As the Airbus bolted up into the golden-grey, sepia-toned haze of waning autumn I copped a break from the everyday ruminating and from my perch in a lonely window seat took in the landscape like an attentive museum-goer, studying the masterpiece beneath.
I watched as the ribbons of big-city expressways and glassy suburban office parks gave way to the strip centers and cul-de-sacs of the exurbs and then to the quieter, more intimate grid of the college town and its proud cluster of medical buildings, unmistakable bowl of football stadium, and central quadrangle shrouded in trees aflame in late October color.
From up high the mundane things of the world – the subtle land contours, the intersections, schools, warehouses, post offices – are transformed into answers to interesting questions. Why does she live there? Work there? Golf there? Why does he exercise there? Eat there? Park there? Cities are merely the aggregate output of billions of everyday human decisions.
And once you get the highly-structured, intimately-organized modern lives figured out you can work back through history. Why did that neighborhood over there go into decline? Why did they put the big industry there, the freeway there, and the bridge there? Before you know it you’re asking why the Chippewa buried their dead on that patch there, why the British put a fort there, and what interest the French could have possibly had in that island there.
It’s people watching on a macro level and it takes your mind off the fact you and 200 of your most intimate friends are hurtling at 500 mph in a 200 ton machine 10,000 feet in the air, fueled by little more than petroleum, physics, and prayer.
I was headed off to a round of secretive corporate strategy meetings, held in a chalet sequestered deep in the Rocky Mountains. It would be a chance for everyone to posture and prance, to assert and strut, to lay it on thick, to grandstand, and to buck for a promotion. A golden opportunity to lie and to be lied to.
As we climbed westward the densities gradually dwindled and we entered the domain of courtly equestrian estates, squatty prepper compounds, vast wooded parklands, bending ancient rivers, and glacially-carved lakes. I followed the familiar twist of the state highway until the spot where it forks at the seed mill and convenience store, traversing boggy lowlands, dense hardwood forests, and open cornfields and continuing toward the one-room schoolhouse built 160 years ago by the early European settlers.
The schoolhouse is just a couple miles from our home and as it passed just underneath the body of the airplane I glanced at my phone. At precisely 5:52 p.m. we passed through the airspace of our farm. Another degree or two either way on the flight plan and I would have looked down and seen it. But I didn’t need to. I could practically see right down through the carpeting, titanium, and aluminum, through the cargo hold, thin sheets of fuselage, and the smoky wisp of autumn evening. I could imagine it as clear as day.
The little kids were down there, all dressed up in knight costumes and baseball helmets, marauding around the yard, slaying fantastical beasts, saving hypothetical kingdoms, and eventually – reluctantly – surrendering to the Queen and her democratically unpopular bedtime decree.
The big kids were down there too, in the emerging flaxen glow of the barnyard floodlights, dutifully suited in coveralls, stacking freshly-split wood maybe, or fanning out for chores – someone to collect eggs, someone to administer table scraps to the pigs, someone to water the livestock.
The animals were down there. The cattle lumbering around, emitting the customary bovine smells, the sheep fanned out across the pasture, nibbling at the last of this year’s pasture, and the dogs sitting, waiting patiently for night rations. I could hear the efforty grunt of rooting pigs, the sighing of the heavy ewes ready to drop lambs any day, and the near-constant October sing-song of the chainsaw over at Hank’s place.
The barn was down there too, right where they built it over 130 years ago, 80 paces south and west of the kitchen they built too, the same spatial relationship between house and barn, between farmer and stock unbroken lo, all these years. The only thing that has changed on the landscape are the walnut trees, now fully-grown, mature behemoths. And only because someone had the faith to plant them so many years ago.
Most nights during nighttime chores I look up at the air traffic thundering overhead. I wonder about the ruddy-faced salesman and conventioneers, the funeral-goers and adventure-seekers, and those who every day join the demographic wave moving south and west in search of better opportunity. And sometimes I wonder if I ought to be up there, moving and shaking, making a broader name for myself in my narrow industry.
But on this particular night all I really wanted was to be down there.