Towards the end of my time stationed in Germany, my wife and I took a road trip to Croatia. It’d been a few years since I’d seen the ocean from an altitude below 30,000 feet, and wanted to feel saltwater on my body again. I’d never seen the Mediterranean. I could only imagine it as a more polished, refined Caribbean. I wanted to lay on a beach and nap and drink cheap beer and tease my wife while our dogs wandered too far away, and then came back again.
I grew up near the coast, and to me the ocean had come to represent the power and permanence of the natural world. The shore and islands of South Carolina are littered with the pilings of ruined beach-houses that now ridicule the arrogance of those who brushed off the persistence of the Atlantic Ocean. When we went to the beach when I was younger, my dad would often swim up to a mile or so offshore. My mom and sister were never amused, but I think I understand what he needed: Solitude.
We arrived at a small beach-town with a solitary bar and a tiny makeshift marina. The beach was rocky, but it was quiet and tranquil and somewhat secluded. My wife opened a book she’d been reading for a few months. I made a cursory scan of the beach for anyone I thought might be indignant at the sight of an adult human body. I stripped and waded into the saltwater.
It had been years since I’d swum; the gradual weightlessness caught me by surprise. I raised my feet off the polished rock seabed, reached forward, and felt the satisfying and long-overdue resistance of seawater against my muscles. For about ten minutes I swam blindly away from the beach, and soon tired. I felt exhausted and healthy and tranquil.
For modern homo sapiens, swimming naked in the ocean is as connected as an individual can be with the natural world. Millenia of civilization and organized religion have conditioned us to regard the uncovered body as appropriate only for cleaning and fucking. While those prohibitions largely stem from sexual morality, I also suspect being naked in nature too closely resembles the bliss and contentment we’re reminded can only be achieved from sacrifice, from submission, from denial.
I treaded water and looked at the ocean around me. I was a few hundred meters offshore. I’d achieved my solitude. Nothing I could see or hear or feel was a product of the last few thousand years of the progress of our species. I had created the illusion of existing in a pure state of nature. I took a few deep breaths and dived directly down. It was satisfying to pull against my own buoyancy. I felt the pressure increase in my ears, and enjoyed that long-forgotten sensation as well.
I touched a smooth stone on the seabed, about 15-20 feet below the surface. I felt around it until I found a larger, heavier rock. I grabbed it and anchored myself onto the ocean floor. My eyes were closed, and the sound of my heart and stomach blended into the background noise of marine life. I still felt the water slowly move around me, moving the hair on my legs in concert like a school of fish. My lungs began to burn. I let go of the rock and allowed myself float passively towards the surface. I was in a state of nature. It wasn’t an illusion. My body was in motion in perfect accordance with the laws of physics. I was an animal among billions of others, in perfect communion with the natural world from which we’d all arisen. I didn’t feel so much that I was visiting, but that I’d returned.
The burning in my lungs became more urgent. I opened my eyes in the saltwater, straightened myself, and swam aggressively towards the sunlight in the clear water. I broke the surface and gorged on coastal air before rolling over and doing a lazy backstroke back to shore. A few meters from the beach, our dogs went bonkers. My wife and I spent the rest of the afternoon drinking cheap wine, having overdue conversations, and cheering on our dogs’ fierce and fruitless pursuit of small crabs and minnows.
That experience and others like it have informed much of my spirituality in the years since I admitted to myself my disbelief in religious faith and other supernatural myths. In solitude, in perfect communion with the natural world, an awareness of my own failures and disappointments seems as impossible as it does irrelevant. I feel connected; essential to the living world around me, and wholly genuine, organic. It’s an experience I try to replicate whenever possible, and for me it’s a cornerstone of what makes life… livable.