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Don’t Forget to Swim Now and Then

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Imagine a world like ours, except that it’s fish that became the most intelligent creature. Somehow they learned to harness tools and technology, and built a fish civilization as advanced as our own.

In this world, fish travel between sea, air, and land with ease, using little hover vehicles. Their technology allows them to have fish cities, complex fish politics and fish economies, fish entertainment, fish fashion, fish philosophy, and fish science.

Modern fish are able to live lives their premodern fish ancestors couldn’t have imagined. They can be accountants and bus drivers and FR managers. They can even live in places where there’s barely any water — they just import food and water from the ocean, or ocean-like farms.

It’s been millennia since fish had to subsist by living in the open ocean, dodging sharks while cruising for food. Entire fish empires have risen and fallen since that time, and now only a few rare hobbyists, like the guy on the TV show Survivorfish, have any ability to survive on their own in the wild.

Now imagine one of these hyper-civilized fish flipping open the hatch of its hover vehicle and jumping naked into the ocean. Terrifying as it might be, wouldn’t that feel pretty exhilarating? Wouldn’t it awaken something profound in him, some ancestral memory that’s been dying to go for a swim?

And wouldn’t it seem absurd to an outside observer, such as a visiting alien, that fish had become so fully preoccupied with modern fish economics, entertainment, and politics that they barely even swim anymore?

AI rendering of hypothetical Fish World

Fish civilization has its perks, for sure — modern fish can still serve their instinctual desires to secure resources, procreate, and become big fish in their respective “ponds.” They seldom worry about predators, they enjoy an uninterrupted food supply, and they have limitless pursuits to stimulate and occupy them. But wouldn’t even those sorts of lifestyles benefit from a certain amount of swimming, underwater foraging, and doing the other things that 99.9% of the fish’s body and brain were made to do?

This is what I was thinking about on a camping trip last month. Camping is definitely not the same as reverting to a pre-technological life; I brought along mass-produced food, a bugproof sleeping vessel, a flashlight, a lighter, and perhaps fifty other nature-conquering technologies. Even my pocket supercomputer still worked if I went halfway up the trail to the parking lot.

However, camping makes for a slightly less-coddled existence. You’re in an outdoor, limited-technology situation that seems to at least tickle that vast but dormant part of the human psyche that’s built precisely for surviving in an unsympathetic natural world. You cook your food over a fire. The temperature might dip below comfortable levels. There might be bears out there. A real incident is unlikely, but the prospect of mortal combat with another mammal will enter your mind more than usual.

Always encountered, in the mind at least

Bears or no, I enjoyed having a simpler and more concrete palette of concerns. Among other tasks I spent an hour or two collecting firewood from the forest floor. I was looking for fallen branches of sizeable diameter, dead but not rotten. After a while I could tell from a distance if a given piece of deadfall was likely to fit the bill. If it’s lying right on the ground, or has a dull color, it’s undoubtedly rotten. If it’s leaning on something, it might have dried out enough that it will burn. I became attuned to this simple task. As I wandered and scanned the woods, the undergrowth scraped my legs, mosquitoes bit me, and I perspired freely. There was nothing particularly comfortable about the task, but it was profoundly enjoyable.

I’ve noticed for a while now that whenever I do things a premodern human might do, I feel good. When I carry something heavy from one place to another, clamber over rocks, study a wild plant, or just search for a shady resting spot, there’s a certain instinctive peacefulness in the doing. I don’t exactly find these things “fun,” or entertaining, like I do eating Oreos or watching prestige television. I find in them a certain primordial satisfaction, a relief almost, like a fish might feel upon plunging into open water.

AI still not quite getting it

My suspicion is that some part of us, not necessarily a conscious part, is dying to do activities the human body and brain spent eons adapting to. Specifically, I’m talking about:

  • Manual labor with visible progress — building something, gathering something (berries, firewood), whittling/carving/painting, sorting physical things, caring for durable physical possessions
  • Sitting around a fire or meal (preferably both) with other people
  • Exploring natural and unpredictable environments — parks are okay, wilderness is better
  • Wordlessly accomplishing physical tasks; quietly attending to the doing and nothing else
  • Using physically demanding modes of locomotion: walking, hiking, clambering, climbing, carrying
  • Looking closely at the details of plants, animals, fungi, and insects
  • Physically cooperating with another person on a task
  • Searching or scanning the environment for a particular thing
  • Sheltering; settling in to a physical space

Compare these to modern activities we’re not especially adapted for, which probably mess us up somewhat:

  • Considering abstract moral situations all the time — i.e. politics — and the resulting rumination
  • Telecommunication — the displacing of voices, faces, and words into illusory facsimiles of humans
  • Rapidly jumping between tasks and topics of thinking
  • Using disposable tools that command no respect or care
  • Outsourcing our knowledge of the world to journalism, science, and other politicized institutions

This praise for the caveman days might sound like romance or sentimentality. I won’t pretend I want to live naked in the woods. But when you consider how differently those concrete, premodern activities feel from corralling words on a screen, entering spreadsheet formulae, or parsing a dozen news headlines in the space of a minute or two, it’s clear that there’s a categorical difference between doing what humans have been attuning to for a hundreds of thousands of years, and doing what we’ve been doing only a lifetime or two. It’s the difference between a fish swimming, and a fish operating a hover vehicle.

