By Jim McCloskey
My nightstand is so overstocked with books that I’ve given up on ever catching up. Each gift-receiving opportunity makes more of them appear, and for some reason my family and friends have decided that I like reading volumes so thick that I have to crane new arrivals into place after shifting things around to prepare a capable foundation.
One of the books I received last fall was different: At a relatively slim 300 pages, it steadily held its place atop the 800- and 1,200-page monstrosities that have been piling up for quite some time now. I picked it up the other day simply because it was right there on top of the main pile and caught my eye as I passed by.
This highly portable book also had the advantage of being relevant to my work: Titled Strokes of Genius: A History of Swimming, it’s by Eric Chaline, a London-based journalist/sports specialist/coach/author who brings a deft touch to what could otherwise be exceedingly dull material. At this writing, I’m about halfway through and have so far been amazed by the depth of the coverage as he traces aquatic history from the dawn of humankind on up to a discussion I read last night about swimming’s modern re-emergence as a matter of perceived military necessity.
This deep background occasionally involves some conceptual leaps, as when he explores a train of thought that says we have never really lost touch with our deeply aquatic roots – at least not in evolutionary terms. This explains why, in embryonic terms, we start out looking like little tadpoles and why newborns seem to emerge from the womb knowing how to move through and survive in water.
This aquatic nature also might explain why, through so much of human prehistory, people never moved far from reliable water sources and why the earliest stirrings of urban culture arose between the bountiful Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Mesopotamia. It’s great fun to learn that a skill we, as watershaping professionals, know never to take for granted was so elemental to the emergence of ancient civilizations.
But as those civilizations emerged, conflicts began and the desire to avoid war pushed people out away from water-rich places over which every substantial princeling or empire wanted control. With those moves away from coastlines and rivers, once-common swimming skills declined and water became a source of fear because encounters with it frequently resulted in deaths or near-deaths by drowning.
Swimming’s role takes an off-and-on course through history, but the clincher to its modern resurgence, it seems, was the Napoleonic Wars, where a ragtag army made up of forced French conscripts ran rings around a larger force of highly trained Prussians, largely because the conscripts grew up knowing how to swim and found rivers to be surmountable obstacles rather than the impassable barriers the Prussians assumed them to be. Later, this led a number of armies to include swimming among their training disciplines – and the rest, as they say, is history.
What really grabbed my attention here is that these military swimming exercises quite often took place in floating pool structures dropped into urban waterways. It cracked me up that, possibly within some of those same waterways, towns and cities are now figuring out all over again how to set up and maintain floating pools – this time for use by the broad citizenry rather than by military trainees.
I was also intrigued to learn that swimming maintained an ongoing presence largely because, throughout history, it has been seen as a valuable survival skill. But the tables have turned: Where in the past it was the common folk who learned to swim to survive in flood-prone countrysides, now it is more affluent folks who can afford the access required to learn swimming skills under safe conditions.
All very interesting. I’ll finish the book in the next couple days and am counting on it not to disappoint me so much that I’ll end up retracting this possibly premature endorsement. But so far, so good!