Prairie Sky: A Pilot's Reflections on Flying and the Grace of Altitude by W. Scott Olsen will be available in three to four weeks. Pre-order it today!
Prairie Sky explores the reality as well as the metaphor of flight: notions of ceaseless time and boundless space, personal interior and exterior vision, social history, meteorology, and geology. W. Scott Olsen takes readers along as he chases a new way of looking at the physical world and wonders aloud about how the whole planet moves in interconnected ways not visible from the ground. While the northern prairie may call to mind images of golden harvests and summer twilight such images do not define the region. The land bears marks left by gut-shaking thunderstorms, hard-frozen rivers, sweeping floods, and hurricane-size storms. Olsen takes to the midwestern sky to confront the ordinary world and reveals the magic--the wondrous and unique sights visible from the pilot’s seat of a Cessna.
Thin Places and Thick Time
A Duet for Two Worlds
“Ready to go flying?” I ask.
“Think I know how to do this?”
Roy Hammerling, a religion professor at the college, sits in the right seat as the Skyhawk enters the runway.
“I’m counting on it,” he says.
The throttle goes forward, and the airplane begins to run down the centerline. It’s a beautiful day for flying. Clear sky and bright sun. A gentle breeze from the north. Huge distances between the very small clouds. The type of day where chasing an idea with an airplane seems perfectly logical and sane. At 60 knots I ease back on the yoke, the nose lifts, and then the rest of the airplane follows. We begin a gentle climbing turn to the west.
“I love that initial feeling,” Roy says. “It’s like you’re tethered to the ground, and then all of a sudden you break free.”
Roy and I are on an expedition this morning, a mission, a voyage of discovery. We are looking for the place where everything changes, the place where the very behavior of the physical earth changes direction. There are signs on the ground that point to the spot, but when you are standing there, the shift is too subtle to see. We are looking for a line reaching back to Pleistocene catastrophe and forward into ecology and myth. We are looking for the Laurentian Divide. And we are looking for something else as well.
Below us the land is green where crops have sprouted, brown where the plants are still emerging. We’ve had three days of hard rain, and overland water moves toward the Maple and Sheyenne and Red Rivers, streams today in depressions you can measure but never see.
“I am always amazed by the takeoff,” he says. “When I was a little kid, I used to imagine it was like there were ropes around the airplane, and you had to break away. And there is this sense of—I don’t know—elation when you break free.”
There is such a thing as accidental genius, I think. Hunting for geology, the normal thing would be to invite a geologist. But the Laurentian Divide in North Dakota is nothing like the Great Divide running the length of the Rocky Mountains. There is no leap and swooning of summit and valley here. Subtle at best, invisible at worst, the Laurentian Divide is more idea than rock, but the evidence of its presence is overwhelming. I mentioned this in a hallway once, and Roy got interested.
If you are looking for the invisible, I think, invite a theologian. I level the wings just fifteen hundred feet over the ground. Traffic on the interstate is light. An egret flies southbound below us.
“I always felt there was a bit of a metaphor for spiritual life in that,” Roy continues. “In the sense that what people always want is a sense of joy or happiness. But there’s always these things tethering you down to the ground. You can’t get away from it. I have a friend who’s a pilot, and I’ve gone up with him a few times. I always have this sense of freedom in flying.”
We’ve begun this conversation a thousand times. In my office, in his office, in hallways and lunch lines, we get to talking about flying and about the small insistent sense that something else is happening beyond the shape of air moving over wings. But then we’ve always paused.
“In the airplane,” I’ve said. “I want to hear what you think while we’re actually flying.”
When I told him I was going to try to find the divide, something huge and historic and mostly invisible unless you’re looking for it, and even then damn near impossible to fix precisely, it seemed like the perfect opportunity. We’ve delayed this conversation so long, it nearly erupts.
“Do you know what that means?” he asks. “That feeling at takeoff?”
“Transformation,” I say. “It’s a leap of faith, perhaps a leap into faith. It’s your mind telling your body to relax—the physics and the math work pretty well.”
“Some people never get over that fear, though,” he says. “Some people can never make that leap. Just like some people sometimes in the religious life never get over certain fears; they build up regulations and walls and rules. They do things that keep them from flying. And it seems to me that the spiritual life is about letting go, is about being free and trusting. There is a sense of mystery about it. There is always a sense of mystery. Like right now, I look over, and you don’t even have your hands on the controls.”
I smile and point at the autopilot in the panel.
“Oh,” he says, laughing. “See? Mystery explained by a higher power.”
I remember a map I have at home that shows the rock underneath the Dakota soils. Like nearly every map, it’s an aerial perspective. Archean basement rock, billions of years old, from the time when continents first formed and life, nonnucleated single-celled hopes called prokaryotes, first appeared, hides under Fargo. Heading west, however, the rock quickly becomes Cretaceous. The rock of Tyrannosaurus rex. The rock of Giganotosaurus and Triceratops. The rock of Pangaea’s breakup. The rock of the Western Interior Seaway, an ocean in the middle of the continent. The rock of a meteor falling on the Yucatán and killing nearly everything. Keep going west and the rock keeps getting younger. But none of it is visible now. The planet cooled. The glaciers came, scraped every hilltop, and filled every valley with gravel and sand. An ice sheet named Laurentide pushed the Missouri River valley into shape. And when the glaciers moved back, the meltwater Lake Agassiz, the largest inland sea in North American history, deposited sediment and clay. There are marks in the North Dakota soil that reveal where icebergs trapped in retreating pack ice scraped the lake-bottom sediment. You cannot see them from the ground.
“You know,” I say, “I have been told that there is not one single description in the Bible of an angel in the act of landing. There is one scene where a couple of them are zipping around a living room, but otherwise they are almost always in the air. And if they are on the ground, they are frequently in disguise, appearing as commonplace humans. So it would be possible to argue that their true appearance, the place where they can reveal their true nature, is airborne. It may be forcing the idea a bit, coming from a pilot, but it does strike me that there is something intuitive there. Something true about the human character.”
“You can think of Ezekiel being taken up in the fiery chariot, of Jesus’s ascending into clouds, and it lends itself to the idea that heaven and the holy are somewhere above.”
“These guys don’t just dissolve,” I say. “They don’t just fade away into some other state of being. They rise. They take off. They fly.”
“Saint Augustine,” Roy says, “in his Confessions has this great line. He says something like ‘Oh, God, are you the God of the heavens? And if so, are the birds more holy because they fly closer to you?’ He knows that God is in some type of heavenly place. But the question is, where is that place?”
“Today,” I say, “it’s fifteen hundred feet over Dakota farmland.”
“Perhaps not,” Roy says. “Augustine concludes that the way people need to fly like birds is to go within.” He looks out the window. “But I will admit, if Augustine had a Cessna, he might have changed his mind.”