Everything was perfect. It was the end of a long day’s work on what everybody was calling the hottest day of the summer—the kind in late July when the cicadas come out and make the air vibrate.
I had spent nine hours heaving rocks in the sun and sweat enough to fill a bathtub. It was crystal-clear, and at twilight—when the sky in the Connecticut River Valley takes on a luminosity that, unless you visit here, you can only get a sense of by looking at certain Maxfield Parrish paintings. I decided to drive up the road for a swim in the lake.
A fringe of sturdy white pines leans over the water. Interspersed with strewn boulders and granite ledges, they are its silent guardians. A lone billowing cloud was visible, sunken partway below the eastern horizon and suffused with pink by the setting sun, whose last rays shot from the other side of the world.
Across the still water, half a mile away, I could see a handful of boats floating lazily. They were mostly kayaks and canoes, but two men trolled noiselessly in an aluminum boat, and there was also a resting flotilla of four pontoon-boats tethered together in the middle of the lake.
I set my flip-flops on a stone by the water’s edge, pulled off my shirt, and waded into the dark water. To swim is to fly, to be at our very lightest. It is exertion without stress—a taste of enlightenment for the unenlightened. The water, as dark as that of any northern lake, had soaked up the heat of the sun and was deliciously warm. As soon as I flexed my muscles into a steady breast stroke, any hint of chill was gone.
I swam east toward the rising moon along the lake’s longest reach. Night seemed to fall with the same elegant slowness of my stroke. The sky touched fleetingly on every shade of blue and pink in the spectrum.
After about 30 minutes, when twilight was as close as it ever comes to wearing out its welcome (which never quite happens), I passed near three middle-aged women in kayaks. Stopping for an instant, I wiped the water from my eyes and said hello. “Hi!” they all said, with big smiles on their faces.
Farther along, when darkness had begun its inexorable creep through the atmosphere, I noticed that the party-boat flotilla was preparing to break up. Red bow lights sparked on, engines turned over and started to whir, and the dimly visible passengers shuffled to their seats. Goodnights were exchanged, and they all made off in different directions in that way that party boats do—the golf carts of the nautical world.
One of them lingered for a few minutes and then began to crawl my way. “Are you all right?” asked a man softly from the bow as the boat drew closer.
“Yes, I’m okay,” I said. “Thank you for checking.”
But before I had gotten my sentence all the way out, the man at the helm burst out, “I’m gonna give you a hundred dollars so you can go and buy me a lottery ticket, because you must be the luckiest goddamn son of a bitch alive!” Then he added, with undisguised aggression, “You know you could get hit.” It sounded like a threat.
“I can dive,” I said, as coolly as I could.
“Oh, that makes a lot of sense!” he fired back, so that I could practically hear the sneer on his shadowy face. He turned and slammed down the throttle, no doubt feeling like a real bad-ass, and I imagined him a little deflated when the response wasn’t quite that of a hydroplane. Had he forgotten that he was at the helm of a measly party boat?
His flaccid gesture of dominance aside, what kind of a response was that: “Oh, that makes a lot of sense”? To my mind it made perfect sense. If a boat is about to smash into you when you are swimming, all you can do is dive under it—just like the only way to save yourself from an automobile careening in your direction is to jump out of the way. Surely it is something that anyone who dares swim in open water can manage—hardly the implausible reaction the man made it sound like.
My baser side wanted to shout after him, “Is that really your comeback, buddy? I mean, after putting all that work into your initial assault, which, I have to admit, was rhetorically pretty sophisticated for a pontoon-boat pilot, what with the way you made it sound like you were going to pay me some kind of compliment for my having swum nearly a mile out into the lake in the dark, and then deftly flipped it around into a virulent personal attack. Didn’t have time to work out your second line so skillfully, did you?”
Actually, what I really wanted to do—what I pictured myself doing as I bobbed in and out of the dark water, watching my pale arms slice backward through it with each submersion—was latch on to the pontoon, pull myself up next to the man, clock him on the head, and say, “No one calls my mother a bitch, pal!” Then I would have grabbed him by the shirt and yanked him overboard with me, slamming the throttle forward with my free hand as I fell backward. As the boat sped (relatively speaking) away and we were left bobbing awkwardly in the water, I would have patted him paternally on the head and said, “Now there. You see, it’s not so scary down here after all, is it?”
But the thing is, it’s not just powerboats. A few years ago I was swimming across another New Hampshire lake to reach a secret rope swing, when a man in a red kayak paddled passed me, a little close for comfort. He swatted his paddle menacingly against the surface not two feet from my head, splashing me in the face. (What these characters seem to have in common is a rather pathetic sense of drama.) “This isn’t a swimming lake!” he grunted.
Come again? A swimming lake? Is there any other kind? Who says that!
It’s an old personal axiom of mine that it is not a thing’s absence but its presence that must be justified. Therefore each higher order of contrived complexity should yield, at least a priori, to its more basic predecessor. In most places anyway, cars must yield to pedestrians who wish to cross a road. But on the water my experience has shown me that there is a cohort of yahoos that does not realize that the prerogative to swim in a natural body of water is more basic, and so precedes, the right to boat in it. Following the same logic, the kayaker’s prerogative trumps that of the party boater (who can duke it out with the cigarette boat crowd over who comes next).
