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by Fred Gissoni, reprinted from DIALOGUE, Winter 1968
Last summer, I flew from Lexington, Kentucky, to Toronto, Ontario, with a coworker nicknamed Corky. Corky is a good observer, and he's good at reporting the things he sees. As we flew above Kentucky, Ohio, the Great Lakes, northern New York State and southern Ontario, Corky commented on the appearance of things below and on other flights he has made in other parts of the country.
He said that looking down from a great altitude, 15,000 feet or so, he gets the impression of looking at an odd kind of quilt. It is difficult to identify objects as objects but one knows what they should be because one has seen them gradually decrease in size and seen detail become lost as the plane climbs. At 15,000 feet, a house seems to be the size of a braille dot. Most of what one sees is not so much a matter of looking at objects as it is in knowing differences in color and shading.
Highways seem to be almost thread-like with bright spots of color scooting on them. These are the automobiles which flash along and reflect the sun. Swimming pools in the back yards of houses also are identified by the way in which they reflect the sun. Looking down on a lake, a boat itself may not be visible, but its exact location can be seen because its bow wave shows up very clearly against the background of the otherwise calm surface of the water.
Corky saw many boats pulling water skiers, and while neither boat nor skier was visible, the precise location of both could be found from bow waves and tracings in the water.
An automobile junk yard appeared to be a fairly confined area in which multicolored bits of metal foil had been thrown in random array. As seen from a great height, a city appeared to Corky to be a mound which had been sliced apart and almost, but not quite, fitted back together. The streets were the lines of cleavage where the slicing had been done. The geometry of older portions of cities was made up of squares, rectangles, and triangles. More modern subdivisions were easily recognized because they went in for more curving street patterns and less severe angles.
We flew over a point at which a river entered a lake, and Corky commented that the contrast was very obvious. The river appeared dark brown, dirty, and smoky looking, while the lake was a much clearer bluish color.
Looking down on one of the Great Lakes near a large industrial city, Corky commented that the Earth appeared to be wrapped with a dirty, oily, brown-looking rag. This was a layer of pollutant-laden air which settled over the lake and the landscape.
Corky also expressed the belief that if a visitor from another planet were to fly over the United States, and if this visitor knew something of geometry, he would suspect that we Americans were in some slavish, ritualistic way dedicated to geometry. From the air, cultivation of farm land, borders of timberland, highways, residential areas, and cities all seemed to have their limits dictated by a need for precision. In cultivated areas, almost invariably one tree was allowed to stand, whether it be in the center or corner of a plot. All other growth might be ankle- or knee-high, but this one tree stood alone in its particular plot.
The limits of timberland seemed to be dictated by the farmer's devotion to geometry, and the cultivation of his land also was influenced by this. Crops were laid out in definite patterns, and their geometry could be observed as differences in color and shading at high altitude. Flying over areas touched by recent rain, it was possible to get a definite kind of picture as the result of evaporation. Evaporation rate differs at different elevations, being faster at high elevations than at low. It also differs with the material that is holding the moisture. So the contour of the land and density of crop cover could be observed as an effect of this difference.
As we flew over Canada, Corky said he could note some rather surprising changes. The effects of soil erosion were more obvious in Canada than in the US. There seemed to be far less of an obsession with geometry in Canada than in the US. Whereas in the States, the farmer's devotion to geometry seemed to dictate the limits of uncleared land, in Canada the impression was that the land had more of a "say so" in where the limits of farming would be.
As we lost altitude, objects began to be more easily recognized as objects. At 10,000 feet, a highway seemed to be about like a flat toothpick. Lower down, automobiles seemed like scurrying insects, then bright colored toys. Houses, trees, and utility poles took on greater detail. People began to emerge as people rather than colored specks. Details of dress and size began to become more apparent. As we continued to drop sharply, Corky commented that he could see the ball on a golf course. I asked him how high we were, and he said, "Oh, about ten feet." Just as he said the word "feet" the wheels touched the runway, and we were in Toronto.
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