I have a friend, a historian at Princeton University, who upon my return from a low-altitude flight up the Eastern seaboard denied that I had actually visited the places I had overflown--the farmed and citied coastal plain from Georgia to New Jersey and in between. I did not invite my friend's judgment, but he offered it anyway, argumentatively, because he could not shake a certain cramped sense of possession that he had acquired while driving the same route the summer before. He was a jealous sort of traveler, like those who return from tours convinced that theirs is the only authentic experience among the natives of some faraway land. Pilots are generally less-educated types, but they are more charitable about geography. In all my time among them, the endless hours sitting in cockpits and waiting around airports, I have never heard one speak small-mindedly of a landscape. Maybe because the aerial view is unrestrained, it can also be generous.
I offered to introduce my friend to it, not by following his road trip from above but by taking him on a shorter flight over Princeton, his hometown, where his sense of possession was justified. He accepted my offer, and on a crisp and sunlit morning was surprised by the density of the university campus, by the alignment of the streets, by the nearness of the New York skyline, by the extent of the new suburban forest. He was interested in the generational growth of office parks, the division of the farms, and the inflated architecture of new houses on small lots like the coming of California to the East. I thought, specialists may measure the increments of change on the ground and may in fact disdain the "naïveté" of the untutored aerial view, but with just one short flight almost anyone can read the outline of the story from up here--in this case, the conclusion of New Jersey's farming life. The aerial view is a democratic view. My friend was interested also in local details like the capricious turns of a certain Hopewell Valley road, and the full extent of a new golf course, and the pattern of old overgrown cow paths converging on a converted barn, and a hidden patch of wilderness by a brook, and the torn shingled roof of another professor's house. Each earned a comment. But he asked me to circle only when we came to his own house, built among others near an expensive day school. He was absorbed, as all people are, by the unexpected proportions and angles and by the strange lay of a familiar neighborhood.
"It's like seeing your face in the mirror for the first time," I suggested.
My friend did not answer. From riding the airlines, he insisted still on the airplane as just a better sort of train, and he was secretly proud of his impatience with the tedium of flight--such impatience being the mark of the modern traveler. In life he had crossed those thresholds of success and self-confidence beyond which he could not easily learn or change his mind. After we landed, he said he remained unconvinced. Of course. And he will not read this book, which is meant as a guide to a still unsettled place in the human experience. But during the flight he did not once turn away from the view of the old settled place, and that was a start.
The best aerial views are low views, but only down to a certain altitude, because there is also such a thing as flying too low to see. This happens at that height above the ground where, depending on the airplane's speed, the scenery rushes by too quickly. From the cockpit of a jet flown at treetop level at, say, 500 miles an hour, the rushing-by is sometimes described in schoolchild terms as a blur. In fact, to the accustomed eye the land remains visually distinct--a complex mix of definable points, of trees and houses and mountaintops. The points slide by in a spectrum of softening speed, from brutally fast directly below, to merely brisk one mile ahead, to not quite stationary up on the distant horizon. There is no blurring to it. You register the points coming in time, and can slow things down by looking a bit farther away.
Use of this excerpt from Inside the Sky by William Langewiesche may be made only for purposes of promoting the book, with no changes, editing, or additions whatsoever, and must be accompanied by the following copyright notice: Copyright© 1998 by William Langewiesche. All rights reserved
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