The Invention of Surfing

© Mark Turner 2009

Excerpt from "The Embodied Mind and the Origins of Human Culture," CECC Conference on Cognition and Culture.

Most researchers accept that writing is cultural, in the strong sense: there are cultures even now that do not include writing, and many illiterate human beings. Writing has been present for, it seems, at most 8,000 years, really more like 3,000 years, and literacy as a normal condition has been with us for only some hundreds of years. It can be harder to see that basic mathematical concepts aside from the few numerical operations that we seem to share with many animals (such as subitizing) are in the same category of cultural invention.

But now let us take something that is clearly cultural, in the strong sense: surfing. Here in Portugal, there is surfing, north along the beaches from Lisboa. Where I was raised, surfing was a strong part of the culture. It formed one of the major planks of my early socialization, as a kind of cultural religion: few people where I was raised actually surfed, by everybody knew about it, and surfing counted substantially in the cultural scale. Mating, character, life were framed via the conception of surfing. Songs, even music without lyrics (“surf guitar”), and literature were conceived around surfing. Restaurants had surf themes. Life was to be viewed through the lens of surfing.

And yet, surfing as an activity was brought to San Diego, where I was raised, not even a century ago: Duke Kahanamoku mounted a legendary demonstration in San Diego in 1916 and George Freeth had brought it to Southern California a few years before that. Fully cognitively modern human beings had lived for hundreds of years on the West Coast of North America without surfing. In Portugal, they had lived for thousands of years without surfing.

As a child, I watched in real-time as surfing exploded across the world’s coastal cultures, documented in films like Endless Summer. The Beach Boys, in 1963, when I was 9 years old, released a song about it, “Catch A Wave”:

Not just a fad 'cause it's been going on so long
Catch a wave, catch a wave
All the surfers going strong
They said it wouldn't last too long
They'll eat their words with a fork and spoon and watch 'em
They'll hit the road and all be surfin' soon
And when they catch a wave they'll be sittin' on top of the world
Catch a wave and you're sittin' on top of the world

The Beach Boys were certainly right: surfing is now, far from an exotic and rarely-seen activity, a worldwide, multi-billion dollar industry, with elaborate “lifestyle” influence on consumer items purchased by nonsurfers: clothing, sunglasses, music . . . I was astonished, when I moved to Case Western Reserve University in 2004, to learn that there is a surfing community in Cleveland, Ohio. Lake Erie is a Great Lake with respectable waves, but “The strongest winds and waves come in winter, just before Lake Erie freezes” (Maag 2006.) So it is a challenge for the surfers to avoid hypothermia.

Clearly, learning to surf is hard, just like reading and writing, but, just like reading and writing, once you have caught a wave and are sitting (actually standing, or rather, crouching with your knees bent and your feet pointed sideways) on top of the world, it seems like the most natural thing in the entire world, second nature.

When I was young, those who inhabited the cultural niche of surfing, even a little, reveled in its exclusivity. During high school, some of my older acquaintances died in Vietnam. A few years later, when I was a student at Berkeley, I managed to get a very big number in the draft lottery. The lottery was run by drawing birthdates in succession. The earlier your birthdate came up, the more likely you were to go to Vietnam. Vietnam carried enormous cultural weight in the United States during those years, so there were immediate connections to surfing. The film Apocalypse Now contains a famous surf scene set in Vietnam, in 1970, the year before I went to Berkeley. A boat crew requests air transport for their boat from Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore, “First of the Ninth Air Cav,” who denies their request. But then Kilgore hears that Lance Johnson, the professional surfer, is a member of the boat crew. He tells Lance, “I’ve admired your noseriding for years. I like your cutback, too. I think you have the best cutback there is.” He introduces his guys: “Mike from San Diego, Johnny from Malibu. Pretty solid surfers. None of us aren’t anywhere near your class, though.” Mike-from-San-Diego lets drop that the beach where the crew wants to go has great surf: a six-foot peak—meaning that it breaks both right and left. “Tube City.” Although Kilgore has already called the village “kinda hairy,” and his staff has told him it’s “Charlie’s point”—meaning the Viet Cong completely dominate it, Kilgore calls for surfboards, transport, and attack. He provides a complete explanation: “Charlie don’t surf!” A major who tries to suggest that Kilgore surf somewhere else is scolded: “What do you know about surfing, Major? You’re from New Jersey!” Of course, the major meant that maybe surfing was beside the point in this situation, but Kilgore responds to the major’s suggestion as if it were a question not about whether or not to surf, but only where, and this shows Kilgore’s cultural status in the world of surfing.

