Writer Ed Thompson and photographer Julien Roubinet are collaborating on a book documenting surf culture in New York and New Jersey. At the moment, the project is under the working title Ice Cream Headaches, referencing the familiar feeling of brain-freeze when surfing in the depths of winter.
The work explores the culture that surrounds surfing in the often-frigid Atlantic off the shores of New York and New Jersey. The finished book will feature photographs, essays and interviews with forty cultural innovators, from surfers and surfboard shapers to artists, writers and photographers, young and old – people who have built their lives around their love of the ocean.
For Whalebone’s NYC issue, Julien and Ed introduce you to four of the people they’ve met during the making of the book. This week’s feature: surf journalist and writer, Mariah Ernst.
When we met Mariah she was working on two very different stories. One is about iconic New York surfer, Rick Rasmussen, possibly the greatest surfer ever to come out of the state. The other is a story about a nomadic tribe called the Penan, who are from Sarawak in the Malaysian part of Borneo. The tribe’s nomadic way of life is already degraded by rampant illegal logging of the rainforest, destroying both their home and the food they need to live.
“It’s fun to cheat on one story by working on the other,” Mariah told us when we met up with her.
“It’s often difficult to write, especially when self-doubt weighs on you. Sometimes as you work on a story you don’t know where it will go or what will happen, but as I’ve got older I’ve tried to work on stories that have the possibility to become something bigger.”
Mariah, who was born in Maine, had a stroke of luck in high school, picking up an opportunity to study in Bali at a local school through her town’s Rotary club. She lived, worked and surfed in Bali for much of her twenties, working as a writer and editor for two different magazines based in Bali before eventually finding her way to New York.
We asked Mariah what motivates her to write. “I have a lot of principles that I try to live by in my own life,” she said, thoughtfully, “including a specific type of freedom and a sense of love. The Penan story is about a nomadic hunter-gatherer tribe that has a different and unique mode of consciousness, and a more civilized society. They’ve been living the same way for maybe forty thousand years and their society simply lives in radical equality and peace. Men and women have always been equal.” Mariah pointed out that, anthropologically speaking, until the advent of farming and physical possessions, men and women were typically equals. Gradually, millennia later we’re starting to shift back towards an equal relationship. “Inequality of any type is a perversion. The Penan have never departed from equality and I find that really beautiful and really interesting. They are incredibly gentle, kind and hilarious. And very cool,” she added.
Her fascination with the tribe led her to visit them in 2014 with her friend, artist Xante Carroll. Meeting the tribe first-hand Mariah was able to learn much more, including meeting women who hunted as peers with men with blow-pipes they had made themselves. The Penan have highly evolved principles. “They never act in anger,” Mariah told us. “They say that if you get angry, you sit down and let your blood cool. If you are very angry you lie down until it passes.” We laughed at the thought of this habit find its way back to New York. “There are a couple of tribes around the world that do this, but the Penan listen to their dreams. If they dream they killed a boar in a particular part of the forest, they wake up grab their stuff and leave, just go do it,” Mariah explained. “They literally wake up and follow their dreams.”
If only Rockaway would deliver the goods every time we dreamed about it, perhaps we’d all be much happier New Yorker surfers. Perhaps though, surfing is the dream and whatever it is we imagine when we’re in the water is what we should chase down when we get back to shore.
Keep up with Mariah and her work here, and follow Ice Cream Headaches ongoing story via their Instagram. Stay tuned for another interview next week and if you haven’t already, check out last two week’s interviews with Pro Surfer + Alligator Owner, Balaram Stack, and NYC-based shaper, JW Falcone.