We have to fly to know the ground

The magic of another perspective –

I’ve been flying again. My usual round, late in the day, maybe an hour before sunset. It’s early August. The earth seems to exhale after the heat of the day. The fragrance of summer fills my soul and there is this thirsting to just float up there with this smell and do nothing but fly and catch the last light of the sun and just receive the magic of the moment.

I do this again and again, the same round each time, over the mountains, then out to the ocean.

As usual I saw the branches of the trees still moving with the wind when I drove out to my meadow, but I didn’t worry. As the day was winding down so would the wind slowly settle, giving up its reign of the day and surrender to the celebration of the peaceful sunset hours.

I unpacked my Powered Paraglider. Some lazy turbulences were still rolling over the meadow, playing games with the wing when I tried to lay it out. A couple of test inflations confirmed that everything was okay, informed my body of what the wind was really like today, and rekindled the “feel of the wing”. Soon the engine was warm, I strapped into the harness and stood up. It’s never fun to walk around with the full weight of the machine on my back, but it’s part of the deal, and when I’m concentrated and careful it is only for a few minutes.

I built a wall with the wing, carefully connected to it, step by step, restarted the motor, got into position, watched the wind-flag on the car antenna, and leaned forward into the run. A quick glance up – there is the wing, nice and billowy – time to let loose the full power of the engine and run.

One never knows for sure how these launches will work out. Sometimes the lift develops gradually with each step, and you leave the ground like dancing, at other times, with more wind, it just rips you off.

The moment you start running it is as if a great metamorphosis is taking place. It is like a miracle each time. You run and grow wings, you change your identity, you become something else. Every pilot knows this sacred moment of lifting off, of stepping over the boundary into this other realm, this wonderful transformation that always keeps its mystery, no matter how often you do it. You can feel it in any small airplane, in fact with any flying machine. But the physical sensation of this glorious transition is perhaps particularly profound with a paraglider because the wing is literally non-existent before you start running.

It may feel as if I’m in a dream as soon as I’m flying, but the longer I do this the more it actually feels as if I step out of a dream, as if I leave a state behind that suddenly, looking back, appears unreal, limited, illusory. It is as if I shed a skin, a burden, as if I finally can breathe.

I feel lonely up in the air, sometimes, removed from everything down on the ground. Houses, trees, people, cars: it’s all as I know it, but somehow I’m not involved anymore when I’m flying in my little machine, slow and low.

I see people, looking up, waving, cars stop occasionally. One time I circled over a place where a garden party was going on, and lots of people danced around and waved at me, I could see their faces and feel the inspiration I meant to them. But there is no real interaction. It is as if I’m released from participating, as if I can see the real structure of life from up there, the deceiving, illusive quality of it.

All this incredible game continues to roll on down there, but up in the air I’m out – time out for me. It is as if, up there, I finally have the appropriate perspective to really see that everything is in fact a game, nothing but a game, a play with rules. Once you manage to see the game, the rules are just rules, not verdicts, not prison sentences. And you could actually break them because you recognize that people make rules and forget that they made them themselves but keep obeying them anyway.

Up there where the clouds roam, sailing forever, unrestricted, where the big birds sometimes soar, playfully, majestically sovereign; it’s up there where freedom is, they say. I don’t know; maybe not in the sense that you can really do what you want – that could be catastrophically misleading – but rather that you can see your “unfreeness” from there, your real condition. Things on the ground are mostly so familiar that it takes this removed perspective to see it, to reveal your self-made prison.

I see the earth slowly move by under my feet, I feel the cool air on my face, I’m floating, unattached to the ground, alone. At 5000 feet everything is so far away, your own motion is almost imperceptible. I’m nothing, just a dust mote blown up into the air, into a zone where it somehow seems not to belong. But what do I know? We know the loneliness on the ocean or in the desert, isolation by distance on a surface. Loneliness in space is the ultimate separation, the complete isolation from any reference at all and therefore the essence of freedom.