The Cleveland surfers, by the way, reportedly constitute their identity partly by blending themselves with the early California surfers:

Cleveland surfers believe they are the last remnants of the original surf culture in the 1940s and ’50s, when surfing was still a renegade sport of social misfits who scouted virgin breaks, surfed alone and lived by a code of friendliness to newcomers and respect for the water. They keep their best surf spots secret. They consider themselves part of an underground society. And they hope to keep it that way. (Maag, 2006)

In a pattern common to cultural transmission, surfing in Southern California began to connect to seemingly everything. Old surfers wore Iron Crosses. “Old,” meant about eighteen. I thought these major dudes got the Iron Crosses from their fathers and grandfathers, or surplus stores, or pawn shops. San Diego was full of veterans and shot through with the aftermath and paraphernalia of World War I, World War II, and Korea. The Iron Crosses mixed with fun, turning into Surfer’s Crosses, with an image of a bouncy surfer on a roiling wave. Only real surfers wore those, but many young males wore a Christopher—a small circular medal, an amulet, suspended on a chain around the neck, invoking St. Christopher, who carried Christ over the water. My Christopher had a ruby red center with a pearl white border bearing the invocation, “Saint Christopher, Protect Us.” You gave your Christopher to your girl. I had many Catholic friends as a child, but the majority of Christopher medals were worn by people who had never been inside a Catholic church, indeed, maybe people who would not have been able to recognize a Catholic church when they saw one.

I remember, in particular, an ad for guitars. A muscled surfer in boardshorts, head slightly cocked, short blond hair not even mussed, rode his surfboard on a cresting wave, playing surf guitar as he looked at you. The ad said, “You won’t part with yours either.” This made sense to me. Mentally, I blend that surfer with Dick Dale, the legendary “King of the Surf Guitar.” It’s an ad for Fender guitars, and Dale did a lot to make the Fender Stratocaster the most recognized electric guitar in the world. The surfer in the ad can’t be Dick Dale, because he’s playing right-handed, while Dale played a right-handed guitar left-handed without restringing it, which is wild. That’s on-the-fly culture.

If you look at the surf guitar ad, it’s amazing the creativity it involves. How was surfing invented? In retrospect, like most cultural inventions, it can seem like an obvious combination, but it isn’t. Standing on something flat, like the ground, or a floor, or a board, presents no fun or challenge and is nothing like surfing, which requires transforming one’s body into a shifting symphony of careful and sometimes energetic dynamic adjustments in order to stay upright. In the scene where you are standing on a floor, or on a board on the ground, it’s not even a consideration that you will stay upright and that the board will stay horizontal; the question doesn’t even arise. But when you are surfing, that’s the big deal. When you are standing on land, there’s no forward motion or variable speed; you are stationary. But in surfing, movement along an undetermined path at speed is essential. Your movement is driven not by intention alone (“look where you want to go”) and not by responses to the environment alone, but by a blend of both: the wave gets to decide what it wants to do (an anthropomorphic blend), and you have to anticipate and respond, but you decide when and where you catch the wave and where you want to go. Every movement blends, almost instantaneously, all that physics and all those intentions.

In walking or running, you are the motive force of moving along a path. You must move your feet and legs in certain ways. In surfing, you move along a path, but you are not the motive force. You must move your feet and legs all the time, not by placing one foot in front of another, but by adjusting your stance. These movements do not provide the motive force. Instead, they provide small accents to the physical situation of motion, which comes from the wave.

Surfing isn’t just a cut-and-paste combination of things you already do. It is a blend of many of them, with startling emergent properties: in the blend, standing is a means of locomotion, and the way you stand is a means of changing your path.

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