Misses you

I’m also not saying there’s anything necessarily bad about modern activities. After all, we do them because they have benefits. But there does seem to be something innately good and healthy about doing the things for which we do have an ancient affinity, and I think you can feel it.

There are some deeply human activities modernity has not made particularly rare, although they are rarer: caring for children, eating in a group with others, using simple tools, hunting, building simple structures, climbing or clambering, and traveling on foot, especially through wilderness. These activities seem very good for us in some way, a massive relief for a system that’s nearly always being made to do things it wasn’t built for.

Pointing out this tension isn’t particularly original — Thoreau immortalized himself with his book about it — but I don’t think we make enough of it. My claim here isn’t “we should learn a bit from our ancestors,” but more like, “we’re fish flying in hover tanks who barely swim anymore, and every part of our system is dying to get back into the water, even if our conscious minds are completely unused to it.”

Gave up the hover tank

So when you go hiking, or you climb something, or you examine the veins on the back of a leaf, see if there’s something resonant there beyond just “getting away from the city” or “getting some fresh air.” See if it awakens not just a sense of novelty but something more stabilizing — a sense of home — inside you.

You can see a parallel version of our conundrum in the modern dog. Coco really wants to chase squirrels, as her ancestors did, even though she doesn’t need to because you feed her every day at 6pm. But unlike a wolf, she has a newer, conflicting assignment: to please you. She doesn’t want to cross you by leaping onto the dinner table and running off with the chicken carcass. Instead she sits there stiffly, eyes wide, tense and hopeful like a bad poker player with decent cards. When you get her to the big off-leash park outside the city though, she shows you what she’s always dying to do.


Photos by David Clode, Becca, Vadym Lebedych, and B.D. Maxham. AI art by Dall-E 2.

Brenda M July 4, 2023 at 1:11 pm

My husband and I are in our late 40s. We just bought a house, our first, in the mountains. We are constantly clearing shrubs, sweeping the roof, pulling weeds and planting seeds, filling barrels of rain water, moving rocks and stumps, stripping and sanding fences and repainting them – and we’ve never, ever felt better. As you said – we have a temperature-controlled house with electricity and plumbing and everything a modern human could want or need for comfort, but it’s the labor OF the house that’s the best part of it. My husband came inside the other day, exhausted, and said “It’s great to be doing human stuff again!”. An awesome reminder to seek out these activities somewhere, sometimes.

David Cain July 5, 2023 at 8:27 am

Sounds like a dream! Congrats on the new house.

Sally July 5, 2023 at 9:21 am

Love the fish vision. We to just bought land and as exhausting as it is, we both feel while again being outside, working with our hands as well as our minds, creating something natural.

Therese July 6, 2023 at 3:18 pm

I loved this article. My husband and I picked and canned apricots this week. He stood by the outdoor canner, looked at me and said, “We live in the country.” We both had a moment. We have neighbors, but we’re fortunate to be away from city life and to have collected fruit bearing plants – a blackberry vine gave us 2 pies this year, a lemon tree, 3 apricot, 1 plum, 1 apple, a grape vine that climbs everywhere so it appears the apricot is putting on bunches of grapes. The work of canning is hot and inconvenient and immensely satisfying.

Vic vo sen July 5, 2023 at 2:17 am

camping isn’t primordial, because nature isn’t trying to kill you… evolution is survival of the fittingest, those of us whom cooperate survive. and I don’t think I’m a fish… unless you’re talking about virtual reality (vr)

David Cain July 5, 2023 at 8:28 am


Christina July 5, 2023 at 2:27 am

I love this one, David! My body and soul have been longing for more time in nature. I moved to Germany from the US a few years ago and am really struggling to find a camping experience here that touches on what you’re talking about in this post. Camping here must be planned months in advance and fires are only allowed in designated grills. So I read your post with bittersweet feelings. Maybe it’s time to plan a trip back to the US….

I like your analogy of the fish societies. Thank you for your thought provoking writing.


David Cain July 5, 2023 at 8:33 am

I love Europe but it can never compete with North America on the vast tracts of wilderness front.

