On a crisp, golden fall morning in Northern Vermont, Sterling College’s Cultural Ecology course traveled via imagination to the warm, emerald waters of Hawai’i. Here in this place of bold volcanic shorelines and curling waves we explored the significance of surfboards and the act of he’e nalu “wave sliding” for the Polynesian communities of Hawaii. We came to understand how tangible objects like surfboards are more than just the raw materials they are made from; the reality of these objects goes well beyond the boundaries of their physical form in the collective psyche of the people.


For hundreds, possibly thousands of years before European influence, surfboards were a common sight among the Polynesian people of Hawaii. Traditional boards were massive by today’s standards and stretched from ten to sixteen feet long, weighing as much 175 pounds. The creation of a surfboard was dictated by the Kapu system of royal governance rules. Trees chosen for the boards corresponded to the status of the individual within the culture. For example, the Koa wood was lighter and thus was employed in making the longest boards for the royal families whereas the wiliwili‘s wood was more dense and designated for the common class. But no matter one’s status, all makers performed thanksgiving rituals which required citing certain prayers to the tree that was to be chopped down, as well as burying ceremonial fish at tree’s roots after taking it.

The tree was then taken to the halau (canoe house) where it was planed, shaped, and rubbed with puna (coral) and oahi (textured stoned) to smooth its surfaces. Lastly, the board was finished with stain from banana buds and oils from burned kukui nuts. At this point, the surfboard was ready for its new aquatic lifestyle.

These long and heavy boards were ridden by people who were by nature extraordinarily skilled oceanographers and ecologists. They intimately knew the local ecology and its complex dynamics of waves, tides, seasons, storms, topography, and animal life.  Some of these “wave sliders” eventually reached the status of gods and goddesses.


As a class, we discussed the major changes to this surfing culture – the role of European colonization in the 1820s, and the resulting decline in both wave sliding and biological diversity on the islands. We also explored the efforts that took place in the 1900s towards revitalization of local culture, and how these movements set the stage for the modern global surfing movement.

Then we asked the big questions about culture. What are some of the intangible (invisible) aspects of pre-contact “wave sliding” that are manifested in today’s surfing culture? How are these intangibles similar and how are they different from within traditional Polynesian culture? Do the dynamics of colonization still play out in the surfing world today?

We speculated about the need for contemporary accomplished surfers to know about ecological processes- wave dynamics, storm systems, local topography. Students told stories of living in surf communities and the consistent attention given to the current wave and weather conditions.

We wondered what is lost when surfers no longer make their own boards and use imported materials. Are the rituals gone? Have they been moved to other aspects of the experience? What are the unique relationships established between a surfer, trees, waves, and boards when one hand harvests and crafts the board they will use?

Some students asserted that surfing is still a symbol of social status – whether this is based on expensive gear or recognition of extraordinary skill. Perhaps both!

We plunged deep into conversation about the act of surfing, of standing on top of water moving in wave form – energy in motion. A plank of wood separates the barefooted, bi-pedal human from the fluid depths of infinity below. The questions flowed like ocean water: when does the surfboard become less of an individualized entity and more of an extension of the human body? Where and when do the two merge into one? What is needed to be a top surfer? Is it single pointed focus, control of the distracted mind, complete body awareness, and an ability to surrender to the power of the wave? With the aid of magical surfboards, can top surfers still be exalted to immortal status? Do they cross over from the ordinary and mundane to the realm of the supernatural? When they are surfing, do they operate in a place of transcendence?

We ended the class by speculating on why our species seems to need these types of transcendent experiences, be they surfing, football, or playing music, and what role our objects play in enabling us to transcend the ordinary.

After all, the Greenland kayaker still uses his boat as the bottom half of his body. He sleekly glides along the chilly waters looking for the mystical narwhal – a source of food but also an opportunity to participate in the ancient ritual of becoming one with the animal’s spirit through this ceremonial hunt. Similarly, the Indian tabla drummer beats his fingers so hard at the crescendo of a raga that his hands become blurred in the eyes of the enchanted audience members. And the rural Vermonter raises and drops her ax so consistently that she loses herself in the trance of work.  The muscles of her arms become stories. These arms tell generational tales about life among the towering hardwoods – of wintery ice storms and spring sugaring, of families stacking woodpiles in the summer, and of fall campfires underneath barren canopies.

So look around at the objects that populate your world. How are they more than just amalgamations of raw materials? When do the objects breach their physical boundaries? What stories are locked up in these cultural vessels of knowledge?

Then, go surfing.

Filed Under: Blog Ecology Environmental Humanities

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