The Window Seat

 “Remove your shoes and socks.”

“Nothing in your pockets.”

“Remove all laptops from their bags and place them in separate bins.”
“Empty your pockets”

“Everything goes in a bin”

“Be sure your pockets are empty”

“Walk through please.”

These are the common refrains of air travel in the 21st Century. You make it through the TSA line and go on to find your gate in the artificial world of the airport. Then herded like cattle down the chute into that enormous, horrible, magical, metal tube.  Though necessary, the protocols of air travel and the seeming ease and regularity with which we participate in commercial flight today, seems to have robbed us of much of its wonder.

               My first experience with flying came in 1979. I was 8 years old and I flew with my father and grandmother from Albany, Georgia to Atlanta and then on to Dallas, Texas where we spent a week with relatives I barely knew. Had I known what I was getting into, I may have stayed behind in Georgia. For one, the adults of the household where we stayed severely limited the sugar intake us kids were allowed. I was used to sweet tea so thick it poured out of the pitcher like syrup at every meal.  To make matters worse, we were required to go to bed each night at 8:00 pm. I was dumbfounded. It was summer. No school. It wasn’t even dark yet at 8:00.

               My world dimmed under these new and thankfully, temporary restrictions but my heart was buoyed as I lay there and clutched the little plastic wings pinned to my shirt like a prisoner holding on to a piece of contraband to help him feel a little more free. The wings were a tangible reminder of the miraculous adventure that had brought me to the despotic confines of Ft. Worth.

               As I slowly faded to sleep each evening, my thoughts drifted back to the trip we had made and my anticipation rose for the return flight. I had sat by the window and had watched as the plane pulled away from the gate and rolled out onto the runway. At takeoff, the plane began to gather speed and the ground outside the window began to blur, until, just for a second, there was that weightless feeling of defying gravity, and for the very first time, I was airborne. The surface of the earth fell further and further away. Massive, tall buildings got smaller and smaller, cars along the highways looked like ants following some scent trail, crawling in unison along their paths to and from the great nest that was the city. All its activity fading in silence like a dream until its increasingly centralized sprawl became bound by the green earth around it. And then we climbed into the white fog of the clouds. It was a miracle then and however commonplace it has become, it remains a miracle today.

               Ever since that first flight, I have, at every opportunity, taken the window seat. From this 9 inch X 12.5 inch window I have looked down upon the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans. I have seen the melting glaciers of Greenland and the lights of Paris without setting foot in those places. I have watched the width and breadth of the earth pass underneath me for thousands and thousands of miles. More often than not, the window shades of airline flights today are kept pulled down. All, it seems, so that the cabin can be kept dark, the better with which passengers can see the screens on the back of the seat in front of them, while the wonders of the world pass below.

Northern Greenland, 2010

               Within a single four to five-hour flight, one can see the Atlantic Ocean, the Mississippi River, the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, the Central Valley of California, and the Pacific Ocean. All in a journey that only three or four generations ago took weeks, if not months to complete, and which, was undertaken at great peril. One can now cross oceans and arrive in exotic foreign lands in a day’s time. I can leave my house in south Georgia and be standing on Table Mountain above Cape Town in South Africa, swimming off Australia’s Gold Coast, or standing on the Great Wall of China in little more than 24 hours. I can be riding the London Tube from Heathrow to Westminster within the span of an 8-hour workday. It is miraculous that anyone can now undertake such journeys which formerly were only attempted by the most intrepid of explorers.

               From 30,000 feet, perspectives change. From the window seat on a recent flight, I saw the Mississippi River appear, in afternoon light, like a great emerald snake crawling across the ground. Oxbow lakes, like shards of shattered glass scattered upon the land, reflected in the sun. Tributary systems wound and branched across the surface of the earth into ever smaller arteries, recalling indeed the same natural patterns observed in such convergent examples as our own circulatory systems and the growth habit of trees. I observed all this while many of my fellow air-travelers watched Pirates of the Caribbean or Fast & Furious 16 on the personal screens attached to the seats in front of them.

Mississippi River, 2021

While I’m sure Johnny Depp and Vin Diesel and the gripping plots of those stories have their own appeal, the streams flowing below were calling and they had me thinking.  All of us—trees, rivers, and human beings— are, in a sense, vessels of water.  How interesting that we can see in each of these the ever-repeating dendritic pattern along ever-changing scales, creating the subtle miracle that is nature’s way of moving fluids and energy.

               Nature is fond of patterns. She finds the most efficient way in all cases. Just as the branching of our veins ensures efficient exchange of energy, gases and fluids with the environment inside and outside our bodies, this pattern enables trees to do the same thing above and below ground, moving nutrients, water, and carbohydrates along a continuous branching vascular system from root tip to leaf. We see that pattern reflected in the trees’ external supporting structure, lending this pattern the name “dendritic”. Rivers and streams branch across the landscape in an interactive route defined by the shape of the land itself, flowing downhill, along the path of least resistance, eating into the land to form and shape it in a manner suitable to the efficient exchange of oxygen, organic matter, and life inside and outside the stream. The entire world mixing together to keep the energy that sustains life flowing.

