The Poetry of 1,000 Feet

When you fly at a thousand feet, you see the world differently. Commercial planes fly at an anonymous altitude, so far up that houses become invisible. General aviation flies lower. We are able to see into your backyards and witness the things you have hidden behind the barn. General aviation knows the secrets that you think are invisible just because they cannot be seen from the road.

Flying so low, you can see how clouds sometimes rise from the earth instead of the other way around. I always thought clouds descended from above, but I can see clearly how sometimes they leak from the earth, like steam escaping a bag of microwave vegetables pierced by a fork. The cloud/fog/mist gets trapped in the trees like a cheap cotton ball dragged across unshaven skin; traces here and there get snagged in foliage and need wind to free them, or changing pressure or temperature to make them dissipate.

I spent my childhood looking out the window of my father’s Piper Cub, watching mountain goats run from the buzz of our engines, looking down at porpoise and the ocean floor, seeing where the depth changes the colors of the sea. I can see houses, cabins, and farms. When one looks out the window at a thousand feet AGL, the ground unfurls with myriad untold stories sparkling in the sun. I can see the facts, just the facts, ma’am; but without context there is little meaning.  

There is a junkyard with cars and school buses scattered as if a child dropped a handful of toys on a hard surface; they have bounced apart and come to rest in the green at varying distances from each other. Further on is another junkyard, but this time the cars and trucks must have been dropped on plush carpeting, because they landed in a clump of confusion and twisted metal; there is little green distance between them for your eye to rest in.

A tiny shed tarries inexplicably far behind its parent house, with no visible excuse for its distance. There is no path across the lawn, no apparent reason for its exile. Is it a toolshed, built to be a handy distance to a now defunct garden? A playhouse for rambunctious children who make too much noise when grandpa is sleeping? Or is it so far removed from society for more sinister reasons; a remote location for a creepy uncle to make his groping advances undeterred by the inhabitants of the house?

I can see a partially collapsed aboveground swimming pool, one side caved-in and yet still half-filled with stagnant water. I know if you stuck a hand in water that murky green it would come out covered with a sludge of algae. Why did they leave it for festering mosquitos? Were they evicted or foreclosed on, and did that forced expulsion manifest itself in a sledgehammer beating the side of the pool in frustration and despair? Or did the owner of the house take sick, and will get around to taking down it or putting it back up soon? Does the half-collapsed pool stand vigil, a testament of hope that one day things will be normal again?

It’s interesting how people mow or plow their land; the people who follow the earth’s contours in beautiful undulating waves contrast with the farmers who carve straight lines into the earth. There are the inexplicably chaotic fields that look as if teenagers were chasing each other around with tractors. Sometimes I see a piece of farm equipment that has been abandoned in its tracks, though whether from mechanical failure or bloody injury I can’t tell from above. I can just see it nestled in a half-finished row, waiting for someone to return.

Flying at a thousand feet is watching a silent movie shot in stills; secreted glances into mute lives. My unanswered questions circle lazily like flies: I am low enough to see the questions, but too high to hear the answers.




Categories: Airplanes, Pilots

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