when a book is a companion

bucket list

This is where I swim most mornings from late June until October. I love the water and have been swimming in this lake since 1980. There have been some changes around the lake but not many. My children swam daily, in summers, all the years they lived here and returning, it still brings them to its shores at least once a day. I’ve always understood that it was once an ocean inlet and that the water at the very bottom is salty. I know it’s deep. And one summer there were jelly-fish in the lake. One summer, leeches. Cutthroat trout. Last week I saw loons, a family of them, and there are mergansers, mallards, heron, eagles, Canada geese, stands of huge firs and cedars along the lake, little pockets of wild mint, arbutus, hardhack (which is blooming now), a few of the beautiful Pacific rhododendrons at the far end by the ecological reserve, Nootka roses, sweet gale, and whew, I didn’t mean to write the lake shore but it seems I have. This is partly because I’m reading the most wonderfully companionable book right now, Jessica J. Lee’s Turning: A Year in the Water, in which she details the lakes she swims in around Berlin over the course of a year, sometimes cutting through the ice to make a place large enough for her to submerge her body for a brief dip.

Jessica is an environmental historian, tracing landscape changes on Hampstead Heath in London, and part of the book’s narrative follows her as she works on her dissertation. She says, “I”m not trained as a scientist, but an environmental historian must be adaptable. For this reason, I jump between history, ethnograph(y) and botany. Archives, interviews and plant keys. As a swimmer, limnology is another kind of key. A way to read the lakes.” And this is a thread that guides the reader as it guides the author. Water quality and how it shapes the experience of someone swimming the lakes is affected by so many things and we see them from the perspective of a woman who notices the plants, algae, mushrooms by the shore, plantings near the shores, whether the water bodies are naturally-occurring or anthropogenic (old quarries and so on), and how widely the lakes are used seasonally.

She is interested in language, too, and how it shapes our understanding of a landscape.

It starts with a marsh. Birch wood gives way to straight, skinny alder, sunken deep in the marsh along the River Briese, which cuts north of the city. A successful stage between swamp and forest, this Erlenbruchwald is known in English as a ‘carr’. Like ‘Berlin’, ‘carr’ basically means ‘swamp’.

[As an aside: I wondered at the etymology of Briese. Was the river named for Bri(e)seis, the woman taken by Agamemnon from Achilles in the Iliad? But no, it seems the root is “breza”, an Old Slavonic word for birch…]

Turning is about swimming, yes, and it’s about love, about estrangement—from our bodies, from our families—and how we make that turn back to wholeness. It’s no accident that Jessica’s swims are always towards the centres of the lakes. On a swim just before flying to Canada for Christmas:

I slip into the water and it’s exactly as I expect: bracing cold, the metallic feeling of its grey sliding over me. I swim out to the centre, counting my strokes, longing to be out and dry away. I count to sixty and then turn back. Better things wait for me in the days ahead: warmth, light and respite from the grey of the city. When I come back, I hope it will have turned to white.

The book takes us through the places (Canada, Berlin and surrounding Brandenburg, London and Hampstead Heath’s Ladies’ Pond), plunges us into  lakes while reminding us of their unique seasonal stratifications, and is the most congenial book to read after a morning swim in Ruby Lake where the water is green and familiar. I have two short chapters to go and I’m going to make them last. And I must confess that the author’s bold habit of swimming in winter might just be infectious. Here’s what our lake looked like two winters ago, on New Year’s Eve:

arthur at ruby lake

It’s tempting.

3 thoughts on “when a book is a companion”

  1. I loved that book. The image that remains in my mind is of Jessica sitting in a towel after a winter swim, eating her customary hard-boiled egg. I admire her strength of purpose in swimming all those lakes – in all seasons.

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