Steve Mentz

Swimming Lessons


Six hundred of us faced the water. We all looked one way, crowded up at the shore. Some wore Speedos and others full wetsuits. Flesh and neoprene shone in the early morning glare. We had come to Chesapeake Bay, in the shadow of the Bay Bridge, to swim 4.4 miles from Maryland’s Western to Eastern Shores.

Covering that distance in the water carves out a substantial block of time, a discrete isolated period to experience fluid dislocation intimately and physically. I wasn’t there to win—I knew I couldn’t keep up with the fastest swimmers. I wanted to think some things through.

I use long-distance swimming as a way to imagine how to live in our age of ecological crisis. The prolonged experience of immersion, its difficulties, stresses, and pleasures, parallels how we are learning to endure the uncertainties and cataclysms of a post-climate change world. Being in the water forces the physical realities of our terraqueous globe onto your skin. The blue world ocean threatens human bodies. For land mammals like us, the ocean feels unstable, dynamic, and inhospitable. But the gray-green silty waters of Chesapeake Bay that afternoon proved survivable, even pleasurable. For a little while.

For the first few hundred yards we swam into the incoming tide, starting on the beach and swimming south toward the twin spans of the Bridge. For most of the race we would labor beneath the shadows of massive towers and concrete pilings, under a sliver of bright sky between the bridge’s two parallel spans. But first we had to get under those towers, so we struggled for ten minutes against the current.

I started with Joseph Conrad.

Swimming matters to me because we humans can learn how to do it, even do it very well, but the process exposes a mismatch between bodies and environment. We’re neither whales nor dolphins. Eventually we need to get out of the water. Stein, a minor character in Conrad’s Lord Jim, emphasizes that swimming is, at bottom, futile:

Very funny this terrible thing is. A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea. If he tries to climb out into the air as inexperienced people endeavor to do, he drowns….No! I tell you! The way is to the destructive element submit yourself, and with the exertions of your hands and feet in the water make the deep, deep, sea keep you up.

The “exertions of your hands and feet” provide a bleak vision of swimming as human insufficiency, but these motions do postpone drowning. Stein’s half-step syntax articulates the awkwardness of human swimming. As Conrad knows, as all swimmers and sailors know, there is no long-term survival plan for humans in the ocean. The immersive experience, being inside the “destructive element,” teaches ecological dislocation. Open water swimming puts you in touch with the tenuousness of human bodies. My physical thought experiment that morning in Maryland sought conceptual tools for living inside a hostile environment.

Getting underneath the Bridge required Stein’s practiced exertions. I usually avoid the “Cuisinart start” of open-water races, in which swimmers plunge together into the water in a thrashing tangle of knees and elbows, but that was hard to do in such a big group. I got kicked in the shoulder, and my foot grazed a neoprene flank. We swam close together as we passed under and inside the spans. It’s disorienting to force oneself quickly into a strenuous physical rhythm – I followed a three-stroke alternate-side breathing pattern for most of the race –knowing that you’ll need to keep repeating exactly those motions for hours. At the start I felt strong and fast; the current couldn’t move me. I got kicked in the head and concentrated on Conrad.

Then I turned the corner and was inside. Two concrete spans framed my watery world on right and left for the next two-plus hours. I’d stared at the bridge from shore: a pair of suspension towers punctuate the 4.3 mile expanse, one about one third of the way across, and another smaller tower three-quarters of the way to the Eastern Shore. Inside the channel we had kayaks as guides. Rescue boats lurked outside the bridge. As a special bonus, a coal barge was anchored mid-channel, so that we had to swim around it. Obstacles and allies.

For the next few hours I was alone with water, thoughts, and exertions. I was Stein, but also Aquaman, Odysseus, and Captain Nemo. Swimming from shore to shore.

Metis is one of my favorite salt-water words. The special talent of Odysseus, hero of tricks and turns, in Greek it means “craftiness” or skill. It includes the “cunning intelligence” that makes symbolic systems, including language, work to the hero’s advantage. In a maritime context the word usually means seamanship. For swimmers it’s how you move your arms and legs. “Exertions,” as Stein puts it.

