Janet Lembke’s book of essays, Skinny Dipping, does not revolve mainly around that topic. It is, instead, a series of personal reminiscences, though themes of water and nature in general figure prominently. It is of a genre usually associated with better known writers, such as Loren Eisely or Annie Dillard.
Lembke discovered skinny dipping early, at age four, when she and another four-year-old splashed happily, sans clothing, in a large bird bath. She thanks the scowling displeasure of her parents for her indelible fond memories of the escapade: “The colors and heat of that day are with me still, and the soft, cool, feathery, quite delicious sensations of water sipping over bare skin.”
Most children probably have a similar experience, at some point or other, which they may only indistinctly recall. For most, in any case, “Skinny dipping can be done only in the buff. Speaking about it seems tantamount, therefore, to taking off every last stitch of psychic clothing and standing there starkly exposed to the frowns and prurient snickers of the world. So the details of experience are kept under wraps.”
But the unthinking, negative reactions of our society towards such experiences are merely a matter of social convention. “Culture and fashion have shaped that response, not instinct, and it’s about as useful, as natural as a plastic flamingo or a grocery-store tomato. Truth is, most of us contain a splashing, giggling, squealing child who knows without thinking that bare skin and water go together as wings go with air, roots with earth, and the phoenix with incendiary sun.”
Lembke earned a degree in classical Greek and Roman literature. So it’s unsurprising that in the title essay of her book she begins by expanding on a remark of a much earlier essayist, the Roman natural historian Pliny (the Elder): “This element – water – does not properly receive us unless we are naked.” Lembke writes:
Bare skin is the one and only right criterion for receiving water’s gracious acceptance or any acceptance whatsoever from that element. But Pliny also seems to say something more: Stripping off not caution but the stale, crusty garments of preconception, peeling sensibly down to raw, new nakedness, is the only way to enter and be properly embraced by the world.
Returning now to her present, adult life, the essayist skinny dips with her husband in the river beside their rural property. “Grinning we shed our clothes and grown-up lives. The water tickles bare groins and bellies. How cool the river feels! Children again, giggling with residual naughtiness but not caring if anyone sees or hears, we launch our bodies forward, blending sweat with brine.”
Subsequent essays in the collection only very briefly return to the topic of the book’s title. At one point Lembke recollects another, later incident from her childhood. When she was about ten she and her slightly younger brother loved visits to a favorite rural retreat deep in the mountain country of Virginia, beside a river now known as the Bullpasture River. There she and her brother “went wading, we turned over rocks to catch crayfish, we pole-fished, we climbed atop the limestone boulder as big as a shed and zipped down the algae-slick waterfall and loafed through the calm reaches of the swimming hole. And for extra excitement, we left bathing suits on the boulder and skinny-dipped.”
Although there are hardly any other references to skinny dipping, many other essays center around aqueous habitats – rivers, streams, lakes, ponds. Surely she has left to the reader’s imagination many other aquatic adventures, their own as well as hers.
It’s hard not to recall similar reminiscences described by other fine nature writers. There is, for example, one from Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, once well-known for her story The Yearling. In her semi-fictionalized memoir, Cross Creek, she tells of an outboard-motor-powered boat trip down Florida’s Saint John’s River. Marjorie and her traveling companion, Jess, put in near the river’s headwaters in central Florida. Of Jess she says, “She was born and raised in rural Florida and guns and campfires and fishing-rods and creeks are corpuscular in her blood. She lives a sophisticate’s life among worldly people. At the slightest excuse she steps out of civilization, naked and relieved, as I should step out of a soiled chemise.”
Water fascinates. It deserves to be enjoyed with as few accouterments of civilization as possible.