Polynesians in the Pacific were the first to feel through a wooden medium the surge and heave of the sea beneath bare feet. They were the first to surf. Surfing was a way for the Polynesian to encounter and be thrust forward by the force of a living, more-than-human world. Western culture, in its habit of seeing nature only as resource, nearly put an end to this native practice upon its arrival in the Hawaiian Islands early in the 1800s. From the point of view of the western mind, nature was a living force, but one to be opposed.
Natives needed to be saved from nature’s influence. Early missionaries forbid partly naked locals from hanging-ten on the Hawaiian surf. Although nearly pushed to extinction in the nineteenth century, surfing made a come back and it was largely in western culture. Shock eventually turned to fascination. Even Mark Twain, when visiting Hawaii, described in awe a native taking the drop: “he would fling his board upon its foamy crest and himself upon the board, and here he would come whizzing by like a bombshell!” At the turn of the twentieth century surfing would hit mainstream America. And yet, although American culture ended up adopting the indigenous practice of surfing, something about riding it remained fundamentally counter to the American Way. The experience of being thrust forward by a force of nature, caught in a hurtling rhythm not your own is contrary to the individualism our culture has popularly prized. While surfing survived in such a culturally egocentric climate, it also evolved. In the 1940s the surfboard emerged from the Pacific onto California’s concrete coast where it acquired polyurethane appendages. Skateboarding was born. Across this new synthetic sea skateboarding recreated the cut and swerve of the surfboard. But concrete hadn’t the same permeable and at times forgiving surface. It proved hard and unyielding. Concrete required more than just wheels.
The board culture and perspective soon changed. The board had originally been a medium to feel nature. What was felt now was abrasive; it was cement and it was spread everywhere for cookie cutter homes in a suburban sprawl. Faced with the monotony and conformity this new landscape produced, the board was often used to fight, not to feel.
During the 1980s in and around L.A., a culture of aggression was growing that had a degree of influence on skateboarding — Hardcore Punk. In his documentary book American Hardcore, Steven Blush points out that “Aside from a few urban hoods like Downtown LA and Hollywood, Southern California is one giant, sterile suburb” (74). He claims that “Hardcore was born of that suburbia” (74). Skateboarding wasn’t, but it became increasingly associated with the beginning of this culture. As it did, something fundamental to the board began to be jeopardized. Like hardcore, skateboarding increasingly styled itself as aggressive, reckless and destructive. With a strong “skate and destroy” orientation, skateboarding was no longer about feeling oneself thrown by a force of nature as in surfing. Skateboarding was more an act of throwing oneself in defiance against what was seen as a synthetic and oppressive force of culture. To skate and destroy not only the American Dream, but oneself with it, arguably seemed the purpose of many skateboarders.
But western culture has destroyed enough in its comodification of the more-than-human world. Perhaps skateboarding can do more than turn the logic of consumption and destruction back upon the culture that unleashed it. Perhaps skating can do more than grind away the American Dream.
Here in Vermont there’s not much to grind, or for that matter even roll wheels on. Here the desire to destroy does not resonate so much. In the 1830s and 1920s there were two waves of an almost state-wide clear cutting of trees. Arboreal eradication. The environment was denuded without thought of consequence, just as in California and in much of North America. However, most of the Vermont forests that were destroyed a second time, nearly a century ago, have returned. The forests are still young, but they now cover 80% of the Vermont landscape. This gives us plenty of wood for boards, but not all that many skate spot options. We don’t regret it though. Much of the skatable surface we do have is exposed to a wilderness re-emerged. Many roads are a border land between culture and the more-than-human world. In these Green Mountains we have a chance to renew an engagement with such a world and let our boards do what the Polynesians’ board once did – act as a medium between us and nature, between us and a world outside that is more complex than the system of city and suburbia.