Lake Swimmer, Late Summer

`IF you go swimming with a straw hat on your head, I'll pretend I don't know you. I'll tell people it must be some crazy tourist from the public beach."

Those are the parting words from the home waterfront as the swimmer embarks. Really this is quite late in the afternoon to worry about the sun, but the dispute makes the swimmer all the more determined. According to orthodox opinion, you must shed your land coverings, including hat, when you enter the water. But orthodox opinion is sometimes wrong, or outdated. In this instance it lags behind the news of diminished ozone.

So the swimmer's head with hat keeps moving through the soupy-warm water, propelled by an old-fashioned breast stroke among the million small flies and gnats haunting the lake surface, the swallows acrobatically twirling and skimming, the occasional sunfish or trout rippling the calm green, and now and then a kingfisher splashing down from a willow branch.

All these creatures seem to accept the swimmer as a nonthreatening part of the water- scape. Apparently he went through an identity change when he slid into the lake. A heron looks down from the neighbor's float with pale, indifferent eyes. The approach of a human from the land side would scare him away, but a head wearing a straw hat in the water must present no greater menace than a duck or goose.

Many of the houses on this suburban lake are former summer cottages, now glorified as year-round residences, with glass sun-rooms, added-on recreation rooms, decks on stilts, chain-link fences, and rosebushes and scarlet runner vines rising above terraced lawns. Here and there enormous new houses have appeared, marking the advance of the prosperous city and the transformation of a rural do-it-yourself neighborhood.

In the less formal reaches of the lake there are big trees overhanging the water, and on the point of the bay, there is a simple cabin, altered only by the addition of a windowpane sun porch, with three outdoor chairs and a canoe at the door.

Each wharf and boat is an expression of individual identity. Every one is different from every other. And yet all the lake-dwellers seem to share a common timetable. Not one of the wharves or boats is in use.

Along the whole inhabited shore, there is nobody in sight. It is dinnertime, and every household takes the evening meal at approximately the same hour. You could call it cultural conformity. Nor is anybody using a barbecue. Some hidden end-of-summer signal has impelled them all indoors to eat.

There are only the small figures of three fishermen in a boat at the edge of the mass of trees and bushes that covers the far shore. According to rumor, that shore will be built up with houses one day. A dog defending its yard follows the swimmer along the near shore, barking and growling.

AROUND the curve of the next bay is the place where developers have sliced the high leafy bank nearly down to water level, chopped the woods into a moonscape of clay and glacial gravel, sanded over a marshy field and built a subdivision, despite warnings from biologists that the lake's watershed is small and fragile, and cannot stand too heavy a runoff. Luckily the water remains clean, but the patches of weed and scummy algae grow thicker than they were 10 years ago.

It seems an easy swim to the first of the two lake islands. The safety people warn against swimming alone in open water - even on a short crossing like this. But it is too late to turn back.

Rocky and weedy shallows compel the swimmer to wade for some distance on the far side of the island. Then back into the water, and into view of a wasp struggling and drowning. The swimmer dunks the straw hat and lifts the wasp clear of the water. Why rescue a wasp? At water level, the wasp seems like a fellow creature, rather than alien pest. The swimmer deposits it on a willow leaf on the island, where it vigorously chafes its wings and legs, grooming itself for takeoff.

Ashore on the island for a short rest, he stares up at the rustling leaves of the willows and cottonwoods. A weak south wind has started. On the return swim against small waves that swamp the nose and eyes, the swimmer picks up shouts of laughter from a lakefront garden, where a man and woman are taking pictures. "You're swimming in a hat," the man calls, doubled up with merriment.

The swimmer treads water and explains his views about the need for protection from the sun. This need, he points out, is just as strong on the water as it is on land. Taking a swim for a little distance, to the island and back, is just like going for a walk. Unless the swimmer dunks his head, which he doesn't intend to do, the sun toasts his ears and head just as relentlessly on water as on land. There is no danger from the sun right now, but there was; and the best way to take the hat home is to wear it .

Despite the foolish nature of this shouted conversation between a straw-hatted swimmer and two photographers on shore, the logic appears to be sound, but the people on shore don't get the point. Or else cultural convention is stronger than logic.

"We're going to put your picture in the paper," the man yells. "What's your name?"

It might have been wiser to give a false name, but the swimmer gives his real name, having taken note that the photography looks like a Mickey Mouse operation. He tells himself the dimly focused amateur prints will never catch an editor's eye, even at the local weekly.

Disapproval of people swimming in straw hats - is this one element in an array of conservative cultural sentiments that prevail along the lake shore?

Has anybody tried to mobilize this resistance to change in a political direction? Maybe get people to throw themselves in front of bulldozers to stop developers chopping down the woods and paving over this lake's tiny watershed? Where does conservatism end, and radical activism begin?

The answer would take research, and the swimmer isn't going to start on it just now. Not on such a warm evening. Maybe never.

He waves goodbye to the people on shore, who are still guffawing and taking pictures.

The next day he swims to the far island without the hat, and stops en route to rescue a drowning bee by allowing it to perch among strands of weed on one hand while he flails ashore with the other hand and deposits the insect on a wharf.

The swimmer's reputation as an eccentric - confirmed by the hat - would have been much enhanced if the story of his insect rescues got around. Luckily no one saw him do it. No picture of a swimmer in a straw hat has appeared in the suburban weekly paper so far.

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