For several years now, I’ve been lucky to work with the wonderful folk at AustLit, to think about how surfing and swimming and oceans appear in the AustLit database.
If you don’t know AustLit, then I’m very happy to introduce you to their amazing database of Australian literature and storytelling that not only includes references to the works themselves, but links relevant biographical and bibliographical information, full text, exhibitions and rich online content. This includes biographical and historical information about the people and organisations associated with the works covered. AustLit also has a broad definition of ‘the literary’, covering all forms of storytelling, including literature, stories, poetry, scripts, memoirs, reviews, and more.
In the ‘Swimming Wild’ project, we wondered about how outdoor swimming appeared through Australian literature and storytelling. The project reflects the growing enthusiasm for swimming outdoors, especially after the pandemic lockdowns. Swimming in oceans, rockpools, lakes, rivers, canals, ponds, dams, and other open bodies of water is different to swimming in chlorinated, symmetric pools. There are no lanes to direct our movements, but instead there are waves, currents, murkiness, animals, plants, rapids, rocks, and many other unknown obstacles or encounters. Swimming at places that feel risky is part of the fun.
While ‘wild swimming’ is being enthusiastically embraced in Europe. With temperatures varying, dipping in cold oceans, rivers and ponds is an activity that challenges the propensity for indoor comfort so common in cooler months. Last winter, this was taken to extremes and social media was filled with posts of #iceswimming, as people used small axes to break the ice of their favourite outdoor swimming places. Although there are competitive ocean and river swims, ‘wild swimming’ mostly refers to a recreational swimming and dipping with friends, that can have deep meaning in swimmers’ lives.
While in Europe, the term ‘wild swimming’ is popular, in Australia, it needs a bit more unpacking. For Australians, swimming outdoors is usual, with indoor pools much less common. The term also suggests a remote or rural feeling or being in nature, far removed from urban and suburban landscapes. But many people are immersing themselves in the oceans, rivers and ponds that flow around their towns and cities. Finally, ‘wild swimming’ reminds us of the ongoing issues of equity and colonisation that shape how we can access various bodies of water. For example, in Australia, segregated beaches and pools were common, and swimming sites continue to act as sites of colonial encounter and exclusion. Politics of what women must and must not wear on beaches have long played out, culminating in the hostility towards Muslim women who veil for cultural and religious reasons. These are a few examples of how bodies of water are political places, and equitable access to all people is rarely ensured. For many people, swimming wild can be an act of resistance.
Clearly, ‘wild swimming’ is a colonial term, one associated with western philosophical traditions that separate humans from nature. So with all of this in mind we flipped the romantic term here to ‘Swimming Wild’. We did this to reflect the genre of writing about swimming outdoors, but to emphasise the politics that are just beneath the surface.
In ‘Swimming Wild’, we explore the place of outdoor swimming in Australian literature. By taking a generous approach to thinking about swimming as a practice, we hope to reveal the various ways that swimming wild has shaped Australian literature.
Please come and visit AustLit to read the introductory essay about Swimming Wild, and to explore the collection.