What is to swim?

From fieldnotes, recorded Monday 26th May whilst on holiday in Wales (I had brought Olivia Laing’s excellent 'To the River' to read, which is why it features so prominently):

Funny, too, the spaces between swims. Here I am, missing it. I brought my suit and my cap and my goggles, as I always do, although the likelihood of me finding anywhere suitable to swim is almost none. To be given the opportunity and caught unawares would be awful, and the kit takes up almost no space in a rucksack heavy with waterproof jackets and boots.

I’m itchy to move – just watched a cyclist glide downhill through our window – but also enjoying not moving, for a bit. Again I think that submersion is not the same thing as swimming, though these nature writer types – Laing included, lovely as her words are – seem always to equate the two: the silty river touching her scalp puts her in contact with water in the same way that my up-and-down-the-lanes routine does me, in a way, but it feels very different. I derive another, and perhaps inferior, sense of satisfaction from wild submersion; it’s holier on the surface, but also wholly on the surface - a flimsier kind of satisfaction, initially wonderful but ultimately less profound or layered. But then, perhaps the argument (if it’s coherent enough to be called that) goes that if the water is still the body must move; and if the water is moving the body must be still. There’s a kind of poetic science in that, I suppose. These wild “swimmers” are letting the water do the swimming.

…which I guess brings up the question: what is to swim? What is the act itself? I haven’t thought to define it – in my work or in my own head – but it’s now demanding to be defined. Deakin and Macfarlane and Laing swim in the wild, but sometimes they do so without swimming at all – they float, or sit and sink their legs into water, or tread water. So what makes it swimming, if not a state of mind? Surely the “pure” act of swimming – doing laps and laps of front crawl, for instance, where you’re isolated from everything but the water and the motions of your own body – is pure only partly because of the physical enactment; to swim is to enter a certain state of mind, to take yourself to a certain place, or be taken there – to be, as Thomas A P Van Leeuwen puts it, both freed and contained by the water, at least intellectually (“While stirring the imagination, it [the pool] also prevents it from rambling; the container both kindles and quenches”). Otherwise to wade out into the River Irfon, as we did last August, knee-deep, me in a bikini, pushing against the current, slipping against the rocks, to sit in the middle of the stream with ice-cold currents eddying around our bodies, to submerge our shoulders but go no further – or to tread water, silty-scalped – would not be to swim: but it is, it is. And what is the role of the pool in all this? The pool is a container; the pool is this idea manifested physically, structurally, architecturally - perhaps. It’s a metaphor – it’s the physical manifestation of a dream (and dreams and swimming come up so often – even Laing’s book, which is waterlogged, seems to reinforce this; ostensibly or partly about Virginia Woolf, who ended up waterlogged, whose writing is dreamy, sometimes indistinguishable from a watercolor dream) – or of an idea; it’s the banal representation of all this. Maybe! It’s easy to get bogged down in this when you’re thinking just of the water itself, not about its context - to be carried away on a current -

“Water,” writes Laing, “is sly; make no bones about it. It slips in anywhere, though the doors might be barred against it, and is most equitable, favouring neither sewers nor churches.” So it slips into your consciousness, too, with all of its mystical qualities, and maybe this is actually more palpable at moments like this, when submersion is impossible. Maybe partly what I am missing in this space between swims is my routine, the comfort of overhearing changing room conversations about gardening and kids and holidays in Cornwall, the physical challenge, the upkeep of fitness - but there’s also that element of swimming which is less to do with the pool environment and more to do with whatever it is that makes a quick dip in a frigid, shallow stream a fulfilling experience.

“Some things,” Laing also writes, “are drawn to water and behave differently when they are near it. I’ve watched mist gather on the surface of a stream where there is none elsewhere, and seen those little circling courts of flies that dance all evening above a single kink in a current. Voices travel further by water too, as if the air’s been pulled so taut it carries impressions that would elsewhere be too subtle to perceive.”

But now movement at last: the rain has let up and  we’re going to take the wolfhound for a walk in a nature reserve and look for a rare orchid that grows there.