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'Skyfaring': The Poetry And Science Of Air Travel

Storms over the Bay of Bengal.
Courtesy of Mark Vanhoenacker
Storms over the Bay of Bengal.

In an episode of the Netflix program Sense8, the character Capheus suddenly finds himself an aircraft passenger alongside Riley, another "sensate" to whom he is mysteriously connected emotionally. Flying from London to Reykjavik, Riley is bored, her eyes dulled even as spectacular white clouds drift past her window. Capheus, who lives in Nairobi and has never before traveled by air, is thunderstruck by Riley's refusal to grasp how lucky she is to be dwelling in these skies.

With fresh eyes, Capheus sees on that flight what Riley cannot.

For people who fly with some regularity, it becomes all too easy to assume an indifference of Riley's sort without even realizing it. We celebrate our arrival in a new city but endure the flight itself, steeped in what we tell ourselves are great inconveniences (Cramped economy seats! Too many food-less hours in the air!)

Flying, though, continuously enlivens London-based long-haul pilot Mark Vanhoenacker's perception, and his delight, just as it did for Capheus. Through the nine chapters of his non-fiction book Skyfaring: A Journey With a Pilot, Vanhoenacker invites his readers to rediscover the excitement of flight, and what we may drink in of our Earth and its day and night skies as we fly.

"In the old days," Vanhoenacker writes, "globes were made and given in pairs, a terrestrial, or earth globe, and a celestial sphere of the heavens. At night from a plane we may see ourselves as we are: sandwiched between the celestial and the terrestrial spheres, the icy ball of stars turning frictionlessly over us, a high mirror to the steady roll of the dark lands and waters and the lights of cities."

Passages like these, including vivid descriptions of what it's like to fly through the "sky countries" — administrative divisions of airspace with names like Fukuoka and Maastricht and Turkmenabat — caused me to fall in love with Skyfaring's marriage of poetry and science. And I include anthropology in that "science." It's not just skies and terrain that Vanhoenacker describes, but also movements and migrations of people across the globe, people who, thanks to worldwide inequities, may come from widely divergent circumstances.

I connected with Vanhoenacker first on Twitter. When he kindly agreed to answer some questions for this post, we corresponded via email. What appears here are excerpts from a longer conversation.

Vanhoenacker writes in the book, "The air you exhale on the plane, the plane exhales, too. Your breath trails across the world."

Travel links us all. For those of us fortunate enough to travel by air, Skyfaring reawakens our wonder.

Barbara J. King, an anthropology professor at the College of William and Mary, often writes about human evolution, primate behavior and the cognition and emotion of animals. Barbara's most recent book on animals is titled How Animals Grieve. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

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Barbara J. King is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. With a long-standing research interest in primate behavior and human evolution, King has studied baboon foraging in Kenya and gorilla and bonobo communication at captive facilities in the United States.