Forty-five minutes after lifting off out of Houston—an evening flight bound for Las Vegas—I finished a chapter of my current book (Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, an exploration of the Appalachian Trail) and wondered about the stars. As soon as my eyes adjusted to the dark outside my window, I spotted Cassiopeia, the vain queen, her five major stars prone directly in front of me. I smiled and shut off my reading light.
Then I noticed glowing on the ground below.
Throughout a lifetime of air travel, the vast majority of my nighttime hours have been spent above the Pacific Ocean—an eternal stretch of primordial darkness beneath twinkling stars. There’s something contemplative and terrorizing about an atramentous infinity. The mind searches for something, anything. The eyes find nothing except perhaps a passing cloud reflecting moonlight—but even that is uncertain. Airplane engines roar into the quiet. The Pacific darkness is sublime: an abyss, sprawling and reaching and whispering.
But these are just the dramatics I was born with.
Flying over Texas last Saturday night, my first thought was of golden bioluminescence—not reflections of the silvery stars and not mimicries of them, but colonies of fireflies, or spills of fungi. Something you might wake to if you strayed into a fairy ring.
Of course I’ve seen cities from above, glittering in the night. But generally it’s only been upon departure or arrival, the clear, broad metropolitan expanse shrinking into the distance or swelling into focus. Bangkok. Tokyo. Los Angeles. Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Portland. These are clearly cities. You spot landmarks, see stadiums and neighborhoods and skyscrapers, watch headlights and taillights flowing along until they’re so small you only know them by memory.
Viewed this way, cities still seem human. Manmade. Distinct from the natural world.
But the effect was entirely different from an altitude of 35,000 feet. If not for Cassiopeia, I could have been staring into another world, an inky nothingness speckled with glimmering suggestions.
The lights intimated life. I thought of bioluminescence first because something in me—probably something primally and deeply human—associated the lights with something living. I wondered if this was why the ancients stared into the twinkling heavens and searched for gods; if this was why so many cultures named and worshipped the sun and moon; if this was how lightning and fire and lava had made their way into generations of myth.
Of course, I could have associated the lights with life because as a 21st-century human adult, I recognize the work of my own species. But I don’t think so. I did not first link the scattered glowing pinpoints with mankind. I thought of the passive glow of marine bacteria, the flicker of insects, the pulse of jellyfish.
These lights seemed part of the natural world. Organic. All one whole.
I began instinctively searching for constellations. We passed over what must have been a small town, and I wondered if its inhabitants knew it was roughly shaped like the state of Texas. Evenly-spaced points tracing a winding track must have been a highway. Here was a series of points resembling a wave. Another group could have formed a lightbulb. I searched until I felt I was upside-down looking at the night sky, poised to fall to the airplane’s ceiling. I returned to Cassiopeia.
Cassiopeia’s sin, like that of many Greek mortals, was vanity. She believed herself (or her daughter Andromeda) more beautiful than Poseidon’s sea nymphs. Poseidon, always one for poised evenhandedness, punished her hubristic belief by placing her in the sky to tumble forever around the Celestial North Pole.
Humankind struggles to classify itself, and has, it seems, since we began making stories. Are we nearer in kind to the animals with whom we share our planet? Or are we closer kin to gods, and stars, and spirits?
Are our actions natural? As natural ants building anthills or beavers felling trees? And if so, is this a good thing or a bad thing? Are the value judgments even relevant? How do we define natural? How do we define good or bad in the grand scheme?
Where are the boundaries between grand schemes?
All this light we make on the ground blocks us off from witnessing the stars, but on this night, I could not resent the constellations below me. I wondered what the ancients might have thought to see the patchwork world from this vantage—the vantage of the gods. To see new constellations flickering up at the night sky, like fireflies blinking back at their fellows.
What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever seen from an airplane window? Let us know in the comments below!