Editor’s Note: The following passage is an excerpt from Shaun Tomson’s new book, The Code. Visit Google Books for more information or to purchase a copy.
Stories have been at the heart of surf culture going all the way back to the oral traditions of the Hawaiians. Surfing isn’t a sport where you shoot 18 holes, write the numbers on a scorecard, then go back the very next day and play that exact course again. Once you’ve ridden those waves, they’re gone. All that remains is a trace of salt on your skin, a feeling of contentment in your soul, and a story or two. Every person should spend at least one summer evening at Ala Moana Beach on the south side of O‘ahu, relaxing on the grass after a surf or swim, watching the sun go down, feeling the trade winds cool your skin, and listening to the locals tell one another stories. Not epics, not big dramas, just everyday stories. The most extraordinary experiences surround surfing and many of them have little to do with actually riding waves. Here’s one that comes to mind when I think of the importance of storytelling. It’s been seven years since Carla and I lost Mathew—he passed away in 2006—and I tell this story because it connects me to him and keeps his spirit alive.
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I used to give Mathew surf lessons when he was growing up. He was interested in surfing—not obsessed with it as I was at his age—but we certainly paddled out together as often as possible. The closest break to our home is Hammond’s Reef, a beautiful little beach that’s typically uncrowded because of its secluded location. We usually drove in and followed one of the paths bordered with ice plant to a bench that sits on a grassy knoll overlooking the point. Behind us rose the wooded Santa Ynez Mountains filled with trails for hikers and bikers; before us lay the beach itself covered with gray cobblestones that ranged in size from softballs to watermelons and larger. Great tangles of driftwood gathered at the high-tide line, cast ashore by winter storms. From the bench, we’d spot swells rolling through and also the remains of campfires among the cobblestones that visitors had dragged into rough circles. Mathew and I had our particular stones along the path, underneath which we stashed our bars of surf wax in case the swell was up and we decided to paddle out. When the waves are quiet and the wind dies down, the whole atmosphere at Hammond’s is calming; the rhythmic sound of the waves, and the sun glinting off the surface of the water so that the ocean resembles nothing less than a field of sparkling diamonds—sparkle factor is in fact the expression surfers use to describe this condition—remind me of why I chose to live and work in Santa Barbara.
Hammond’s is a special place for me because I shared it with my son. And beyond a touch of serenity in an otherwise hectic world, Hammond’s is also home to a Chumash Indian memorial. Much of the coastline in this area was peopled by the Chumash. They thrived here for thousands of years before California’s Mission Period in the late 1700s; places like Hammond’s and Rincon down the coast served them as protected bays where they could launch their canoes in safety, and they used the natural tar seepages in the region to seal their small oceangoing craft. One day when Mathew and I were walking along the beach at Hammond’s just checking the surf—he was nine at the time—he suddenly said to me, “Let’s go up and visit the memorial.”
The memorial sits in Shalawa Meadow–a small clearing just south of the grassy knoll and back from the beach a ways. No more than a few minutes walk. The cobblestones along the shore give way to scrub brush and large rocks that are havens for lizards; gopher holes dot the meadow here and there, and the monument stands right in the middle of the clearing. It’s four or five feet high, rectangular in shape, covered with decorative tiles on the side that faces the Pacific. In between a couple dolphin figurines are the following words:
The sacredness of the land
lies in the minds of its people.
This land is dedicated to
the spirit and memory of
the ancestors and their
Around the base, visitors leave various rocks and shells, flowers, driftwood, all pulled from the beach and set in a semicircle so that the memorial has the feeling of a small shrine. With the mountains rising behind the meadow and the Pacific stretching out as far as one can see, the area has that dramatic quietude common to ancient and spiritual places. One cannot help but think of all those who lived and enjoyed this terrain over the centuries—families, fishermen, entire communities—and all the people in centuries to come who will enjoy this meadow and the Pacific vista, and pay their respects to the land.
After Mathew and I had spent a few minutes gazing at the memorial and adding our own offerings, we walked back to the beach and suddenly he said to me, “Dada”—this is what he called me when his friends weren’t around—“help me do this.”
He started to pick up cobblestones, one at a time, and arrange them in a large circular shape right on the sand. “What is that you’re making?” I asked him. He didn’t answer, just kept adding stones to complete the circle. I started to help him without knowing why, simply because he’d asked me and because he seemed to have something in mind. Once we’d completed the circle, Mathew began to make a smaller one inside of the first, again by hauling over cobblestones of which some would’ve broken his foot had he dropped them. I followed along, walking here and there for likely looking stones and carting them back. Once we completed the second circle, Mathew began to form yet another one inside the other two. He still hadn’t told me what we were doing, but I continued to help. By the end, we had three concentric circles of rocks on the sand. Mathew got down on his knees and shifted several of them around to form an entryway into the very center.