escape from our synthetic shirts and shorts and into our waterways."
In the ocean, there’s an order to things—in how you interact with nature, with community, with self. You are inherently part of a system, and should you step out of line, you’ll be corrected by wave or by way of outranking surfer. I, too, am fearful of the unpredictability of the sea, of how poorly I read the way its waves form and fall across the shoreline, unsure of when I should stand or fall back. But the fears I feel out there are nothing compared to the ones I face back on land. If I make a bad decision on solid ground, I’m just an asshole with no one around to correct me. Even washing my clothes had led me to inadvertently pollute the one place I finally felt like I could exist in symbiosis.
Freda summited some of the most unpredictable and windswept peaks in New Zealand wearing wool. It was warm, yes, but at that time heavy and bulky. It took forever to dry and it was unbearably itchy to wear. But that has long changed. Thanks to New Zealand’s mountain sheep, who roam more effortlessly at 7,000 feet than I do at sea level, born equipped with the insulation and instinct to navigate the terrain without gear shops or guide. Raised on open pastures with shade and shelter, those white-flecked dots on the mountainside yield natural merino wool, an incredible fiber that’s soft, quick-drying, and temperature regulating, one that resists odor and demands fewer resources to be processed into clothing. It’s made in the mountains by animals that graze on the land, animals that, when dead, will regenerate the earth.
Natural fibers would be my answer to fitting into this natural world. My clothing could now be part of the structure of the planet instead of standing in stiff opposition to it, both recyclable and biodegradable. Should my merino somehow find itself in the sea, it will become part of that system too, another player in the delicate dance between predator and prey, of melt and storm and drift.
As the things I wear begin to fit into these natural systems, my life settles into a pattern of its own. All those years I spent feeling lost, isolated by my inability to connect with the order of society, have given way to an age of comfortable spontaneity dictated by tide and temperature. If the surf is good, I can chase it. If the weather is bad, I can dress for it. If I see a mountain, I can climb it.
My clothing has begun to feel like a metaphor, a reflection of what I’ve learned about my place in nature and the issues I care about, of the accountability I feel for these choices. My wetsuit is made from a natural rubber sourced from the hevea tree. My bathing suits are made from recycled fibers. A single outfit made from merino can last me a week without washing and adapts to any natural environment because it’s made from nature—versatile, dependable, timeless. It’s a steady and intentional move to natural, because the less I own, the more I’m free to do. I’m no longer tied down by my “things,” but enabled by them.
There’s a quote in the book Barbarian Days from William Finnegan. “I knew I was chasing something more than waves.” However cliche it feels to talk about surfing as a form of enlightenment, there’s an invisible thread that’s tied humans to the sea, across language and culture and place, for longer than we’ve been writing down our own histories. Some of us will find our way back. Some will simply cut the thread that binds them. I’ve chosen to hold onto it, letting it wash over me and fill my lungs with salted air. I don’t know what I’m chasing just yet, but the closer I get the better I understand it. I’ve finally found a sense of order, and it’s freeing.