We stagger around on the surface of this earth, obviously smart enough to understand the full reality of three-dimensionality but not high enough, not tall enough to have the perspective for really seeing more than two dimensions, for being familiar with the third dimension of space. It seems to us more natural to stay on the ground. But sometimes we dream to escape from this prison of living just on the surface. And – it is possible to fly!

We all have flown in big airplanes and peered through the tiny windows and seen the earth fall away under us. But wasn’t that just a big show, a vibrating cinema with TV-screens as windows? Somehow we didn’t quite believe it. We can climb up mountains and get an idea of this other perspective. We can look from tall buildings, it still is not flying, breaking the spell of gravity, moving through the air, risking the free fall in order to know. A low-tech Ultralight allows this direct experience.

When I fly up I suddenly see the shape of my own place where I walk around all the time. In my head there may have been a map, a picture of the territory, but it was abstract, fabricated, just an idea. When you move up and fly around you really see, you see how your picture was probably quite correct to a certain extent, but then how it was surprisingly wrong too, in some ways, and, most of all, overwhelmingly incomplete.

I see the trees being individual plants and still forming a collective shape, covering the land like hair. Wonderful patterns of different shades of green on the meadows. Mysterious tracks threading through the vegetation.

I see the river, the gray ribbon of gravel cascading down through the forest and, in it, the river itself meandering along, this seemingly chaotic path of wild waters flowing freely to the ocean. A “wild river”, this symbol of the myth of freedom: From the air it is suddenly so obvious that it is an illusion. Chaotic, unpredictable, relentlessly changing direction and yet nothing but the result of eternal universal law acting in total harmony: cause and effect perpetually ruling the world – the ultimate rule of the game – change ceaselessly taking place and leaving a path, a path in itself just a mirage.

Suddenly I see this house again, in the woods: a neighbor not far away, where we never go because it’s so difficult on the ground. All these little places: houses with stuff around, these little boxes where people lead their lives. “Personal territories”, visible now from the air by the difference of color of the ground, because people change the ground they live on, and everyone does it differently.

From higher altitudes you notice the impact of man on nature, you see the artificial, mostly rectangular structure of these territories, all these manifestations of “me” and “mine”, of possession, of individuality. That’s how we are: clinging to the experience of “me”, to stuff, to places, to concepts. We may have understood before – intellectually – that this peculiar perception of “self” and the identification with stuff, territory, and belonging, the whole concept of identity, might in fact be a mind-boggling delusion. We shiver, knowing how we suffer because of this, that we kill each other because of this. But from up there it may suddenly touch you deep in your heart that such delusion is only a result of ignorance.

Somehow it’s uncomfortable, in the beginning, to go and fly. Of course it’s scary at first. It’s objectively dangerous up there, but everything new is initially perceived as threatening. That’s our mind, protecting us from harm supposedly lurking everywhere, our very own mind, our supreme prison master, trying to confine us to what we already know. We typically interpret the unknown as intrinsically threatening, admittedly potentially also advantageous, but first and foremost possibly dangerous and therefore unwelcome. The mind is afraid of losing its bearings it has struggled so hard to find in life on the ground.

We go flying with a concept of how our world is going to appear from up there, we’ve seen pictures, we have an idea. But an idea is not the truth; an idea is an interpretation of truth, a thought about truth.

You may come down from your first flights with a strange feeling of discomfort that somehow things suddenly look different around you, on the ground. Not that you haven’t seen aerial views before, not that you hadn’t imagined what it would be like to fly and that your expectations even turned out to be pretty accurate. It’s not likely that you go up there and find: ”oh, that was really all bullshit what they said, all this freedom stuff, all this romanticizing, what an exaggeration”. Instead you may be profoundly moved by the sheer surprise of how much more there actually is to it, how much more of what mysteriously seems to melt away in your conceptualizing mind when you eagerly try to articulate it into words. And when you compare it to the rubble of ideas you went up with, it leaves this irrevocable smile on your face, this mystical sensation of “knowing”.