Platte River outside Casper, Wyoming, 2021

               On the same flight I watched the Rocky Mountains come into view. It was fall. The grey, granite peaks were hungry for a fresh covering of snow to replace the summer’s melt. The Aspen and cottonwood leaves were lighting up the mountainsides with patches and veins of gold. Meanwhile, in the seat to my immediate left, Leonardo DiCaprio was spreading his arms at the bow of the Titanic. Across the aisle and one row ahead of me, a hip L.A. couple was remodeling yet another house to flip to some poor schmuck. While I admit to being held captive by a screen from time to time myself, the window seat offers a far more compelling story.

Outside Salt Lake CIty, 2021

From here, one can see the scale of the clumsy mortise by which we are joined to our world. From the ground, the uglier aspects of these engagements are often hidden behind fences or neat rows of trees.  But from the window seat, the patterns of our lives are seen in the ribbons of asphalt cutting across the land. You can see the increasing concentration of man-made structures the closer one gets to a city. The horseshoe shaped pattern of subdivisions on their outskirts, and beyond that the symmetrical patterns of fields and fence-lines, the green circles of irrigated cropland. All giving voice to our civilization, so quiet and peaceful from above, yet so loud and destructive up close.

Vaalharts, South Africa, 2016

               One can read the biomes of the earth in the brown and green shades of the land below. The presence of more dense, green vegetation indicating more soil moisture contrasting with that of the bare, rocky, open ground where water is more precious and rare. One can read the land itself. Its scars and washes, excavated pits, and drains. Smoke plumes rising from forest fires and industrial exhaust. Our marks are readily visible. What one can’t see from the window seat are the marks left by the airplane itself.

The concentration trails (or “contrails”) left behind by airplanes are line-shaped ice clouds generated by jet aircraft in the upper troposphere. The longer contrails retain their shape, the more they affect the cloudiness of the planet. “What’s the big deal?” you may ask.  This creates an imbalance between the sun’s radiation and that reflecting back from the earth’s surface and atmosphere, which changes the temperature structure. In addition to the direct effect of contrails and CO2 emissions, commercial aviation also generates nitrous oxide and soot, the combined effects of which cause commercial air travel to account for 4% of the human-induced activities affecting climate. And that is with only a very small percentage of the world’s population flying. If everyone in the world took one long flight per year, aircraft emissions alone would exceed the entire CO2 emissions of the United States. The number of people flying is expected to at least double by 2050. There are potential solutions out there—increasing the efficiency of flight itself and the increased use of alternative forms of travel like rail, which offers a slower, more interactive and adventurous trip.

Somewhere over the Arctic Ocean, 2010

In this way, the perspective from the window seat can be deceiving in that it seems to the traveler that all of our problems are down there. One of our problems is that the experience of our lives has become too far removed from the land. Too many people spend their entire lives as removed from dirt and rock, and water, and green cellulotic tissue as I am removed from the terra firma below when looking down from the window seat. From the artificial world of a commercial airline cabin, I can see the real world down there, but from this perspective it’s hard to relate. It’s hard to recognize our place in it. We are meat, fuel, energy for future generations of life just as the long-horned beetle, the frog, the egret, the dandelion, and the bacteria lying silent in the soil. At times, I imagine we can insert ourselves back into this equation. But, at this point, what would that take?

A strange thing happens on trans-oceanic flights. As the flight nears it destination, shorelines come into view. There is the first glimpse of foreign soil. A new landscape to discover. At this point in the flight most people are craning their necks to peer out the windows. A giddy buzz of excitement washes over the cabin. Having forgotten the dramas playing out on their screens, they are, for a brief time, no longer interested in buried treasure, ghost ships, fast cars, marine disasters, or fixer-uppers. Their minds are awakened by the possibility of all the new adventures awaiting them in a new land.

As an 8 year old boy on that first flight, I wasn’t aware of all this. I was just excited to see Texas stadium out the window. The home of Roger Staubach, Tony Dorsett, Randy White, Ed “Too Tall” Jones, and that dapper coaching legend himself, Tom Landry. All I wanted to see was Texas stadium, with its distinctive square hole in the roof, placed there they said, so God could watch his favorite football team. It seems a rather short-sighted vision now. But since then I haven’t stopped looking out the window for what else can be found.

I suppose the main reason I still like the window seat is the same reason I liked it as a child. The sense of wonder that comes from staring out that window. Thinking of all that takes place on the colorful palette below. It is a tranquil feeling to watch all that land, all that earth, going by. The deceptive quiet in all that space beguiling the desperate struggles down there in the cities, the countryside, the fields, deserts and mountains, the surging seas, and in all the invisible minds and hearts beating below.

One thought on “The Window Seat

  1. A nice essay, but I suppose I have flown so much that it is no longer exciting and I try to get an aisle seat and stretch out my legs and trip the flight attendants. I love the train and watching the landscape slowly change from ground level–and have taken long distance trains in at least a dozen countries.


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