Those of you who are familiar with this project may know that it was originally called After the Storm, a title which referred to the fact that most surf on the Outer Banks follows a direct hit from a nor'easter, a hurricane, or a low pressure system -- and that surfers here generally have to ride out a few days of nasty weather before getting to surf the waves that follow, unlike more famous surf destinations like California, Hawaii, and Indonesia, where surf magically appears on sunny shores from storm systems thousands of miles away.
In the wake of several devastating hurricanes in the millennial years -- Katrina, Irene, Sandy, et al, -- several people in the photography industry suggested I change the name of the project to something more specifically related to the surfing world of the Outer Banks, so as not to confuse the project with media content concerning those disasters. I mulled it over for a long time, and while working on a portrait series of the local OBX crew, spun up the phrase "Legends of the Sandbar". It had a nice ring to it, and contained the word "sand" in it, which is the clay from which all surf here is molded, and by far the most pervasive substance on the Outer Banks. So I decided to expand the title to refer to the entire project, and ultimately, the book.
With a new name comes a new implied theme however, so as the work has expanded I have begun to meditate a little more on the "legendary" nature of the Outer Banks -- its remoteness, its maritime history, its sense of wildness, and the other-worldliness of its landscape. I began writing short "legends" to include in the book, brief two-page vignettes describing specific incidents, personal reminiscences from old-timers and not-so-old-timers, aspects of Outer Banks culture, and short memoirs of my own. Some of the stories are true, some are apocryphal -- just as legends should be.
But all this work has got me thinking, what (or who) are the legends of this place? And what exactly is a legend anyway? Sure, we have the standard tourist legends: Blackbeard, the Black Pelican, The Lost Colony -- not to mention all the origin-tales of the strange place-names here: Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, Nag's Head, Ocracoke. Plenty of other publications have investigated the myths and truths around those stories. But what are the "legends" of the half-century-old surfing culture of the Outer Banks? Do we have any? Or am I just working with a cool-sounding title? Do I really need to worry about connecting the title more literally with the content of the book? I mean, come on, what the hell did "Legends of the Fall" have to do with Brad Pitt and Julia Ormond getting jiggy behind Aidan Quinn's back in turn-of-the-century Montana? What exactly were the "legends" there?
Being a bit of a history and language geek, I looked into the origins of the word, and the various definitions it has had over the years. Most sources derive the term from the Latin infinitive legere, which means "to read" -- an ironic root for a word we generally associate more with oral tradition. In the early Christian medieval world, the word legenda appeared as a term for a set of printed matter dealing with the lives of the saints, which was part of the required reading of various monastic orders and religious groups. It was probably during this time that the word accrued the numinosity that it holds today; as the lives of the saints were, for the most part, a mixture of fact and fiction, with real people as the central characters, and implications of mystery and magic in their deeds.
Today, the word has taken on a fairly broad variety of applications, but it still retains a certain integrity of meaning. When you say "legend", most people understand your meaning in the context of what you're referring to. It is often said with a hush, or a boast. But it is a word that carries a certain power in common parlance.
Yes, I'm geeking out right now, but bear with me; there's just a little more.
If you look up the word legend in a few different dictionaries, you will notice that the various definitions fall under three basic categories:
The first, and most popular, use of the word is to describe a story, whose veracity is somewhat uncertain, but whose central characters are generally considered to have actually existed -- though their identities and character may have changed or been exaggerated -- and whose events are generally situated in a specific locality. Thus, every place has its own local legends, which, though not entirely believed to be true, are neither completely denied, and thus are accepted as a kind of folklore.
The second, more modern, use of the word, is to describe a person who, by their personality, deeds, or special talents, has assumed a "larger than life" status in the community. This is the most common use of the word in the surfing world, where pioneers of the sport, local heroes, and guys who have been around forever, are often referred to as "legends".
The third, more obscure but in some ways most interesting, use of the term, is as a key to reading a map. That little square in the corner which tells you what scale the rendering is, what the lines and shapes and dots and colors mean, what various symbols stand for, etc, is the map's "legend".
So -- and yes I'm pulling a fair bit of poetic license out of my ass for this one -- if you consider a map to be a sort of visual shorthand for a place, and its legend a key to interpreting that shorthand, then you could say that a "legend" is a key to better understanding a place. Legends, like the shapes and squiggles on a map, are symbolic renderings of real things. The things they describe are huge -- mountains, oceans, archipelagos -- though they themselves are small, short, and two-dimensional. Their shapes may emulate the shapes of what they are describing -- inverted-V humps for mountains, squiggly lines for rivers, etc -- but they are stripped of complexity; they are a kind of short-hand for something much greater. Maps and legends have become indispensable tools for gaining a better understanding of place, and often help us to virtually orient ourselves in places we have never been to, to follow stories that take place in far-off lands, and to understand geological, geographic, and cultural issues around the world. And they also hold a power over our imagination. Who hasn't gazed at a map and dreamed of adventures in exotic locales, followed a river to its source, wondered what secrets a certain indentation in the coastline holds...
Likewise, legends of the person or story variety can serve as keys to understanding the collective imagination of a place. The legend of Paul Bunyan, for instance, embodies the brawn and bravery of the early American Frontier. Pirate legends speak to our fear and fascination with the sea, as well as our lust for freedom and our uneasy attraction to violence. George Washington's apocryphal chopping down of the cherry tree serves as a foreshadowing metaphor of his leadership in the American Revolution, and his "I cannot tell a lie" line embodies the boldness of a nation that was born by speaking truth to power. By hearing the tales people tell of their place, their people, and their heroes in legend, you learn how their minds work, what they value, what they take pride in, and what they fear.
Right, so all that rhetoric is a little high-minded for what I'm trying to get at, which is that a legend is just a wee tale that gives you information beyond the bare facts about a people and a place. Legends are truth, fiction, poetry, symbolism, and personality all rolled up into stories that don't necessarily follow normal plot-lines. Some can be told in a few sentences. Some can be a lot longer. But we'll be sticking to the short ones.
So, bearing all that in mind, I'm preempting notion that thethe "legends" in Legends of the Sandbar are all going to be tall tales or ghost stories -- although there may be one or two in there somewhere. Rather, expect to read some simple vignettes about what life is like for the salty dogs who call this place home, a few recollections about what it means to know this place as a surfer, and maybe a few stories about the characters who make this place interesting. Nothing epic, just a little local color. Can you dig? I hope so. Thanks for reading this far.