But a swimmer’s exertions aren’t supposed to be as awkward as Stein’s English. Swimmers move through “feel for the water,” a phrase made famous by many swim coaches and competitors like Murray Rose, winner of two Olympic gold medals in 1956. Rose distinguishes swimming from normal human movements:

The principal quality…demanded of a swimmer is a ‘feel for the water.’ He should use his arms and legs as a fish its fins, and be able to feel the pressure of the water on his hands, to hold it in his palm as he pulls the stroke through without allowing it to slip through his fingers.

It’s about pretending to be a fish, not a person. My own coach tells me the same thing: a swimmer should imagine that when he (me) puts his hand in the water, it sticks there. When you pull back, you don’t slide your arm through the water but pull your body over your stationary hand as it holds the water still. That’s impossible, of course, but it’s what a swimmer imagines.

It’s about attempting, with partial success, to impose form on formlessness. That’s what I was doing that morning between the bridge spans: not imposing my physical form on the moving water – no chance of that – but inserting my form-creating body into the salt water and finding a way through that massive body, working through the repetitive churn of stroke after stroke, breathing on the left and right for balance, kicking just enough to keep my body streamlined on the surface. When the chop hits your mouth, your stroke misses, or your legs jack-knife in reaction to a slightly off-line stretch from your arms, it’s hard to glide back into form. But it’s only through form that you move through the water.

Twenty-five minutes into the race, I settled beneath the shadows of the towers with Thoreau’s “machine in the garden” flitting through my mind. But my bridge-machine was in the ocean, not a garden. I was after something bluer and messier than the sage of Concord’s idyll by the fresh water of Walden Pond. I wanted disorder, fluidity, inhospitality, and I wanted to exert myself inside it for a long time. To feel, consciously and physically, salt water on my skin, the taste of a dynamic world.

Turning words over as I rotated my shoulders, I found some phrases. Jules Verne: mobilis in mobili. That’s Captain Nemo’s motto, mobility inside the mobile thing, change in change, flux. On the Captain’s monogramed dinner service the words appear alongside the initial “N,” standing for Nemo, the Odyssean “nobody” for whom “the sea is everything.” Swimmers are Nemo without the submarine, plunging into the world ocean with just our bodies, form, and exertion. We can’t go beneath the waves like the Nautilus – long-distance swimmers, like most humans, float near the ocean’s surface – but being wet means that we feel oceanic disorder with our bodies. That’s why I wasn’t wearing a wetsuit that day in the Chesapeake: I wanted to feel salt water on bare skin. “The earth does not want new continents,” says Nemo, “but new men” (90). Or perhaps not new men, with their heroic masculine desire to singularize, but new forms. New ways to live in disorder without being disorderly.

Asking for a swimmer’s response to ecological catastrophe means seeking a “feel for the water” inside our storm-filled world. Not just survival stories, but passages through rough water from one place to another. Swimming insists on impermanence. We need to get out on the other side, because land mammals can’t stay in the water too long. We crave a land-sea, order-flux pattern for our terraqueous lives.

An hour later we crossed from flood to ebb, passing through the still point. The race had started shortly before the turning of the tide to maximize calm water. But tidal basins are never still, not for more than an instant. All that ocean surges up and up through Chesapeake Bay, ton upon fluid ton, sloshing upriver stops. And pivots on an unseen point to ebb back down to sea.

I was tired and my mouth tasted salt. The crowd had thinned out, and I was just reaching the western suspension towers, not yet halfway across. I started thinking about the cars speeding east and west on the roadway above. I also thought about the Prince of Denmark, who signs a letter, “Thine evermore, most dear Lady, / Whilst this machine is to him, Hamlet” (2.2.123-24). It’s Shakespeare’s only use of the word “machine.” For Hamlet, the human body, like the cosmos, resembles a well-functioning mechanical system. In Chesapeake Bay I wanted Hamlet’s machine-body: always working, dependable, beyond conscious control. A system operating through involuntary mechanics, a body just being body. Shakespeare’s half-lines echoed with my splashes as my arms reached forward, my body rotating from hip to hip. Breathing was awkward, as if demonstrating the poor fit between terrestrial body and aquatic environment. I had to choose to breathe right or left more or less consciously, balancing myself in the slight but increasing chop. “This machine” was working. That’s what I was in the water. A faint alienation of self sits near the heart of Hamlet’s love-letter to Ophelia, and that auto-abstraction kept me swimming, slowly but in form, from west to east.