Gunnar July 5, 2023 at 2:51 am

Thank you for this one too, David!
I like the thought of these “old” doings awakening something within us. Like a memory, no matter if we’ve done the thing before or not. Like a deja vu, but not just something we’ve seen. Call it a deja do? Something we recall doing and enjoy, just for the sake of doing it. No reward required.
I’ll put swim on my cupboard list right now.

Keep it up, David!

Nethra July 5, 2023 at 4:47 am

I love the term deja do!

Olivia July 5, 2023 at 7:27 am

Or “déjà fait” for consistency.

David Cain July 5, 2023 at 8:48 am

I have heard people talk about returning to the region their family originated, and experiencing a kind of sense of home. There’s undoubtedly some woo-woo or placebo in these claims sometimes, but it seems impossible that some element of our complex neuro-biological makeup wouldn’t noticably connect with certain environments when we visit them.

Tim July 5, 2023 at 10:18 am

I think what complicates this is that we are “from” many places. I have lived in Minnesota my entire life, so I’m from Minnesota. My mom’s side had been dairy farmers in South Dakota for a few generations, so I’m from the plains. My dad grew up in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, so I’m from rolling bluffs overlooking the Mississippi. But I also have ancestry from Germany, Ireland, and Luxembourg. so I guess I’m from those places too. But I’ve also read enough history to know that populations move, so those nationalities may just represent a place of departure. My kids then have also lived nearly their entire life in Minnesota, but their mom is Chicana so in addition to my specific mix, they are also from Colorado and Mexico and Spain with indigenous & European ancestry mixed up. So for me, and even more for my kids, there is no homeland.

Ester Connors July 5, 2023 at 2:41 pm

I love that idea but like Tim said it sadly only works for people whose ancestry is in one specific place.

Bryan Harrison July 5, 2023 at 5:43 am

Yes. We have a longing for something wild. I’m going camping this weekend and your words will undoubtedly accompany me. Also, loved the “bad poker player with decent cards” sentence describing our fur friends. Thank you for contributing to collect your thoughts and ideas. You are my favorite online philosopher.

David Cain July 5, 2023 at 8:36 am

I feel so bad for dogs when they’re trying to exhibit their human qualities, like patience in the presence of food. They never quite pull it off.

Enjoy the camping trip!

Simon July 5, 2023 at 6:03 am

One of your best for a while for me David. Thank you. I’m ready to book a camping trip right now!

Stacia July 5, 2023 at 6:59 am

I will agree with Bryan that you are my favorite online philosopher, David. Thanks for always writing thought-provoking pieces and sharing them and your imagination with us.

Christy July 5, 2023 at 7:12 am

Good writing, as usual -that will speak to the inner voice of many. Lucky for me, I live more “on the other side of the fence” than the world that most now live in. I have lived in nature on the sea for about half my life, and traveled in “far away places”. I abhore television and have not had a TV for 30 years. Nature is my entertainment, and my 6 cats. I thank god that in parts of the world, people still can live in nature, and choose to live more simply, as we do, on a small out of the way Greek island where sanity prevails, people farm and fish, live with and in the sea, and are quite self sufficient. I would dry up and die if I had to live in a city. Thanks for pointing out how we need to be in touch with nature – to be sane and healthy. Nature heals.

David Cain July 5, 2023 at 8:43 am

Nature does heal, but I suspect it’s as much what we’re doing as where we are. For example, I suspect the bricklayer living in a city is more in touch with the qualites I’m talking about than the laptop entrepreneur living on a beach in Thailand. A natural setting is more conducive to timeless human activities than cities are, but ultimately I think it’s all about what the brain and body get up to.

Tara July 5, 2023 at 8:44 am

This is why I love camping and live in a large city with most things accessible by foot or public transportation. I prefer to walk so I chose a city where a car is not required. Sitting around a fire in a place with no artificial lights is my idea of a good time.

Rocky July 5, 2023 at 8:55 am

Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.

Frank Lloyd Wright

jon July 5, 2023 at 9:31 am

Now that was a fun romp through the woods. I love it because I actually live in the woods and marvel at these very primitive feelings every day. Sure there are chores to do, like growing food,stacking firewood and moving lots of snow,but overall, it is more than satisfying. It is taking charge of my own life. So a walk in the forest is immediate gratification like no other, and yes, I did have a big bear here the other day. He came right towards me when I made noise. I suppose he is curious too.

Jill S. July 5, 2023 at 9:59 am

I think about this concept but the whole fish world you created puts it more clearly. Thank you!

nrhatch July 5, 2023 at 10:22 am

This is why I prefer to cook from scratch, instead of eating out, ordering in, or buying prepared foods. The physical process of chopping onions, carrots, celery, cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower to simmer in a light sauce of teriyaki and garlic provides many mindful moments of being and doing.

