Britta Gustafson: Informed by the current |

Britta Gustafson: Informed by the current

As mountain-raised kids, we didn’t have the ocean in our backyards to teach us how to ride a wave; but we learned early, and mostly from cautionary tales, that nature can be as ruthless as it is majestic. All is fair in love, war and nature.

Survival, we were taught before field trips and outdoor education weeks, is all about respecting the power of nature and accepting it’s fickle state. Assume nothing, learn from mistakes and adapt quickly to an unforgiving climate when necessary. We were groomed to prepare for the worst and learned that the necessary abundance of caution applied to everyone from the most experienced on down.

But it was my introduction to the ocean that taught me about the true power of nature. I was 5, maybe 6 years old the first time I was allowed to run barefoot into an incoming wave. I had fantasies about spontaneously growing gills and a fin and joining Sebastian and Ariel in an underwater musical.

But the sand was hot and instantly thwarted my run. Two strides in my little feet sunk and then wham, I was facedown tasting sand way before the salty turquoise waters were even within reach. Rebounding with urgency off the heated surface, I continued my run, more out of burning necessity than enthusiasm. Reaching the ocean’s edge, the cooler sand was a great relief, and arms spread wide, ready to dive, I embraced the oncoming wave. All I can remember is a gulp of sea water, then seeing the sky followed by the frothy underwater, gagging and gasping for air as my small body was folded in two.

By the end of my first beach day I had learned once again that nature is a force. I had been pummeled by the very ocean I had been dreaming of, drawing and reading all about. It caught me off guard and each ensuing wave continued to smack me down until I learned to appreciate its force and to stop trying to stand right back up.

It seems we are dealing with a force of nature right now. And it is not detached, it’s not amusement; we are a part of it and we are responsible for its momentum. Perhaps before we can ever really regain our stance, we will need to learn what it’s trying to teach and find a way to adjust.

And while we can’t see it, and many of us have not actually felt it, we may still be stumbling and scrambling to get back to our feet too soon. As each new wave seems to be in our face, ready to hit with unpredictable force, we keep trying to ignore its power. Reopening, “back to normal,” is that adaptation? Look at the new wave in South Korea, and — my heart be still — as we learn that there is a new surge in hospitalizations of children coming as the current continues to pulse in New York.

Perhaps to ride these waves we need to crawl before we can stand, we need to appreciate this moment. Here in the mountains we may not know much about the ocean, but we are mountain people and we know how to appreciate a climate that can not be controlled. We have our peaks and valleys, our in-seasons and offseasons that have forced preparedness into our annual routines. If we are anything, we are resilient. But I fear we will only reach our true potential once we bow our heads to this awesome, terrifying power and stop trying to deny the force of this pandemic in favor of standing up and reopening too soon.

Those in the breaking waves got pummeled, and the rest of us — watching from the beach —have not yet felt the power of getting the oxygen knocked out of our lungs, the struggles to hang on in the presence of a force that could snuff us out. We watched, and perhaps from our nightly news or social media sites, it didn’t seem as bad as it was. Or perhaps we turned away and stopped watching, feeling safe up here until the tide comes in.

Perhaps we have had the privilege of petty concerns and forming our opinions from our beach towels, and if we are lucky, perhaps we will learn from the rest as we watch from a safe distance. But until we appreciate its power, we are all still as vulnerable as a child in the waves.

Let’s exchange a piece of my mind for a little peace of mind; after all, if we always agree what will we talk about? Britta Gustafson appreciates an open mind; share yours and email her at


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