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~ Thalassophile ~


Last year (Autumn 21) I had the pleasure of taking part

in Caroline Wilsons research.

Here is her dissertation summary and below that, my video of my swim . . . 

Wild Swimming as Nature Experience:

How can it inform our understanding of pathways to nature connection?

wild swimming research summary by Caroline Wilson


Purpose of the research

Nature connection, often described as an individual’s sense of their oneness with nature, has been identified as important for the promotion of sustainable behaviour. Research has identified correlations between measures of an individual’s nature connectedness and other factors (such as happiness and empathy with nature), but has not revealed the qualities of our relationships with nature. ‘Lived’ nature experiences, though relatively unexplored, offer a window into these relationships. Therefore, the purpose of this research was to consider how the qualities of wild swimming, as a nature experience, might inform our understanding of the development of nature connection.


The Research

Sixteen swimmers undertook a wild swim between October and early November. All wild swims took place in the south west of England with two participants swimming in the sea, three swimming in rivers and the remainder in lakes. During their swim participants provided a commentary on their swim and later watched a video of the same swim and commentated on the experience. These commentaries were transcribed by the researcher and themes of the wild swimming experience were drawn from the commentaries. These themes were then examined in relation to current understanding of nature connection.


Summary of findings

What are the dimensions of wild swimming experiences?

The dimensions of wild swimming identified in this research reflect their prevalence across sixteen swimmer’s experiences but were not universal to every swimmer. The dimensions were as follows:


Transition – the passage through phases of the swim linked to the effects of cold water

Wild swimming experiences involved transitions from a state of shock, arising from cold water to acclimatisation then feeling good. Feeling good was then precariously balanced against the effects of cold water, requiring an appraisal of the transition into feeling cold and the need to return to land.


Being in the Moment - quietened thinking and a sense of being present

Wild swimming was experienced as an escape from the everyday and participating in wild swimming quietened thinking. The reduction in thoughts appears to be associated with swimmers’ sense of ‘just being’ or ‘in the moment’.


In it Together – a sense of connection and safety with other swimmers

Swimmers experienced a connection with other swimmers, whether through the perception of a shared experience of ‘surviving’ swimming or of a shared purpose or attitude. The presence of other swimmers was also a source of safety and mutual reliance.


Meeting Place - the wild swim setting as a place where humans and wildlife meet

The wild swim location is a meeting place between participants and the ‘wild’. In this setting animals and plants were conspicuous and participants often enjoyed encountering wildlife.


Immersive Environment - the experience of an all-encompassing environment

The wild swim environment engages the senses of swimmers and absorbs their attention. Swimmers find visual delights in the environment, tune into the sounds around them and have sensual experiences with water. Swimmers also react to the weather and the weather shapes the emotional experience.


What can the dimensions of wild swimming experiences tell us about the pathways of nature connection?

Both the environment and the activity orientate individuals towards nature The activity of swimming and the environment of the swim are intertwined in orientating wild swimmers towards nature. Wild swimmers are directed towards nature in three ways: the expectation of being in a ‘wild’ setting, immersion creating an encompassing sensory experience of nature, and the physical action of swimming promoting ‘being in the moment’. Nature experiences are therefore more than the component parts of environment or activity represented in nature connection research but rather they interact to position individuals in specific ways towards nature.


Nature is experienced bodily

During the wild swim the body is at the fore of the experience and the means by which nature is felt. Yet the body is absent in much of the nature connection research and theory. However, it is the body's movement through water that helps create a sense of ‘just being’ that is associated with mindfulness. Moreover, it is the interaction between the way nature feels and the transformation of the body in response to nature that helps create the wild swimming experience.


Nature challenges are part of the experience

Overall, wild swims are lively, sensational, relaxing, uncomfortable, and challenging experiences. However, in the majority of nature connection research nature is represented as either benign or threatening. Furthermore, positive nature contact is framed in terms of relaxing, passive interactions and where challenge is noted it is as something to be neutralized, through the attainment of skills or confidence. However, in common with many other nature sports, challenge is part of the practice of wild swimming. Moreover, it can be argued that the pleasure of wild swimming is engaging with a ‘wild’ environment and all that that entails.


Significance of the research

While this research has not tried to prove a relationship between wild swimming and nature connection, the findings of this research do suggest wild swimming can disrupt ‘normal’ everyday relationships with nature. The challenges of wild swimming (cold, waves, wildlife etc.) are not an obstacle to interacting with nature but part of a rich and engaging experience of nature. Further research into the complexity of nature experiences, from the relaxing to the more challenging, may shed further light on pathways to nature connection. Finally, wild swimming highlights that the body, as well as the mind, plays a significant part in our experience of nature, one that has been neglected in previous nature connection research but is worthy of further exploration.

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