#Local_Legendz Interview with Chuck Swanson

Local Legendz Interview with Chuck Swanson

One foggy July morning we sat down at the Hawk Creek Café in Neskowin, Oregon and had a conversation with Chuck Swanson. Hope you enjoy.

– Lee Leatherman and Reis Paluso

Chuck “Swanny” Swanson is a local builder, designer, musician and surfer who has lived in Neskowin, Oregon for 35 years. Originally born in St. Louis, MO, his family moved to Mill Valley, CA when he was 8 years old. At the age of 22, he ended up in Neskowin, drawn to the raw natural beauty of the place, proximity to the ocean, a girl and a job as a carpenter building houses in the area. Little did he know about the long winters, record amounts of rain and inconsistent surf. He has always been known to take off deep, for his barrel riding skills, clean lines style and for occasionally dropping in on you. He is the co-founder and co-owner of Neskowin Homebuilding and Design Co.

Lee Leatherman: What do you think it means to be a “local legend,” Chuck? What does it mean to be “local,” to be of a certain place? Can you talk about the spiritual qualities of a place, of a particular place on earth that draws people to be/live in that place?

Chuck Swanson: Well, let’s see… First thing that comes to mind is this quote from the Buddha that I recently read… He said, “The hardest thing to do is to stay in one place.” So actually making a commitment to something over a long period of time is something that, especially in our culture…not too many people do. So when I think of people that I respect that are so-called “legends”…in some way, they have stuck with something through the hardest times. They have reached a deeper level of wisdom because of it.

LL: Yeah, in some Asian cultures, there is this cultural tradition based in language of how to call your elders and youngers, based on age, which I think is essentially based on wisdom gained through experience. So there is this sort of built-in respect for elders…

CS: Yeah I think in our culture though it’s a little tricky right now because if you stick with tradition, you’re going to get left behind. You know you can really see it in people who are from cultures, like you are saying, the Asian cultures…like the parents who are respected, who have that wisdom…a lot of times the wisdom isn’t necessarily relevant to what’s going on now. So a big thing that’s important as we get older in this culture is to stay connected to what is relevant because things are changing so quickly. So it’s kind of like you’re keeping track of what’s going on but you’re not getting sucked into it. You have got a certain amount of perspective on it. Like “…yeah this is bullshit and this isn’t” kind of thing, you know?

Reis Paluso: It’s easy to get your focus shifted with everything that’s going on…

CS: And yet, some of what’s going on is really crucial to keep track of, you know…how to live our lives in this quickly changing environment…So that traditional wisdom is a really important thing to bring into your life, but it’s also, some of it…just isn’t useful anymore. So you have to navigate through that stuff.

LL: There is this paradox that I have been thinking about for a while. It came from listening to a lot of Bob Marley’s music. There is a compilation album that had two songs in a row: “Running Away” and “Keep on Moving”. So the paradox is that “…you’re running and you’re running and you’re running away…but you can’t run away from yourself,” while on the other hand, “Lord, I gotta keep on moving…Lord I got to get on through.” There is this other Marley lyric too, which helps to create a juxtaposition of staying and going, “…if you’re not living good, you gotta to travel wide, travel wide…” I’d like to tie this paradox into the definition we have of “local.” Because in surfing there is this idea we have of this “local dude who was born and raised in this certain place and never leaves to travel…” But you earlier alluded to an idea about committing to a place or thing, metaphorically “sitting in one place, witnessing” or being in a place and riding through all the ups and downs and that there might be something to gain from that. And there’s also an idea that we are a nomadic species, on some level. So that leads me inquire about this paradox of staying and going, of dynamic and static. That’s the curious thing about this project we are doing, what it really means to be local. So I am interested in talking to people about what this means to them.

CS: Yeah, well that is interesting in respect to the surfing community. I think one of the things that has made surfing a lifestyle that has more of a liberal point of view, is that so many surfers have traveled the world. So there is that commitment to staying in one place but there is also that willingness to go out there and experience something new. So yeah it is paradoxical in a certain respect. When both of those things are brought together, it is a way to deepen into a more truthful understanding of the world…of the way we are and who we are. You know a lot of surfers…they’re young and they go out there and they’re looking for surf, you know, but then man, if you’re traveling in some place like India or Indonesia, there are some challenges along the way that have nothing to do with surfing and it creates a deeper insight into yourself and other people…

RP: And maybe it brings back more to that “local pride” thing after seeing what else is out there and it makes you appreciate what you have or where you’re from maybe in a different way you know? As surfers we are a little more curious and adventurous by nature because the ocean is a big place and there are waves everywhere and it’s that “search” deal…

LL: It’s like, from a Pacific Northwest perspective, you’re bringing back new furs to your area, you know? Like the muskrat fur, minx, beaver and whatnot…(laughs)… back to your area from your travels and it adds to the local fabric you know?

There’s another piece I was thinking about, Chuck, that we’ve talked about before, that has to do with the legend and mythical, even visionary aspects to all of this. At one point, we were talking about this experience or vision that you had of some kind of connectedness through surfing, the ocean and water to nature… You said there was this connection to mother nature through water and you had these visions of beautiful buildings and architecture. To me, that is pretty cool and interesting because when we put “local” and “legend” together, it makes me think about the spiritual qualities of a place that draw people to it… Is it that you are drawn to the beauty of it, or is there something there for you to learn, or is there something there for you to give to that place, that community? And because we travel around…and we do…we end up in a certain place, maybe the same place we started out from, maybe not…

CS: Yeah, that is interesting, the idea of what draws us to a certain place. As surfers, obviously, we are drawn to the ocean, probably to live near the ocean. And then some of us are more interested in being in social environments and some of us are more drawn to being in natural environments that may not necessarily have that quality of a large community. Neskowin, for instance, has a small community. I was drawn to that. There is a certain quaintness to the architecture here, little cottages, lots of beautiful surf spots. You look around and it’s like being in the mountains but you’re in the ocean at the same time because the trees come right down to the water. So speaking for myself, that is what drew me to this area. And, you could think of architecture too as just the design of the geography of the area as well as the way people have incorporated their own impact on it as well.

LL: What elements have you drawn from your experiences in the natural areas around here in how you build houses or in crafting whatever you might be working on?

CS: I do a lot of design work and a lot of what I am interested in is how to integrate our Western culture, which has a lot of Asian, Latino and Native influence…into a design that uses local materials, that maybe the Native people have been using for thousands of years. Also, looking at the refined sensibility of the Japanese culture and how to integrate that into a building. So even though it may sound like they wouldn’t necessarily fit together, I think that it’s a really interesting challenge to fit these different design elements together and create something unique. One thing about being on the West Coast is that it is such a newly settled area, at least in its present incarnation and population state. So, what is it that we want to create here and how do we create beauty that we can relate to? So that is the way that I look at that…

LL: Sweet. It’s kind of similar to surfing a wave too in a way, right? You just surf, do your own thing…maybe you go travel. Or maybe, nowadays, you watch a video and you see for yourself, “oh what is that person surfing like?” and you bring in all these elements that you see or that you feel back to the canvas of the wave and there’s a spiritual aspect to it and there is a physical, kinesthetic aspect to it…

CS: Yeah, it reminds me of that video we were watching last night. In it, our friend Breeze said something about when she’s surfing, she’s looking for grace. I really like that. I can really relate to that. It’s a way of integrating our expression in a flowing way. And you can apply that to your life or to surfing or to designing and building a building or music. Not everyone is looking for that, but I feel aligned with that.

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