In Charles Sprawson’s Haunts of the Black Masseur, I read of the poet Rupert Brooke that, “When working at the Bodleian he would get up in his country cottage long before dawn and bathe as he walked down to Oxford in the streams among the Cumner [sic] hills once favoured by Clough.”
I think about these young white men, striding across the land (land they seem to “own” as soon as they step on to it, whether or not they actually own it), suddenly having an urge, stripping down, getting wet, communing with nature: “bathing”. I think: to read about the (romantic) history of swimming, as rendered by Sprawson, is fascinating enough, but it doesn’t really get close to why I find it such a compelling subject. True, I’ve been known to plunge semi-impulsively into bodies of water – ice-melt lakes in the Sierras during camping trips, oceans, rivers, reservoirs – but I don’t have quite the same reverence for these encounters that I do for the highly regulated experience of going to the pool. For me immersion is not the same thing as swimming, exactly, though there’s obviously shared territory there. And surely man-made pool environments are as varied and compelling as the ponds and streams of the British countryside. Even ugly, reeking, creaking municipal buildings have their own particular charm. If nothing else the inhabitants of these environments invite interest: here the elderly, the very young, the fit, the fat, the disabled, the old pros, the just-learnings, are all united by a desire to transcend the apparent limitations of the human body. They’re here to float, to breathe. This is where the fizz of excitement is, to me. Who are these people, how have they come to be here, what brings them back, again and again and again, repeating the same old routine in the same old ugly, reeking, creaking building?
The other thing, if I’m honest, is that sometimes the nature-ness of nature alarms me. The thought of fish or reeds brushing up against me as I swim makes me shudder. To read some of Roger Deakin’s accounts in his “swimmer’s journey through Britain” is a difficult exercise: “Reaching down, I felt soft mud and ancient fallen branches, and sensed giant pike and eels”.
Perhaps mine is a “girly” reaction: perhaps I need to man up, strip down, learn to happily glide “downstream, brushed by fronds of water crowfoot that gave cover to trout”. But I remember, as a child, paddling a surfboard across a saltwater pond that had formed near our local beach, and feeling the rush of a scaly fish-like creature moving against my submerged arm, and screaming, my body rigid on the board. My father came to the edge of the water with something like concern on his face. “A fish!” I wailed at him. “Help! There’s a fish!” – and it wasn’t so much the presence of the fish (I wasn’t afraid of it in a conventional way, I wasn’t worried about what it might do to me) as the thought of the encounter, a visceral memory playing over and over again – the way it slithered, the way it was unlike me. My father wandered away, down the beach again, bemused, and I paddled frantically to the sand and pulled the board out of the water. I don’t much like the squishiness of riverbed beneath my feet, either – you never know what you might encounter. I remember walking in the shallow part of a river near a friend’s house and treading on a dead fish; there went the same shiver of unknown fear down my back, the same sense of the body of water as haunted.
For swimming “in the wild”, I prefer the ocean, my native habitat, the kind of open water with which, growing up on the California coast, I’m most intimately acquainted – but I respect it greatly, its fickleness, its waves and tides, and I’m not sure I can ever be a swimmer in the sea in the same way that I’m a swimmer in a pool. In the ocean I’m just briefly part of something much bigger. I’m intensely aware of the danger, and therefore of my self in relation to that danger. I’m treading lightly, paying constant attention to my (physical and emotional) limits. It’s good, it’s important, but it’s different. (Though maybe not so different: what did I say I liked so well about the pool? Partly the limits, the sense of/need for control…)