The past few years have seen a slew of books that engage with bodies of water, such as Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, Jessica Lee’s Turning and Victoria Whitworth’s Swimming with Seals. These works chronicle the writers’ swims as a response to traumas such as addiction, relationship break-up and depression. New Zealand author Ingrid Horrocks’ Where We Swim adds to this corpus, but it is not a story of a single swimmer taking to the water for therapy.
Like Jessica Lee, who set herself the task of swimming 52 lakes around Berlin, Horrocks initially plans to swim her way from Wellington to Auckland, prompted in part by a website called “Can I Swim Here?”, an interactive map that details the toxicity of New Zealand’s rivers. The Waikato River’s catchment is home to 530,000 sheep and cattle, and “the whole length of the river threaded its way across the maps in blood red”, the code for poor water quality.
Horrocks stubbornly swims in the Mōkau River anyway and develops a urinary tract infection. While the source could have been her damp swimsuit, it “felt like [her] body’s physical response to the toxic water”.
Perhaps it is a red flag, because Horrocks understands that there is a problem with her “solo swimming journey”. Her project comes to seem “too close to the act of explorer, or an old-school nature writer”. Two years later, she realises that she had been swimming all along – not alone, but with her family – and “that casual tumbling into water felt like the place where swimming more often dwelt”. Where We Swim is woven together by Horrocks’ account of swims with her children, partner, parents, in-laws, her brothers, and their families.
An essay about her ageing parents and a health scare for her father is interspersed with accounts of swims with her partner, mother, and children in Days Bay. It introduces the theme of the precariousness of life, a thread that Horrocks pulls into the next essay, “The Whale”. Written in the form of diary entries, it chronicles Horrocks’ days with a sick child, the appearance of a southern right whale in Wellington Harbour and the divers emerging from the cave in Thailand, each one holding a sedated child to their chest, “a small human package breathing visible bubbles of life into the water”.
From Wellington, the essays move to Medellín in Colombia, the home of Horrocks’ younger brother. Horrocks meditates on the city’s legacy of violence and its disparity between wealth and poverty. Her brother takes them on a trip into the Amazon where, floating on the river in a simple vessel without lifejackets, Horrocks has a “neo-colonial drama of panic for my children”. Once she has controlled her fear and made it safely to shore, she is ashamed. Although her impetus to protect her children is the same as any parent’s, she recognises that her tour guide travels the water with his young son all the time.
Horrocks’ family visits her other brother in Perth, where they swim at Cottesloe Beach and from a boat watch pods of whales. Thinking about the pods in the weeks afterwards, Horrocks recalls giving away her and her partner’s embryo to a woman with a Russian accent. The decision, whichs took some time, evokes a sense of kinship because Horrocks’ sister-in-law is Russian. Pods prompt her to think of “the fluid families we all inhabit, broad and strange”. The book closes with a coda detailing the impact of Covid-19, with both brothers cancelling long-awaited trips to New Zealand. Horrocks doesn’t know when she will see the members of her pod again.
At first I was puzzled by Where We Swim, perhaps because I was accustomed to the likes of Lee, Liptrot and Whitworth. Horrocks, in contrast with these writers, is not a confident swimmer and her encounters with water are quick and quotidian. Then it dawned on me that she has written the antithesis to environmental writing fashioned by singular men tramping through a purported “wilderness”. By knitting her book together through family relationships, Horrocks reminds us of the connections with our non-human kin. When she weaves together a story of whales in Wellington Harbour and rescued children, she emphasises the need for care, not only for young people but also for our fellow creatures and the cultures through which they move.
Her reflections on boating in the Amazon evoke the world’s unequal distribution of wealth, something that is increasing with climate change. Musing about her embryos while whale-watching is a reminder that we were sea creatures once and are related to all living things on Earth. These connections mean that if the ocean now has “dead zones the size of Europe”, it is not a nebulous problem that affects a few fish; rather, its impact will ripple through our ecosystem and manifest at some point, akin to New Zealand’s rivers marking Horrocks’ body with infection.
Horrocks’ familial encounters dovetail with subjects such as extinction, bushfires in Australia, colonialism, reduced rainfall, and the children’s strikes for climate action. In keeping with the tone of her book, these preoccupations are quiet but urgent. Writing of Covid-19, she suggests that “we have a breath to reconsider where and with whom and why we swim, and the ways what we do ripple out into the lives of others”. It is a significant point: our breath, after all, remains contingent on theirs.
University of Queensland Press, 224pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 10, 2021 as "Where We Swim, Ingrid Horrocks".
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