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Moving Through The World With the Shades Down

We now expect that Hollywood will feed us all the environmental thrills we want. But the real thing requires only a small effort from us.

Anyone like me who flies infrequently will be surprised to experience the new normal on most flights where travelers sit for hours with the window shades pulled down. Airplane makers need not have bothered to pull off the complex engineering to create safe viewing locations within a plane. People seem to prefer to sit in the near-dark with 100 other strangers. Leaving a very sunny Denver the other day, it might as well have been in the evening. Only the weird blue lighting in the cabin cast a dim glow. Everyone around and in front of me were on tablets or phones: mesmerized by their small electronic tethers. I only had an old book to pass the time, confident that it was already in airplane mode.

Here’s the thing: passing over a large stretch of the United States on a clear day can be a fine experience. We don’t need a geographer onboard to marvel at the passing views of towns, rivers, mountains and forests that stretch into the distance. Even prairie farmland that can be monotonous on the ground reveals striking features at 38,000 feet. Small towns that are marked but rarely delineated on maps take on rich detail from the air. If we would only look, there is much to see from a perspective granted by impressive height:  traditional commercial centers, quiet streets and homes that were probably laid out in neat grids in the 1800s, sometimes unexpected sprawl, and even some dead zones from extractive industries that are normally hidden from view.

No one should believe that a nation can be known just by a panoramic view of its geography. But our problem is the reverse; the minutia of individual lives can make us overlook the imprints of our collective presence on the landscape. Pilot Mark Vanhoenacker’s meditation on amazing views from the cockpit (Skyfaring, 2015) is a reminder that even the clouds that show up in the lower atmosphere offer their own unique canyons and high passes.

Today we tend to expect that Hollywood will feed us environmental thrills. But the experience of taking in the real thing requires only a small effort from us. A tour through clouds let us experience the fantasy of being our own vanishing acts. Clouds are mixtures of water vaper that can appear to have both mass and or sudden transparency. It is a new experience to view them at eye level.

One memorable flight for me years ago was a routine trip from the east coast to the upper Midwest. In most respects the trip was normal, but somewhere over Cleveland an amazing drama of atmospheric beauty began to unfold. The lower altitude of the flight required the pilot to thread his way between thunderheads that show up in that part of the world in the summer. They were enormous, towering thousands of feet above our tiny speck of a plane that made its way between them. Bellowing up against the blue sky on one side but black in their own shadows, these where Cleveland’s impressive answer to Monument Valley in the southwest. As we passed near their late afternoon shadows we could see under us faint flashes of light glowing in the darkest corners. The effect was of a fireworks show seen through a shroud, as if Thor had decided to toss off some reminders of our own fragility. It was an experience I would not have wanted to miss.

Sadly, the synthetic experience of a small screen with the resolution of 60s television set seems to be our preoccupation. Nothing is too inconsequential to hold our interest. The living landscape in real space requires a bit more curiosity, a little more willingness to take in the vastness of the earth and its atmosphere. That’s a  first step to reach the awe that Vanhoenaker recorded in his book. If they were around today, those engineers who had to figure out ways to make airliner windows that would not blow out of a pressurized cabin might have wondered why they bothered. They might also wonder when we lost our interest in being astonished by the real.