Over 2,500 years ago, in the Greek territory of Ionia, lived a man named Thales, recognised as the founder of philosophy, even by the great Aristotle. Born in the town of Miletus, he has forever left his imprint on the evolution of human thought and his contributions were so profound during his time that he was canonised as the “Wisest of the Seven Sages of Greece” by the sages themselves. It is to Thales that history attributes the proverb ‘Know thyself’. He fashioned a synthesis of mythology and natural science. He looked for ‘first causes’, a hypothetical unification of creation and sustenance.
Not unsurprisingly, he came up with water as a ‘beginning of all things’. Today, we know that all life and its DNA springs from water, that continental plates float and circulate the water beneath them, and that water is a major explosive force in volcanoes and earthquakes. Thus, it seems, Thales was right. In the past decade we have discovered that our sun and other stars in the universe require the presence of interstellar water, random accidents from the Big Bang, to keep them from overheating during their birth. Also, our sun seems to exhale water as superheated steam in order to regulate its heat. Curiously, the principle of all things being traceable to some kind of esoteric fluid – something which flows – it follows that one cannot step twice in the same river, a philosophy echoed by Buddha two thousand years later.
Scuba diving is our own small, clumsy attempt to return us from whence we came, from where our DNA crawled, half-formed, on to a surface green and verdant for us to possess and subdue. When I dive, breathlessly still, shoals of fish, heedlessly welcoming, steer past me as if I were a rock on a ski slope. Sometimes, small shark or even barracuda flicker past in search of a meal. Ray and octopi, strange crawlers and fliers, share their space with me. Yet as much as I feel at home in that strange, primeval space, one breath is as toxic as cyanide.
I am eagerly awaiting traveling down South. My pool will be grimy and will need a week of loving care, scrubbing, filtering and treatment before it is fit to swim in. Much like people with boats, who spend more time fiddling around with them than sailing them, the pool master takes meticulous care to present a superbly clean, irridescently winking surface to the world, spending more time maintaining than swimming. Why? Because the almost preternaturally exotic sensation of weightlessness and floating, immersing oneself under the surface, is one of the most liberating sensations on the planet thus the experience is worth perfecting. Also, it is a space to be shared – only Olympians swim alone. We spend billions annually just to sit on an uncomfortable stretch of powdered glass, overlooking lapping waves. Children dash about excitedly in the surf. People picnic on gritty sandbanks in small groups. For many, the sensation of actually sharing the view over the water with others is sensual and healing.
Iceland, marooned out on the polar edge of the north Atlantic, is far too cold for sea swimming – there are no picnics on Icelandic beaches. But, there are large numbers of thermally heated pools, both artificial and man-made, safe, warmly welcoming spaces where Icelanders gather. Even in frigid February, when snowflakes, big and fresh, swirl down and the sub-zero temperatures tighten the skin like a drum, the small shock of the walk to the hot tub is softened by the warm embrace of the thermal pool and the company of one’s compatriots. Icelanders as a people group are generally reserved but they are a remarkably satisfied nation and the pool is Iceland’s social space. Families meet their neighbours, newcomers first receive welcome and rivals can’t avoid one another. In the hot tub, you must interact. There’s nothing else to do. And, if you do happen to be alone – you can just close your eyes and be; the water enfolds and caresses you, reminding you of a genetics from the long, long past. Thales would have been proud.