Sydney School of Arts & Humanities
Helping writers to write and publish their work
No 1 January 2021
THE TIDE’S IN
Our first feature for the new year offers a whole new perspective on appreciation of our planet, thanks to guest contributor, Rossella Venturi. Here she brings a fresh approach to the subject of what we can learn from the sea.
Six months ago, leading up to Sydney’s winter, I plunged back into the immense joy of swimming, my passion coinciding with the end of a COVID lockdown and the reopening of ‘Swim & Go’ measures at several beaches and pools. Soon after, I had a very aquatic conversation with a famous New York City swimming academic whom the Italian independent magazine Sirene (meaning ‘mermaids’ in Italian) had commissioned me to interview.
Professor Steve Mentz , 53, is a very welcoming, very simpatico American ‘aquademic’ who lectures on enticingly liquid subjects such as ‘Blue Humanities’ and ‘Watery Thinking’.
The ocean was freezing here in Sydney, especially so for me. Yes, I have been a swimmer all my life, but I grew up in Italy and I am used to swimming in the warm Med! Swimming in open ocean in winter? No, thanks very much.
Yet 2020 was the first year I felt an absolute necessity to keep swimming, even in winter, even in the freezing Pacific – along with having dozens of other so called ‘unprecedented’ experiences that year. I bought my first wet suit ever and splashed into the water. Bliss, brrr.
It was only after talking with Professor Mentz that I better understood why my urge to swim became so intense in the period of immense general uncertainty due, above all, to the pandemic but not just that.
Our conversation, adapted for publication here, courtesy of SireneJournal.
As we are Facetiming, Professor Steve Mentz in New York and I in Sydney, his words begin to reveal to me why I’m getting keener and keener to immerse myself in the ocean. Every day, every minute, for as long as I can.
‘Today we need swimmers more than warriors,’ he says. ‘We need people who feel at home in the water, in between the fluid instability of the waves and the currents.’
We are looking at each other on our laptop screens, he from the Atlantic and I from the Pacific, my hair still a little wet from diving into the waves at Coogee Beach early that morning. We confess to each other that for us as swimmers, the social distancing and the domestic confinement during the pandemic lockdown have been hard but not as hard to bear as the dryness, the distance from the salty sea.
Steve lives in Branford, Connecticut. His home overlooks a bay. ‘I usually swim every day from May to November,’ he tells me. ‘My personal and academic passion is everything that is vast, blue, and saline.’
A Shakespearean scholar, he has also poured the immensity of the ocean into St. John’s University in New York where he teaches literary theory, the history of the sea, and ‘Blue Cultural Studies’. This is a subject that, as soon as he pronounced it, I’d immediately decided I’d like to be there already studying. Particularly in these uncertain days, as we all try to trace new routes.
Steve wrote At the Bottom of Shakespeare’s Ocean, trawling every drop of the sea from The Tempest to Othello. He organized exhibitions on ancient navigational instruments from the sixteenth to the seventeenth centuries, from nautical charts to sailors’ prayers. He travelled the world delivering lectures about 'Oceanic Thinking' and 'Swimming into the Blue Humanities'. And he recently published Ocean (Bloomsbury Academic), a delightful book which is a jazzy and erudite history of our planet, for once seen exclusively from the sea water. It blends the origins of the oceans, the aquatic visions of Emily Dickinson, cyborgs and why New Yorkers today are rediscovering the sea in their vertical city. It looks as though everywhere, these days, people are discovering the joy of open water swimming.
For Steve, swimming and thinking are roughly the same thing. He discovered it as a child while counting laps in the pool every day as he trained in chlorinated water. He rediscovered it some ten years ago when he started to take one stroke after another in the Atlantic. Today he is convinced that long swims in the open sea are the most formidable meditation for us humans, to ponder the challenges of environmental crises.
‘Meditation and water are married forever,’ Melville wrote in Moby Dick.
But to Steve, swimming is also a practice of resilience. ‘Immersed in an element that is constantly moving, quite a fragile condition to be in, we learn to reach a relative equilibrium among the waves, the winds, the currents, knowing it won’t last.
‘Our planet is becoming increasingly unstable and less and less safe,’ he continues. ‘The glaciers are melting; the oceans are rising and lashing the coastlines. We humans must adapt to this growing impermanence and re-imagine how to live in the critical era we call the Anthropocene’.
That’s why Steve thinks that today, more than ever, we need people who can float, sail, trace routes in precarious situations, and repair the boat on which we are sailing.
‘We need sailors and swimmers more than soldiers and emperors, Ulysses more than Achilles. Maritime literature is the greatest archive of stories for surviving and heading forth in the storm.
‘Sailors know that continents are just transitory intrusions upon the liquid surface, and this planet, seventy per cent of which is made of water – more or less similar to our bodies – should be called “Ocean” not “Earth”.’
Professor Steve Mentz knows Sydney well. The last time he visited was in pre-COVID October 2019. After lecturing at the University of Sydney, he headed off to Shelley Beach, Manly, with a small group of colleagues and students, and had his first close encounter ever with a giant Australian cuttlefish.
‘Half a metre long, it floated over a prairie of seaweed, its body similar to a baguette – and it advanced by swinging imperceptibly, moving like a Halloween ghost. For a few minutes it let me swim with it. Until it stopped and, instead of turning around, it went backwards starboard, its tail now where its head was before. Then it disappeared among the sandstone rocks.
‘But as I watched, mesmerised, it swam in a sort of K-shape movement, and I thought: “I lay my hope in a humanity that can imitate the cuttlefish’s enigmatic and fluctuating way of redirecting itself.”’
Steve Mentz also reminds me that when we are down there underwater, we are both intruders and witnesses.
‘Being in the presence of a creature that is not like me is one of the ways I teach myself to live better in this world. To engage generously and kindly and not destructively. To experience and collaborate with a different point of view.’
Swimming is also crucial for Steve’s writing. He says he wrote Ocean in between freestyle strokes. He would throw himself into the water and each time he’d emerge with an idea for the next chapter. ‘Because when you’re in the water, following the rhythm of your breath, your mind takes you to places you don’t expect. You start to perceive everything from an offshore perspective.’
It’s the Blue Humanities approach. ‘We are a swimmer-speculative community,’ Steve explains. ‘Historians, nautical engineers, writers, navigators, artists and poets investigating the relationship between us humans and the ocean.
‘Few things in the world are as inebriating as becoming one with the rhythm of your strokes through breathing, to “feel the water”, to use an expression I have learnt from the great Murray Rose,’ he tells me as we say goodbye to each other.
Facetime off, I reach the Murray Rose Pool near Double Bay and dive into harbour water protected by shark nets. And yes, to put it in the words of the title of Murray Rose’s autobiography, now more than ever Life is Worth Swimming.
Copyright Rossella Venturi
Photos Rossella Venturi & Graeme McGlone (beaches & ocean);
Youtube Abyss Scuba Diving (giant cuttlefish)
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