In fact, what happened may not be so much the quasi liberating experience of flying itself – that what you probably went out for – but much more the quite unexpected discovery that staying on the ground suddenly appears profoundly different. Now, when you’ve really been up once and come down, when you have broken the invisible chain, this can never be reversed. What has been the full reality before has not really changed but appears now as merely a part of a larger story. A new distinguishing term is needed: ‘the ground‘. The old view appears limiting, shortsighted, actually prison-like.

How often do we distract ourselves from the reality of an experience by not consciously paying attention to itself but looking at our thoughts about it instead, by immediately recalling and referring to memories, by comparing, by marveling at all our associations blooming up? How often do we completely forget to really simply look at what happens, what is? How often are we not really fascinated by what we see but by our own great stories about it? How much do we enjoy telling others what we think we see instead of enjoying the seeing? How difficult it is to go and have a wonderful experience, be with it, totally, and then leave it at that, let go of it. How difficult to just sense this continuous process instead of hanging on to its imaginary content.

I come down over the marina, over the moored sailboats there, follow the shoreline right over the beach and stay low under the cliffs. In the lee of a late evening breeze some downdrafts almost dip me down into the water. So I climb and fly right next to the edge of the cliffs.  30 feet away I follow its undulating shape, birds above and below me, an eagle unhastily flying away. Again 10 feet over the ground, I drift over a swamp. Water, grass, brush, everything passes under me, just like running or driving, but with no effort, no obstacle. I clear some bushes, gently lean into a turn and swing around some trees. A cornfield zooms by, and there is the beach again. A lonely hiker pauses and looks at me; I see her smile, and I move on. A friend’s house comes into view, and I see him rise from his desk in his room, the blue light of his computer coloring his face, and I float by over the ocean water. Over the forest I stay close over the treetops, and there is this deep valley where I dip down and follow it in steep turns. The centrifugal force makes me swing out wide, and I have to carefully anticipate my motion to follow the shape of the canyon without touching the rock walls. It is dynamic and exciting and yet effortless – dreamlike.

One day there are clouds in the morning. How I love clouds. I have always wanted to touch clouds. When they gather around and build and grow and change shape every second, when they boil and drift and flow under me and the sun is painting everything with shades of white and blue, I sometimes get carried away, sinking into the mystery of perception.

I have always wanted to fly around clouds. I think the most basic idea of my flying, the fundamental urge to learn it, was to go up there and touch the clouds. To move around their glorious shapes, hide in their dark brooding shadows and dance on their shining soft pillows. I wanted to participate in their eternal play, travel with them, away to unknown places, free – no path, no destination, and yet continuous change – no hurry, and yet no stillness – no substance, and yet these fabulous forms. I wanted to understand their illusive nature. Is there a message in clouds? Can you hear it or see it when you get closer or even inside?

Up in the air, you see these cotton giants in front of you, suspended, like flying mountains, like ice cream castles. Can you touch them? You could change your course and avoid them, but you can fly right into them. Of course, the closer you get the more the shape dissolves. And when you do go in, nothing happens. You feel the temperature change and sense the moisture on your face. The light changes, but not so much; you see your own body, the wing, but nothing else, and you’re alone.

When I prepare to land on a road I need to penetrate some clouds very low, just 50m over the ground. Temporarily blinded, so close to touch-down, I’m distracted, and I miscalculate my approach and land directly on the road and bang my knee hard. I sit for a moment and feel the pain surge up. Here I am again, back on the ground, where suffering is our lot. We cannot stop it, but it helps tremendously to get another view.

            Klaus  written and revised between the 1990s and Dec. 2010

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1 Response to We have to fly to know the ground

  1. Richard Thuillier says:

    As you know I spent a lot of time flying in small planes as a child, lucky me, so when I say that your descriptions of the essence of flying strike a chord with me, I hope you know it’s really true.
    Of course as a child I didn’t have the control you had, although I took the “stick” for many hours, I loved the freedom and the insight an aerial perspective gave you. I agree with your thought that seeing your normal environment from above changes forever how you perceive it.
    When I took up skydiving I once again saw and felt the wonder of flight and of course the incredible view. Thanks for bringing it back.

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