Light is different at 10,000 feet. Sure, this can be said of light at almost any altitude, but 10,000 seems to be a magic number for me. As a passenger aboard a commercial airliner, 10,000 feet is only experienced when ascending after takeoff, or approaching a landing, so there is a kind of anticipation within me in either case. It is more than that, though, it is real; there’s something about the way the sunlight banks off of the ground and especially off of water that captivates. The distance from the terrestrial world is close enough that details can be seen—branches on trees, makes of automobile—but distant enough that the specific and the relational can be seen at once. It’s a place where at least two scales can be simultaneously experienced, a transition zone that is both/and rather than either/or.
One of my closest friends works in the maritime industry. He serves as an engineer on cargo ships, and so his life—seventy five days on, seventy five days off—is linked to the Pacific Ocean in a very real way. It’s probably why I noticed the little ships, criss-crossing on the shimmering void, as I sat in my window seat on a recent trip south. The two ships made sharp wake lines, out by the Farallones, the islands the natives of California had forbidden as the “islands of the dead” (but that San Franciscans had once made the city’s foraged “eggery”).
It’s all not quite real. It’s all not quite safe. The steel ships—massive in person, massive compared to me—but tiny compared to everything else. The sky and the ocean are filled with colors not of this Earth—yet outside my plexiglass, air-compressed cabin window, they exist.
The first time that I stepped onto a plane, the first time that I experienced the sensation of taking off, I was thrilled and hooked. The feeling of flying has never frightened me, nor mystified me—I could look out at that flexing wing and see the horizontal equivalent of a boat’s sail, working with the air to move. But I am older now, and I’ve stepped onto many planes, and will do so again, and again, and again. In tandem with every flight, my life grows a little more complicated, and my sense of risk increases. It is not merely personal risk; it is not merely that I, or even I and my fellow passengers and the plane crew are at risk through the art of flying. It is that the whole world is flying up there in the air, all of the time—it is that everyone is out there on the ocean with those boats, that everyone is always in motion even at rest.
Farallones / Islands of the Dead. Watercolor on paper, 18 in x 24 in, 2016.