Literature | Review
Wild Woman Swimming A Journal of West Country Waters by Lynne Roper
Tanya Shadrick a former hospice scribe made a promise to Lynne Roper after a single meeting which was to published Roper’s wild swim diaries upon her death. The diaries cover the time between her survival of breast cancer and her death from a brain tumour. This however is not a book about death. This is a book about life; it is about taking note of its beauty, its sublime and the people one encounters on a daily exploration through water. Roper’s wit, sarcasm and humour pull you along the forest path so hard you can feel forest debris and roots beneath your feet as her dog Honey bounds along beside you.
I cannot really explain or fathom why it is that I am fantastically pulled towards moving water like so many who find peace submerged in its hypnotic movement and mesmerising sound. Being born in London my waterscapes were park lakes and old Father Thames but I often felt this strong constriction in my chest that told me I needed to be near the sea, to feel that never ending horizon for there really is no bigger sky and watch the waves like a set of lungs undulating throughout planet.
I would fantasise over the different shades of grey; turquoise, Cyprus, Sussex, a river, a sea but the truth is I can’t even swim. I managed my 50m at school but after a mishap on account of a swimming instructor who obviously hated children, I developed quite rapidly a fear the second my feet couldn’t meet solid ground. I lost all faith in my body being able to keep me buoyant. Faith in your body is integral to most life skills along with knowledge and risk assessment of dangers external to your body. It was this obsessive love for water, from a distance along with my fear and intrigue that drew me to this account of wild swimming. Roper was able to submerge herself into a world that terrifies me and I longed to be taken safely into its wild waters with her.
I discovered Shadrick through instagram of all places, where most artists and writers meet these days. I was intrigued by her scroll work at Pells Pools in Sussex. Like Shadrick I am drawn to what one would refer to as nature writing and so discovering Roper’s diaries at the same time was like discovering two worlds at once. Roper was a paramedic and a cancer survivor who knew death up close and upon entering water, there is a strong sense of rebirth as the cold jolt of the water re configures thoughts and physical makeup. She wrote, “I can’t think of anything worse than a life half lived through fear and avoidance…”
This magnificent, enchanting account depicts Roper’s movement or dance through different bodies of water taking the reader along with her. We experience the electric zap of the cold water, an ‘ice cream’ head whilst sitting under a waterfall, the sensation of bubbles upon our skin, the rocks beneath and above in which the tide threatens to smash you upon. Moon gazey swim; risk evaluation, freedom, fear, the overcoming of it, love, friendship and adventure all burst forth through these pages. Caves are explored; strangers with a common love for water are met and encouraged to find their bravery. We are guided by the flora and fauna of the water and all that surrounds it whilst Roper’s dog Honey keeps us company on land and in the water at times whilst chasing a ball.
Roper becomes our guide and friend all at once, she is lovable, funny, witty and trustworthy. The water is a teacher in patience, perseverance but also sometimes the act of submission. Water cannot be reasoned with, you cannot fight it or challenge it, instead you have to embrace it and trust that it will work out the way you hope. There is a particular instant when this thought is expressed under the entry Sharrah on June 6th, “…I’m pushed under by a down-surge and get that helpless feeling, where you know you can’t float and just have to go with it; it’s a reminder of how it feels not to be able to swim. The river spits me back up and I spin slowly in the current.’ There is no other force stronger than nature; there is no taming it, no negotiating, there is only an understanding that it is what it is- steadfast and uncontainable.
Towards the end of Roper’s life her body becomes unreliable. With the loss of her core strength there is a loss of confidence in the water which in turn makes wild swimming too risky. Roper wants to hold onto what little life she has left and so she slowly leaves that part of her life behind where she found friendship and meaning. What she fears the most now is losing her mind.
If we return to the beginning, Shadrick writes a sort of incantation “this is a book to be read outside-may it go waterlogged, sun buckled and wind-chapped.” With it being the wettest month during my reading of this diary I didn’t have the pleasure of exposing it to the elements as such save for a roaring fire on cold nights but there wasn’t an instant where I wasn’t walking or climbing in ancient woodland and then entering a body of water without utter exhilaration.