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Kinds of Blue: On the Human Need to Swim

Karen Lloyd Considers the Swan, the Damselfly, and How We Muster Resilience

November 5, 2021  By Karen Lloyd
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For me, part of being human means taking to the water. I’m resilient enough to swim from spring until autumn without a wetsuit. Wetsuits mean you can’t feel the silky film of freshwater or saltwater on your skin. In water, I am in my element. I need it. When I swim in the lakes or the tarns or rivers, I carry home the trace of long immersion, the water’s mossy amniotic scent. I have sensitive feet, and this is a trait of being Pisces. It shows on the days I forget to pack my swimming shoes and enter the water by slithering and slipping on the stones that hurt my feet, but that must be negotiated to reach the deeper water.

Pisces are sensitive souls in all kinds of ways. We are dreamers. I live with my head in the clouds even when my body is in the water. When I am not swimming, sometimes I dream about swimming. Sometimes I daydream about swimming and plan when I can next get away to swim. If I don’t swim, I get depressed. Not medication-depressed, just ordinary depressed. When I was in my twenties, I swam every day. I got addicted to swimming, and on days when I didn’t swim, my body itched to. I once swam with a friend who, in a bikini, swam in Lake Coniston after breaking the ice to make a swimming hole. I watched. I am not a swimmer in ice. Not yet.

Where does it all come from, this need to swim? This need to be carried by the only other element that can take our weight—as long as we know how to hold ourselves and accommodate it, to float or to swim. I could say that, by being immersed in water, we are returning to our amniotic time and to that idea of beginning again, like baptism, but there’s nothing new in that. I was never baptized. At the age of eleven, I was suddenly horrified by the thought that my body could not be buried in consecrated ground. Instead, I would become an outcast. (Why it mattered, I never stopped to ask; I wouldn’t be around to know the difference.)

One Sunday, I left the house early and walked to the local vicarage. I knocked on the big wooden door. The vicar answered and I said that I’d come to be baptized. Instead of taking me into the church immediately and carrying out the procedure (which is what I’d imagined would happen—all over and done with in ten minutes flat), he asked me inside. He opened the Bible and said start reading here and see where you think you should stop. I didn’t know where or when to stop. I read on. And on. He stopped me eventually and said: “You can join in confirmation classes as well and then we can do both at the same time—baptism and confirmation!” Like two for the price of one. Like this was a good thing. I ran a mile. I tried to wash away all the embarrassment. To let it dissolve in the slipstream.

If I could begin again, would I make a better job of my life? Can I start again? Can I learn from my mistakes? Can we?

Sometimes in midsummer, when I swim in the lakes or the tarns, I swim with the tiny blue darts of common damselflies. If I swim early in the morning, the damsels among the reeds and the water lilies might still be dressed up in dew. Mercurial, illuminating the liminal, they sling transient, lissom nets of electromagnetic charge and purl azure stitches above the water lilies.

*

The whooper swan can see the Earth’s magnetic field. The Earth’s invisible-to-humans magnetic field is generated deep inside the Earth and, when it emerges, it stitches a net of blue that radiates around the blue planet. Inside the swan’s eye is a protein called cryptochrome, or Cry4. Inside the bird’s eye, Cry4 receives the blue light of the magnetic field. Cry4 is clustered in a part of the bird’s retina that is sensitive  to blue light. The process of seeing the magnetic field is called magnetoreception. The magnetic field spirals the Earth from north to south and is picked up by the eye of the whooper swan that has just set out on its autumn migration. As the swan heads south from the Icelandic breeding grounds, its eye receives the light we cannot see above the continents and the oceans, and it processes the net of blue for navigation. Cry4 is the arrow in the compass. It orientates the swan along a line of travel, maintaining it to within five degrees of correction.

Where does it all come from, this need to swim? This need to be carried by the only other element that can take our weight—as long as we know how to hold ourselves and accommodate it, to float or to swim.

Sometimes whooper swans travel very close to the surface of the ocean. They have been recorded leaving Iceland and arriving on the coast of southern Scotland in twelve hours straight. Hopefully, as they swing in from the north, they avoid the blades of off shore wind farms. And in the daylight or in the dark, when they land on the pools at Caerlaverock on the Solway coast, each already arrived swan family greets the next to arrive with trumpeting fanfares. Sometimes the swans stand on the water and beat their wings in an apparent act of recognition, and sometimes they arrive and ruffle their feathers as if to say: Great. Now, where’s the food?

And so it goes, all through the winter months, and when a full moon hangs in the dark like the backdrop of an opera and illuminates all the arriving-swan-family drama below, the raucousness continues long into the night. When I stay in the guest house overlooking the pools in the autumn and winter, sleep can be hard to find. I get up and stand at the window, peering out at the moon, and I see how it lights up the water and the earth around the water and the swans in the water and, each time I look, there are more and more swans.

I wonder about that net of blue. If I could see it, would it help to keep me orientated in my life or would it merely get in the way? Does it get in the way of the swans and the other migrating species who see it or sense it or use it? What is it like to follow the blue lines?

Damselflies, meanwhile, fly so fast that it’s impossible to make out the translucent filigree of their wings. What you see, therefore, is just a fleeting image of tiny blue electrons that seem to propel themselves on a whim,

here

here

over here.

Sometimes the damsels seem to be attracted to my head above the water because, unlike when I am in a swimming pool, I don’t like submerging my head in cold water. My head is less resilient than the rest of me.