In his one-of-a-kind travel narrative, Waterlog, the late Roger Deakin recounts setting out to swim all through the United Kingdom following every imaginable sort of natural or semi-natural watercourse. “Swimming without a roof over your head is now a mildly subversive activity,” he writes. And elsewhere, in a similar vein, he adds, “Most of us live in a world where more and more places and things are signposted, labelled, and officially ‘interpreted.’ There is something about all this that is turning the reality of things into virtual reality. It is the reason why walking, cycling and swimming will always be subversive activities.”
For as much as subversion appeals to my inner anarchist, I sincerely hope that these elemental ways of moving will not always be considered subversive. But things nowadays look grim indeed for those of us who fancy the grace of simple motion.
The fact is, cars aren’t going anywhere, and neither are powerboats, snowmobiles, deafening jet engines, or any other of the sophisticated yet fraught technologies we humans have devised. Nor, frankly, do I wish them away. But I do wish that their users would learn to share the space they occupy, to be a little more mindful and considerate, to move with a keener sense of the medium that they are moving through—and not just plow indiscriminately through space.
I’ve got a hunch that there are lessons to be learned here from the most basic forms of locomotion: walking, swimming, the flight of birds and bats. Everyone will take away something a little different; it is enough to reflect on the way we are moving and occupying space at any given moment, whether sitting still, traveling on foot, riding a motorcycle, or piloting a pontoon boat. We can ask ourselves: Am I as aware as possible of my surroundings? Am I in intimate contact with them—whether they are dips in the ground, waves on the sea, raindrops falling, animals dashing across the road, or other humans zipping around on hang gliders? Am I moving as unobtrusively as I know how? How can I move still more gracefully? Imagine a dance between yourself and the world.
As regards the matter of sharing space, we are fortunate to have had a theorist of note in the field of urban traffic engineering. Dutch urban planner Hans Monderman’s basic premise in coordinating the flow of traffic in the European road systems he helped to overhaul was that signs and barriers should be removed from roadways in order to encourage contact among drivers and other users of urban spaces: “The trouble with traffic engineers is that when there’s a problem with a road, they always try to add something. To my mind, it’s much better to remove things,” Monderman told Wired magazine in 2004. In practical terms, the implementation of Monderman’s ideas has spelled a significant reduction in the number of traffic accidents, without exception.
Why? Because by removing the signals that distract roadway users from their surroundings and from one another, Monderman changed the way those users imagined the space they were moving in. Their relationship to it took a step away from referentiality and toward sensation. Prosaic as it may seem, this too is a kind of grace.
The objective is to stimulate a shift in consciousness that will create a new context of sharing. But context, conversely, can alter consciousness as well. “[N]orms can be influenced by context,” wrote Tom Vanderbilt in a 2008 Wilson Quarterly appreciation of Monderman. “Picture, for example, the improvised grass parking lots at county fairs: no stop signs, no speed limits, no markings of any kind—maybe just some kids with flags telling you where to go. But people, by and large, drive and walk in a cautious manner. There is no great epidemic of traffic fatalities at county fairs.”
Most waterways that people would seriously consider swimming in are not signposted, but they are abuzz with the careless comings and goings of all kinds of traffic. I doubt anyone would question that swimmers, with their eyes, ears and skin right at the surface of the water, are in closer tune with their surroundings than anyone else, ducks and fish excluded. Surely the very least the other users can do is not malign their presence, which is the most natural thing in the watery world. Once they have taken this step, they can begin to think a bit more like swimmers. They might ask themselves whether it is really necessary to go so fast, or how closely they are paying attention to what is happening on the surface of the water, as well as above and below it. Once this has been done, things like harmony, grace and beauty may begin to show themselves in unexpected places.
Swimming west again under the stars, I drove the juvenile fantasies of glorious vengeance against the pontoon-boat pilot from my mind. Soon, pacified by the swimming itself, I began to hope maybe he’d have second thoughts and swing back around to offer me a lift. I wouldn’t have taken it, of course, but I would have smiled and thanked him. I didn’t want an apology, just a mutual understanding, which is what it comes down to: You like pontoon boats, I like swimming. I’m happy to dive under your boat if you accidentally come close to hitting me, but I would also like you to think about the fact that swimming is a birthright in the water, while motoring around is a mere privilege. So don’t be surprised if there are people floating in our lakes, rivers and oceans.
To my fellow swimmers, I say get out there and start plying those wild waters before the boaters forget who we are. You don’t need any gear, just your limbs and a pair of lungs. You don’t even need a swimming suit, really—but that’s for another article. So dive in and stake your claim to the liquid element!
But if you are one of those who prefers to stay on deck—and that’s perfectly okay—just please don’t be a party-boat-pooper!
Author: Anders Morley
Editor: Travis May
Photo: Flickr/Jorge Lascar