In his 65th year of life Stanley Ulijaszek swam in 65 different places. As if the world wasn't complicated enough, he did his last swim in two places at once: In the English Channel at Chesil beach and in the pool of Thames Lido in London. How is that possible?
"I had planned my last swim, which was going to be from Kew to Hammersmith, in the Thames in London. But it didn't happen because of Corona. There was another thought that the Thames Lido, in Reading, should be my last swim. Because the person that put the idea in my head did his last swim when he was 50 years old at the same place. And then Chesil Beach came up as an idea. It’s a place of ambiguity, because it's beautiful and dangerous at the same time.
When you get close to the water, you hear these rocks tumbling and you have this auditory landscape-seascape.
It is a very physical place. The rocks are sort of quite big, big as your hand. They are tumbling around. And as you go into the water, these tumbling rocks are formed into step-like platforms because this is how the waves have shaped this beach. When you get close to the water, you hear these rocks tumbling and you can hear as the waves cross from one side of the beach to the other, you have this auditory landscape-seascape. You hear what's happening.
The fact is that the water, when it tumbles, doesn't give you the kind of regular expectation of being in the ocean, no, the water is singing. Then you start thinking about what is the present moment, what is the physical reality of this place? In the end, you could take it all back to elementary particles.
Reality is not what it seems. We construct it in our brains. And when we write, we can write many realities if we wish. So we have this great problem with objectivity, with subjectivity. While I was sitting at Chesil Beach the uncertainty principle came with “Oh, I am at Chesil Beach and at Thames Lido. I'm going to be in both places at the same time.”
After this mind-flip, it developed into: I'm here in this place, physically, now. But let’s just take it back to its materiality, this Chesil Beach. The rocks, the stones, it’s materiality is physical, I perceive it under my feet as I'm going into the water. But it's also the particles of water, which are constantly moving and changing and twisting and segregating. And everything is moving around. These rocks feel solid but the water is doing something very different with its molecules. So you have these very physical molecules in this rock and you have these very fluid molecules in the water. You have both these things colliding. I guess that's how the idea came about.
Our bodies are much more complex
and can take us into new worlds.
In my professional life in this last year, I've been working with colleagues at the University of Bologna on something we're calling ecological sensing. We have developed this as a new way of thinking about the human body in relation to the environment, drawing together a wide and until now unconnected scientific literature on bodily receptors located in different tissues that orchestrate integrated responses to external and internal stimuli, and in turn help us shape our environments through our responses to them. In particular, we are working on taste, because the taste receptors are not just taste receptors. They perceive disease in your lungs. They perceive disease in your intestines. They do many different things. They are ecological sensors. The relationship between pain and heat is another example of ecological sensing: When you eat something sweet after you've been in cold water, it reduces pain. Sweetness generally reduces your perception of pain. I hope this doesn’t sound too complicated; but I take this idea of ecological sensing with me whenever I go swimming.
Our bodies are much more complex and can take us into new worlds. So throughout the year of 65 swims I've been thinking about the idea of ecological sensing. About, how we perceive the world. When you're swimming, your hands are so important, you're perceiving so much of the world through them, and as the water glides across your body. Being able to sense a place and really concentrate on knowing that place through swimming as opposed to going swimming. Knowing somewhere, through swimming.
How you understand a place through swimming is different from being on the land. Your feet are grounding you. There’s gravity. When you are swimming you take off your clothes, no gravity, you're sensing of the world is much more complete. You're not sensing it through the bottom of your foot. You're sensing it through your whole body. And that is very, very, very different, you sensing it through breathing, through how your arms are moving. You understand the world in a multisensory modality.”
From swims to stones
I talked to Stanley right after his last swim(s) which have already happened in October 2020. Stanley is not only a passionate outdoor swimmer and a brilliant blogger but also a Professor of Human Ecology at Oxford University. I recommend his podcast swimmingpod where he interviews swimmers from different places and countries.
While we were talking via Zoom, Stanley took a pebble he collected at Chesil Beach. He held it into the camera and showed it from all sides. The pebble was flat, round and it seemed to be very soft, washed up by the sea. We did a pebbles exchange: Stanley sent me the one from Chesil Beach and I sent him a pebble from the banks of river Rhine. His stone is on our dining table. Like a promise to be at Chesil Beach one day.