And here they come, zinging over the surface towards me,

gathering in tangles of blue

above my head.

Little aggregates of blue.

Water-loving crystal switches of blue.

One fine twig of blue fused to the next.

Where does one stick of blue begin, another end?

When damselflies mate, they knit themselves together in impossible stitches. The male displays his bright blue wings and abdomen to the female, and sometimes he zips above the water to show his prowess in zipping, as well he might. Of the Latin nomenclature, Zygoptera, or paired wings, I wonder if it might also mean “they of the zipping over water.” The female, having been thus attracted to the idea of blue, and of wings, and of wings above water, offers her body to the male, who takes hold of her by the back of her neck using a pair of claspers at the end of his abdomen specifically designed for clasping. The female has special grooves in her anatomy that function as the receivers of claspers. She spirals her thorax upwards towards the male and, so joined, together they make the sign and the shape of a heart, though it is called a wheel. Sometimes damselfly mating is brief, and sometimes the damselflies are in it for the long haul; they and their heart-shaped wheel zip over the water, and sometimes over my head when I am swimming. Thus reconstructed, the damselflies zip too swiftly for me to keep up with—both visually and swimmingly.

*

Sometimes, in the lakes and the tarns where I like to swim, there is another kind of blue. The blue-green of algal bloom. The Environment Agency and the Lake District National Park tell us that this algal bloom is a naturally occurring phenomenon. That is true, in the same way that cholera is a naturally occurring phenomenon. They tell us this because they do not want us to worry. Algal blooms are made up of cyanobacteria, a kind of naturally occurring photosynthetic organism. It ranges, apparently, from unicellular and filamentous to colony-forming species. (I like those words: unicellular, filamentous. Sometimes I imagine my thinking has become filamentous.)

Some types of blue-green algae produce toxins. You cannot tell whether it is toxic or not by looking at a Harmful Algal Bloom—toxic to me or to wildlife or to the dog over there that is now swimming through the water to fetch the stick I threw in before I’d even noticed the blue-green bloom.

Sometimes damselfly mating is brief, and sometimes the damselflies are in it for the long haul; they and their heart-shaped wheel zip over the water, and sometimes over my head when I am swimming.

One website tells me that “In humans,” algal blooms “have been known to cause rashes after skin contact and illnesses if swallowed.” I know this to be true because once, before any of us swimmers knew what an algal bloom was or what it might do, I swam through the blue-green scum. My skin began to burn, then it came up in large blotches of red, and some of them began to blister. I thought if I stayed in the cooling water, it would stop. It didn’t. I had seen the bluegreen water but had not known, and anyway, if I had known, apparently you can’t tell only by looking. I got out of the water and drove to the doctor’s surgery. He couldn’t tell. He poked the blotches and asked how long I’d had them and more of those kinds of questions because in those days even doctors didn’t know the right kind of questions to ask.

When the levels of the lakes fall because of the lack of rain, or when there has been another extended period of unusually hot weather, that’s when the algae come out to play. To make us not know which one is which. Sometimes the algae are the result of human sewage build-up in the lake. This one is not nice to play in. And sometimes the algae occur because of agricultural fertilizers running off from the surrounding fields and fells that have built up over time. So yes, it is natural. Of a kind.

According to scientists, cyanobacteria and the toxins they produce “represent one of the most hazardous waterborne biological substances that produce a range of adverse health effects from mild skin irritations to severe stomach upsets and even fatal consequences.” And it doesn’t end there. If the bloom lasts and continues to build, it blocks sunlight from the water, depriving fish and the plants that bloom in their own funny, unseen way on the bottom of the lakes and tarns, and aquatic insects too. If it all goes on too long, the plants can’t obtain oxygen and can’t assimilate the blue-green-grey filtered light of the sun.

*

Once in position, in the shape of a heart-shaped wheel, the male damselfly has another trick up his bendy sleeve: he scoops out any sperm deposited by other males. Sometimes, when the heart has eventually, inevitably been broken, the male follows the female avidly to guard her against the advances of other wheel-dreaming imperative blue males. In a month, it’s all over. The eggs are laid. The larvae pull themselves down the stems of mare’s tail weed into the murk and the mud. Their hidden, translucent grasshopper-green bodies will feed on fish eggs and insects through two winters of me not swimming and not breaking the ice and two summers of me swimming. At summer’s end, I will breast-stroke through the edges of the tarn, my arms making the shape of a heart over and over, wondering what happens to the no-longer-zipping blue bodies of damselflies.

__________________________________________________________________

Excerpted from Abundance: Nature in RecoveryUsed with the permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury Wildlife, an imprint of Bloomsbury. Copyright © 2021 by Karen Lloyd.




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Karen Lloyd
Karen Lloyd is a writer of non-fiction and poetry. She has published two previous works of non-fiction, both published by Saraband. The Gathering Tide: A Journey Around the Edgelands of Morecambe Bay (2016) was selected by Katherine Norbury as her top read in the Observer Authors’ Books of the Year. The Blackbird Diaries was published in 2017. Both won awards at The Lakeland Book of the Year Awards. Karen edited and published Curlew Calling, An Anthology of Nature Writing, Poetry and Images in Celebration of Curlew, to raise funds for various curlew conservation projects including the British Trust for Ornithology’s work. She is a contributor to the Guardian, BBC Wildlife and Countryfile magazines and the RGS amongst others.








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