The world-famous primatologist discusses her new book, which is back on shelves after some controversy.
Robin Young and former broadcast journalist and writer Lynn Sherr take a dip in the placid waters of Crystal Lake in Newton, Massachusetts, and talk about Sherr’s new book, “Swim: Why We Love the Water.”
Sherr’s book interweaves fascinating facts about swimming and its history with the story of her own pursuit of one of swimming’s legends: swimming across the Hellespont, now called the Dardanelles, the busy shipping lane that divides Europe from Asia.
At one level, it’s purely sensual: the silky feeling of liquid on skin; the chance to float free, as close to flying as I’ll ever get; the opportunity to reach, if not for the stars, at least for the starfish. Swimming stretches my body beyond its earthly limits, helping to soothe every ache and caress every muscle. But it’s also an inward journey, a time of quiet contemplation, when, encased in an element at once hostile and familiar, I find myself at peace, able—and eager—to flex my mind, imagine new possibilities, to work things out without the startling interruptions of human voice or modern life. The silence is stunning.
Have I mentioned that I’m a Pisces?
Over the years, I’ve managed to satisfy my cravings in an eclectic collection of international water holes. I’ve swum in an outdoor heated pool during a snowfall in Utah and from a black volcanic beach in Greece, in a stream-fed pond in the mountains of northern Kenya and in the cool aquamarine of a pool in the Australian desert. I’ve shared the sea with flabby Soviet matrons in the Crimea and alternated lanes with perfectly molded starlets in Beverly Hills. At a beach resort on Koh Samui, in the Gulf of Thailand, I had my choice of an infinity-edge pool with freshwater, a freeform version with salt water, and the gorgeous gulf itself. I have never had a bad swim. But I choose carefully. Once, planning a trip to Mongolia, I contemplated a dip in the cerulean depths of Lake Khuvsgul, a pristine alpine wonder about the size of New York’s Long Island that is visible from the space station. It is the second largest lake in Asia (after Russia’s Lake Baikal), supplying 2 percent of the world’s freshwater, and I saw a perfect addition to my repertoire. What I hadn’t planned on was the ice, still keeping the waters frigid in June. I kayaked instead.
Swimming is, in short, an obsession, benign but obstinate. “How do you get through the day if you can’t throw yourself into water?” asks a character in playwright Richard Greenberg’s The American Plan. And swimmer after swimmer tells me that she or he just doesn’t sleep as well without a swim. That it restores their sanity—from the world, from their kids, from themselves. That it’s not something they can skip. “I’m sure I’d be an alcoholic if I didn’t have the swimming pool,” says Esther Dyson, the high-tech guru and venture capitalist who has been swimming laps daily since she was eighteen. “It’s my reset button.” Over brunch, after that morning’s swim, she tells me she used to write notes for her groundbreaking newsletter in between laps, keeping the paper dry on the bench. She still stays only at hotels with pools, posting an image of each on the web. Others turn up in her dreams. “Sometimes it’s a moat, and I just keep swimming,” she says. “Sometimes the pool is empty, just pavement. That’s anxiety.”
The lane line keeps us centered in more ways than one. The rhythm of our strokes brings order to our senses.
From a purely aesthetic view, swimming works magic. Henry James once said that the two most beautiful words in the English language are “summer afternoon.” Add the word “swimming,” and the day blooms even more grandly, especially if the fluid is as lucid as poet Anne Sexton described it:
Water so clear you could
read a book through it.
The British writer Charles Sprawson, whose elegant meditation Haunts of the Black Masseur has become a cult classic among the water-obsessed, defines the historical swimmer as “someone rather remote and divorced from everyday life, devoted to a mode of exercise where most of the body remains submerged and self-absorbed.” Swimming, he writes, “appealed to the introverted and the eccentric, individualists involved in a mental world of their own.” When I telephone him at his home in London to express my admiration, Sprawson confirms that he’s describing himself. “Group swimming is not for me,” he says. “I like swimming in odd places with legendary backgrounds.” Like the Hellespont, which he’s crossed twice. “It will be jolly nice,” he encourages me before I go. “It will give you time to think.”
From the book Swim by Lynn Sherr. Reprinted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2012.