Every time I hop on my bike, or wade into the sea, I get back to my “roots” and feel like a kid again . . . mindfully doing in the moment. Being Here Now.

Last night, instead of going to the fireworks, we sat on the back deck, watching first the planets and then the big dipper . . . accompanied by the distant snap, crackle, and pop of firecrackers and bottle rockets on the beach. It stirred memories of sitting around the campfire listening to the wood snap, crackle and pop.

David Cain July 5, 2023 at 2:44 pm

The sea really does it to me too. I just got back from a trip to Vancouver island and my favorite part was just walking (or clambering) around on the shore.

Anthony July 5, 2023 at 11:14 am

Excellent essay and reminder. Last fall, I did a 4-day section hike on the AT with a friend. On Day 3, as we found a place to set up camp, I felt a deep peace and presence. It was as if my body finally let go of all the work and worldly worries I had been carrying. My only “concerns” were where will I go to the bathroom, where will I sleep, and what will I eat. Concerns my body is well adapted to.
I’ve been drawn to Wendell Berry’s writing recently, as I think he captures this essence in his fiction and non-fiction.
Thanks for sharing this.

David Cain July 5, 2023 at 2:45 pm

I noticed that too, as soon as we got out to the campsite. Almost a tangible feeling of strings unattaching themselves from my brain.

Mark July 5, 2023 at 2:41 pm

My dogs are never happier than when I take them to the woods and they get to go off-leash and explore the trail on their own, jumping over fallen logs, sloshing around the creek. I swear I can see them smile. And I’m happy to e in the woods, on the trail with them.

David Cain July 5, 2023 at 2:45 pm

They do smile!

Susan July 5, 2023 at 9:27 pm

The first time I walked in to a horse barn (40ish) I felt like I was coming home.

No experience in horses at all.

You’re on to something here…

Andie July 6, 2023 at 3:26 am

you are so right David.
From all that you said, the image of a bonfire shared with friends made my heart happier just thinking about it (it’s something I got to do only a few times up until now, but yes for sure it feels like old knowledge).
In our country, for the first time in the last 70 years the percent of people moving back to countryside surpassed the people moving to cities. Economics may be one reason, but a longing for the ancient ways it the main one. People want again to build stuff, grow plants and chickens and live closer to nature. We were remembered life is short not too long ago and some of us made big shifts going back to basics. I think that is great. The thing with fish that remember how to swim is that after swimming to a new place, they’ll soon start building stuff there too. It’s our nature :)

Heather F July 7, 2023 at 9:54 am

I think this might be part of why I garden – looking at a plant with ripening fruit, thinking ‘is it tasty yet?’. And the enduring appeal of sitting under a tree. Not very complicated activities, but really satisfying.

Mariana Marinovic July 8, 2023 at 7:42 pm

Your writing is amazing.
Like… I read a lot, but some things YOU write (like this article) are the only reading material that give me goosebumps.
I’m trying to think of something else to say, but I guess that’s it: your writing is amazing. So, so inspiring.

Thank you for that.

from Brazil

Shelly July 10, 2023 at 9:00 am

Wow, David! What a well-written beautiful post. You’ve put that sound truth of an idea into perfect words.
I’m a long-time subscriber and first time commenter – just had to praise you for this specific one. Really struck a cord with me. ‘A sense of home’. YES.

Kathy July 27, 2023 at 7:06 am

Love this! The way I think of it is doing “real” things. Gardening, cooking and baking from scratch, being outdoors, working with animals, and on and on. I’m grateful I don’t have to feed myself with my garden, but I’m ridiculously happy when a meal contains an element that I grew!

Marcy July 29, 2023 at 9:11 am

An evolutionary psychologist I follow recommends that people do physical tasks to get the accomplishment that a lot of modern desk jobs don’t afford us. There’s not a lot of feedback in those jobs. But in the physical world, there is. You know if you made the loaf of bread correctly b/c it rose in the oven, and it tastes great. You can see that the grass is shorter after you mowed it. You know if you fixed the engine properly b/c the car runs now.

Seth Finkelstein August 30, 2023 at 5:53 pm

Humans, as far as we can figure out, are biologically “endurance predators”. And make no mistake about that, we are *predators* – we can digest meat and often rely on it for protein, have front-facing eyes, there’s various biochemical markers, etc. And we have an absolutely amazing cooling system based on surface evaporation, which is very unusual. The most “evolutionary programmed” thing someone could do as a human would be to chase down a small animal, kill it, and eat it. Yet somehow, I’ve never seen that suggested.

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