Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A Post About Nothin'

I flew this past week in and out of Orlando, Fl. I've flown over Orlando many times in the past, but I've only visited the tarmac a couple of times, and not for a few years now. Most of my flying has been in the Midwest, and while I can still be googly-eyed at the wonder of Earth From The Air, I'm mostly used to the sights. But I have several slobbering posts somewhere here about my trips over the mountains, and of all the questions that pop to mind about the stuff revealed by crossing the Rockies from six miles up.

Well, the nation's coastline and the endless expanse of the ocean bring a similar reaction. Heading down to Orlando from Columbia, S.C. the other morning, we had to navigate around some weather that had recently passed thru. And we could clearly see the rotating swirl of a huge low pressure system which had moved East a couple hundred miles out over the water, and as we headed further South the coastline appeared with the Atlantic stretching beyond. These things are so immense as to be virtually invisible to a human being on the ground--down there these make for the reality we experience firsthand; but our perspective from high above makes it clear that what we experience down below is the effect of some much larger thing. Thus does everything seem profound, extraordinary. From above I can see that the car on the freeway will run out of dry land in an hour or two--something of which the driver will have no clue except for his map or prior experience; I can see the nasty weather headed toward these folks hours before their skies begin to darken. From 35,000 feet, one can see how Florida is only barely dry land, and the numerous lakes and everglades make the whole state seem like it's about to bubble beneath the surface as the planet warms.

A few years back as we were enroute from San Juan to Louisville, we went directly over the Kennedy Space Center where the Shuttle was scheduled to launch a few hours later. Even from several miles up we could clearly see the shuttle sitting on the launch pad and the immense Vehicle Assembly Building off in the distance. We passed the Space Center again the other morning, and just after the first hints of sunrise we had a fantastic vista of the sky into which this ship makes its regular ascents. The space program still has something of the celebrity about it for we Midwest flatlanders; it's the kind of thing that really only exists for us on television. So I had a little moment of breathless enthrall as we passed to the West of the launch complex, a sense that these events actually occurred here without the sanitized, safe remove of edited television footage. It made it all seem so immediate and perilous.

Likewise, I could see a zillion islands and bays and harbors and inlets which make up Florida's Eastern coast, which made me think of what it was for a person to feel a connection to the water and to the sea. I've always thought that outdoor people are either mountain people or water people. Not that we couldn't love both things, but in my experience we are more fully nourished by one of these over the other. The mountains don't do especially much for me. I've done some skiing and a little (very little) hiking, mostly a couple decades ago now, and I love to contemplate the geological forces that brought the mountains into existence. But I'm much more strongly grabbed by water and by the nautical life.

But even then, what does that mean? We can't exist on the water without a life support system--a boat--and living there long-term is virtually impossible. And that's not due to anything absolute, but because of the specific conditions for which we evolved. We're land-dwellers living in close proximity to water-dwellers who evolved for that environment. And ne'er the twain shall meet, except very provisionally. And from five miles up I just had one of those little epiphanic moments where everything we think of as fixed and absolute--earth and air and water and humanity and life aquatic--suddenly really seemed like the narrow and flashing little happenstance we know it to be. The human being itself cannot be taken for granted, let alone their attachment to the sea understood. Precious and fleeting as an electron's life, we can hardly catch a glimpse before it's gone. Before we can formulate an answer to the question, the question is gone and replaced with another, and another. And at that moment, hanging five miles up on the aluminum wings of an airplane whose keel was laid a continent away in Long Beach some forty years before, I suddenly felt what a wonder it was to be alive, to be able to contemplate these things, what a privilege it was to occupy my tiny little space on a tiny airplane suspended in a razor-thin atmosphere above a tiny continent on a tiny planet in a tiny solar system in a thin portion of a remote arm of an unexceptional galaxy. What are the odds? My vision sees all in overview, like a movie effect; starting at the subatomic level and moving outward to larger and larger realms, our vision takes in more and more. As we flee into deep space at light speed, our planet and sun are soon gone from our sight and we could not find our way back. How unprotected it all seems, how miraculous. We occupy ourselves down here with mortgages and divorces and job changes, but the real story is so very much bigger and so infinitely smaller.

The radio crackles with a discretionary descent to make a crossing restriction on the arrival into Orlando. And a speed restriction to boot. Shit. (We have no drag devices.)

And with my answer I am sucked back to the mundane here and now.

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