As late summer gives way to autumn, I find myself reflecting on my relationship with bodies of water (both my own and external ones). I’ve just returned from a research trip to Cumbria, where I immersed in the burns and the lakes, noting the warmth of the lakewater, but the similarity of the temperature of the water in the mountains from those of the Dartmoor hills.
On Dartmoor, folkloricly speaking (is that even a word?) we tend to have a suspicion of still waters. If it doesn’t move, it can’t be natural. In childhood, I learnt to swim in a pool in the river, formed by the strategic building of a dam. We didn’t swim in the disused quarry, or the moorland pools. There were whispers of unknown depths that couldn’t be measured even with the longest church bell ropes, or of shadowy figures that moved about them in the night. Similar to the folklore of the Salopian meres, we too have abandoned villages at the bottom of deep waters.
I find my preferences for water, even now, leaning towards the flowing waters – the Walkham, the Dart (both east-west and double Dart), the Lyd. Practically speaking, I know I swim with the fish, but I’m less easy about swimming with leeches and other creatures. A recent moonlight swim in the sea of Cornwall had me having a mini freak out at the sight of jellyfish. I might worship nature, but there are some aspects from which I prefer to keep a distance.
I also like swimming in the colder months. In summer I struggle to share my body of water with unknown humans; in winter they are less likely to be there. The tingling sensation of plunging yourself into cold water disappears in summer. It might be paddling on the edge of masochism, but the endorphin rush isn’t the same in warm water.
When you come to swim in a body of water regularly, you realise it has a personality of its own. I’m not the first writer to point this out. Fiction readers may have come across Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series, a fabulous set of stories that feature the gods of the lost rivers of London. Since our earliest beginnings, humans have endowed rivers with mystical or deific properties, and people have left offerings at springs and rivers from the earliest times. This of course has happened all around the globe. It’s not just modern pagans who chant to the river, it’s been happening for all eternity. In my own practice, I often immerse myself in the water and either song or recite poetry to the rivers I bond with. Hearing it gurgle back it’s own poetry, of water gliding over rocks and gravel, of leaves floating and trees leaning down to touch it’s limpid surface, is ample reward.
I’ve always been drawn to water, to pour out my troubles, or for my tears to be soothed by its voice. As a child I would escape to Happy Valley, to visit the Wallabrook and my favourite willow tree. Later as a young witch in London I would gravitate to the mercurial waters of the Thames, leaving offerings at its bridges. Now I find that my words flow best after a walk in nature with a body of water. Something in the movement of the element frees up my own muse, an effect that also gets replicated on trains. My flow comes when I am in flow with my environment.
I don’t need to tell you the statistics of how much of our bodies and brains are made up with water, and when I teach moon magic, the pre-modern planet associated with water (and yes, I do know it’s not a planet!) I often talk about the inevitability of the moon’s influence on our bodies. The same goes for water, naturally. Our bodies can survive for more days without food, but only three without water. If you are a headache sufferer, a simple glass of water can make all the difference. It’s essential to our physical well-being, and I think it has the same effect on our mental health too. On the days that I have immersed in cold water, my mental health is decidedly chirpier too.
And it’s not just the river itself which is endlessly fascinating to me, all the souls that live on or around it are enchanting. This morning after I swam, I had an encounter with the trout that live in my pool, and we chatted about how much they’ve grown in recent weeks. It’s not just me standing on the bank of the river gazing at them, they also came to have a look and see what I was doing. Then there is the birds that live along this stretch - the occasional flash of the Kingfisher, the sad-coloured heron that takes flight at my approach, the grey wagtails that play on its edges, the dippers that swim through the air, just above the surface of the water.
And I know that I’m lucky in my ability to access clear, clean, bodies of water, but that luck is also a product of engineering - I’ve rearranged my life so that it can be thus, and I am not sure I could live it any other way now.