Being mechanical sounds like the opposite of being natural, but we need mechanicity to survive in disorderly environments. Our exertions must be continual, and anything patterned falls into form. We’re taught to fear becoming machines, that it’s a betrayal of some essential humanity. Students balk at Hamlet’s self-description, or interpret it as part of his existential crisis. Machines, we’re told, created our post-industrial malaise.

That’s not quite right: we need machines, to love them and to be them. Efforts to bring nonhuman agents back into view, in the writings of Bruno Latour, Jane Bennett, Timothy Morton, Donna Haraway, and the merry band of Object-Oriented Onthologists point in a necessary direction. We need machine selves, mechanized patterns and non-conscious repetitions, to keep us afloat. “Feel for the water” requires precise, mechanical labor as well as liquid flow.

The fastest swimmers reached shore about an hour into the ebb, but I had more immersion ahead of me. By the time I reached the second suspension bridge the tide was roaring out, and I was flagging. Bridge-pilings, closer together toward the far shore, came faster now even though I was moving slower. I didn’t realize how much effort it took to swim straight until I got to the orange buoy where I was supposed to turn right and cross outside the spans before the last push to shore.

As I lifted my face out of the water for the first time in two and a half hours, the current grabbed me, imperceptibly at first, and whisked me beneath the span. A momentary relaxation, a break in my mechanical form, and just like that I was outside. The ebb controlled my body.

So many Romantic fantasies imagine mortality as union with water, from Ahab’s last dance with Moby-Dick to Shelley’s final sail. In Thomas Hardy’s great poem on the Titanic, the disaster completes a union between the ocean liner and the “Shape of Ice” that is her “sinister mate.” Shipwreck becomes “consummation.” But flowing out with the ebb, having the waters carry you the direction they’re already moving, isn’t Romantic. I wasn’t in love with the Chesapeake. It was matter-of-fact. The tide flowed, and I flowed too.

The final five hundred yards to Hemingway’s Marina on the Eastern Shore were the worst part of the race. The water was shallow and too warm, barely three feet deep for the last hundred strokes. Without the bridge to insulate and terrify – without the machine to frame my watery not-garden – it was just exertion, stroke after stroke onto a gritty beach. Staggering up past the timing chip return stations and refusing the sub sandwiches some sponsor had provided, I lost poetry, ecology, and everything else I’d been thinking about. I didn’t return to them until I was stuck in traffic forty-five minutes later, driving back west across that same bridge.

Isolated in the driver’s seat, I sorted through what I’d swum through.

“Form calms mobility.” Repeated form transforms mobility into something that feels stable. I believe in This dynamic ecologies, and I think that we make mistakes about things like sustainability because of our reluctance to accept dynamism as fundamental rather than accidental. If we accept instability and search for ways of inhabiting change rather than counter-acting it, we may arrive at a different understanding of repetitive patterns and formal structures. Poets and swimmers both work through patterned repetition. Form builds machines to endure disorder.

“Exertion loves to hide.” This one borrows its form from a maxim of Heraclitus’s that’s accompanied me on other long swims, “nature loves to hide.” If nature is the hidden secret at which we may never arrive – perhaps it’s not really there?– exertion is the invisible input behind all ecological endeavors, the biotic cost of the systems in which we swim. Critical thinking causes exertion to surface, drags it out of its hidey-hole so that we can examine it, the way an expert eye critiques a racer’s stroke. We need that insight. But exertion always sneaks beneath the surface again. Perhaps a machine is just a system that keeps its exertions hidden.

“Immersion is temporary, but it works.” I swim across bodies of salt water for fun, for a sense of accomplishment, and for the philosophical benefits of strangeness, distortion, and three hours of perfect privacy. It’s physical, and also one of the only times I can be sure mind and body are working through the same patterns, the same puzzles, fitting themselves into the same forms. Body-mind unity is not easy to come by, even for a little while. It was worth the time, the strain, and, after I got home, the painful sunburn on my back. My skin started peeling the next day.