Nature writing. I bloody love it. Somehow, I only consciously stumbled on it late last year, starting with Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk and then Rob Cowen’s Common Ground. You know when people exclaim that a baby’s so gorgeous they could eat it? That’s how I feel about nature nonfiction.
So I’m going to baptise this blog with a work of nature writing… about flying airliners.
It’s obscene in a way, given the culpability of commercial air travel in climate change. But, embracing this paradox, I present to you Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot.
This is the world as you’ve never seen it, the gap between the ground and the vacuum of space and all the secret wonders it holds. All conveyed in a sublime marriage of science and art by the prose of Mark Vanhoenacker, a British Airways pilot. Of circling the Sea of Marmara off Istanbul, waiting to land at the airport:
On a moonless night the water itself was without surface or depth, a matte-black mirror to the darkness above, and we saw only the lighted ships, a panel of scattered points steady on an unseen and tilted geometry, a night-bloom as magisterial as the eyes of waiting animals on a dark plain.
Or, more playfully, on some night flight:
Sometimes I walk in the passenger cabin and it is almost entirely dark. Nearly every passenger is trying to sleep. When I return to the flight deck, and the door between the cabin and the cockpit opens, the full brightness of the new world tumbles out like tools from a badly packed cupboard, dust swirling in the blade of light that falls onto the cabin floor.
Yes. The majority of the book is like that. It may not turn out to be your cup of tea, but if it does, what a cup of tea. Although I can feel the effect fading now, reading the book shifted my perception. My eyes tracked planes across the sky, imagining what they were seeing, especially if it was evening and the sun already lost to us ground-clingers. Vanhoenacker loves the way contrails catch and hold the vivid lights of dusk even as the blue around darkens.
As lyrical as the writing is, there’s plenty of technical stuff for geekier readers. How planes orient themselves on ground and in the air, the intricacies of weight, wayfinding points, the step-by-steps of take-off and landing. Some of the physics stuff ran clean off my brain without soaking in, but still; it’s healthy to step out of your reading comfort zone once in a while.
But then there’s that pesky paradox I mentioned earlier. Vanhoenacker can only share the beauty and wonder of the planet from his heavenly viewpoint by way of an industry that is ravaging that very beauty and wonder. He admits, once, that climate change is a huge issue. And another time, he notes how starkly socio-economic inequality is shown up by the darkness of the city of Kinshasha, Uganda, compared to the blistering brightness of countless smaller cities in the United States. Spots of darkness marring the purity of the joy of flight.
There’s another absence in the book. I was never expecting anything sensationalist or nail-biting, but it’s impossible not to notice that Vanhoenacker never mentions the dangers of air travel. The closest he ever gets is mentioning his regret that passengers can’t sit in the cockpit during take-offs or landings. He must have had one or two hairy moments in his career. At least, I assume.
This is a book about aerial Eden.
Still, for all its imperfect perfections, Skyfaring was a joy to read. An unexpected fusion of genres – travelogue, memoir, pop science – and something that I already want to go back to, like a far-flung destination that has held onto a piece of me.