In a dream, I ride out of a cove with my family in an aging, fiberglass speedboat. The sky is dark and cloudy, and there are cold, black lops on lops all around us. The boat and waves crash against each other, spraying me with salty ocean water. We hit a large wave that ruptures over our heads, leaving all of us drenched. The salty fluid stings my eyes and blurs my vision.
As I woke up, I remembered the first time I got saltwater in my eyes. I was eleven years old, and my friends and I were playing on a wharf in a part of my hometown called Deep Tickle. In Newfoundland, ‘tickle’ is a vernacular term for a short, narrow strait. That day was extremely hot, and my pals Jamie and Brandon decided to swim out in the water just off the wharf. I loved swimming, but had never been immersed in saltwater before. I was hesitant and decided I wasn’t going to join them, until an older kid picked me up and threw me over the wharf.
In my hometown, this is the way many children learn how to swim. In fact, when my sister was five, she was thrown over our family wharf by an older cousin. As I revisit both of our experiences being submerged in our familiar yet unknown salty, smelly and slimy oceanic other, I form a new illustration of the way we both expressed corporeal instincts and reflexes to ‘stay afloat’ in an unknown environment. Unbeknownst to me as a child, being tossed into saltwater for the first time would help me understand more clearly historical forms of struggle and stamina needed to survive in rural Newfoundland.
Using the embodied fluid knowledge I discovered in the water beyond the wharf, this post grapples with the tickling “wet ontologies” (Steinberg and Peters 2015) of saltwater swimming. Thinking of the ‘tickle’ as a significant spatio-temporal environment in my life and familial history on an island, as well as a sensuous stimulation of the body, I ask after modes of skin and saltwater encounters to form tingly and murky intimate notions of ‘staying afloat’ in rural Newfoundland.
As I was deciding whether I would join my friends in the water or stay on the wharf, I carefully examined the wet substance from which Jamie and Brandon were shouting at me to ‘stop being such a wimp’. The refracting sunlight made me see a bright green pool with seaweed, kelp and other forms of aquatic plantlife with strange textures and colours. We used to hang out on this wharf all the time, but had never thought of swimming in the water. All of us had seen minks crawling and swimming around the wharf. I was afraid one of them might attack or bite me if I were in the water. And before I knew it, I was touching the surface.
And then I was submerged and my fear became more fluid. I opened my eyes underwater: the environment below was a brighter green than the one I had observed from above. The water was thick and made my body tingle. When I lifted my head above the surface, my eyes were irritated and my vision blurry, as if I were peering through a viscous film back into the familiar world from which I was just dislodged. This fluid encounter, the saltwater on my skin and in my eyes, illustrated what Eva Hayward might call “a visual-hapticity that relies on proximity rather than distance” (2011: 265).
There was no denying that my body and the water had created a sensuous splash. My submersion was not graceful or playful, it was quite literally a slap in the face, with my head slipping under the waves and my vision becoming altered. This visual-haptic encounter was one of seeing and touching forces creating their own splash, drawing connections between the boy who had picked me up and thrown me into the water, the burning in my eyes, the salt in my mouth, the goosebumps on my skin from the cold water, and the rippling and distribution of waves I had influenced with my body. Hayward says that “sensations are produced through relationships…sensing is a distributed process” (274). Indeed, sensating the sea because of its closeness, its encircling of my body, can be read as an acknowledgement between bodies and rural environments.
The sea salt tickling my body in the Tickle might constitute both an irritating itch and a titillating and vibrant example of confronting and facing the abject – in this case the dirty, murky water of the cove that was no doubt filled with human disposals. The dream of traveling by boat triggered these reflections, once again allowing me to reconsider my own relations to water and the “churnings, driftings, and reborderings” (Steinberg and Peters 2015: 257) that living and existing in close proximity to the ocean can re/teach me about sensuous seas and rural subjectivities.
Remembering how rural Newfoundlanders have developed relationships with the sea over time – resettlement travels where houses were floated across the water to a new destination, or my grandfather walking across miles of thin ice in February 1962 to bring my grandmother and newborn mother home by sled, as well as sealing and fishing and exploring wet worlds – has taught me, above all, that when the life of a community revolves around water, there’s no point in being afraid of it. Looking back, there were no minks in the water that day, and there was no reason to be scared. I learned how to stay afloat, and how to be just a little more tough.
Hayward, Eva. 2011. “Ciliated Sense,” In Theorizing Animals: Re-thinking Humanimal Relations, eds. Nik Taylor and Tania Signal, 255-80. Netherlands: Brill.
Steinberg, Philip & Kimberley Peters. 2015. “Wet ontologies, fluid spaces: giving depth to volume through oceanic thinking,” In Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 33: 247-64. DOI: 10.1068/d14148p