Landscape and Memory: Pool

In preparation for the ARENA masterclass with Robert Macfarlane I attended a couple of weeks ago, we were asked to write 'up to a page on landscape and memory for pre-circulation', using Macfarlane's writing as stimulus but drawing upon our own work and experience. This idea of landscape is intriguing to me in the context of my own research: is the pool, so contained, so visually repetitious, a landscape? It's perhaps more intuitive to envision my project as a form of architectural geography - the pool is a building, indoors, wholly man-made - but I'm also not convinced it's that simple. True it's not the Cairngorms, but the pool has depth. Anyhow I enjoyed this as an exercise; here's what I wrote:


Goleta, California, Christmas Eve. I’ve driven 45 minutes to have a swim, not in the glittering Pacific, which opens out along the edge of the 101, spilling over the edge of the horizon as I speed south, but in a pool, 25 metres long, divided into four narrow lanes. It’s 80 degrees out, a heat wave, a drought. The hills are already bleached gold, a sign of profound thirst, presaging summer wildfires.

When I arrive the pool is half in shadow, half in sun. Today there’s only one other swimmer plowing up and down, and as I approach I recognise the stroke of my 87-year-old grandmother, on one of her thrice-weekly swims. We share the pool for a while, until she gets out, and I have it all to myself, and I do a few lengths of backstroke, gazing up at the clear-blue sky. When I go back to England we’ll write to each other, as we do every month or so, about conditions at our respective pools. ‘Today the water was warm, the sky was full of interesting clouds and birds and the pool was empty except for one other swimmer, and I still remembered how to swim,’ she’ll say. ‘The temperature here is just above freezing and all the trees are bare. It’s actually very appealing to swim in the winter, when it’s too cold and dark to stay outside for very long,’ I’ll say.

Pools are reliably dull, at least at first glance. Everything is contained, controlled, regulated. Step into a pool in London or Los Angeles or wherever, and you’ll soon get the hang of things, settle into a rhythm. Maybe you’ll count lengths, or focus on a slight twinge in your shoulder, or sing little snippets of song to yourself as you swim. Maybe a single word or phrase, uttered by a companion the night before, will get lodged in your head, rolling through your mind: cremant du jura, cremant du jura, cremant du jura. A plaster floats by. A hint of mould in the grouting of the tiles. Sunken elastic hairbands make rings on the bottom of the pool. The landscape is both blank canvas and painting, mirror and window. As Thomas Van Leeuwen put it in his history of the private swimming pool, astutely observing how the architecture of the pool corresponds to its use: ‘While the pool allows, even invites, intellectual wanderings, at the same time it prevents the wanderer from losing his way…The container encloses but also retains, holds together, and keeps from spilling. While stirring the imagination, it also prevents it from rambling; the container both kindles and quenches.’ When I read that I think of the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan: ‘Place is security,’ he wrote, ‘space is freedom: we are attached to the one and long for the other.’

It’s a landscape that leaves a mark on you: the distinctive stroke of my grandmother, acquired after eighty years of practice. And yet the thing about water, or pool-water, anyhow, is that it’s impossible to leave a record of your own journey through it. How many hours, days, have I spent forging and re-forging the same path, up and down, in the very same lane? The water opens up to my body and swallows it, embraces it, but it doesn’t remember it: once the body’s left so too are all traces of its movement, the splashes and bubbles, eddies and swirls. The memory is in muscles, in heart.