Watch The skies!

“We don’t know who discovered water, but we know it wasn’t a fish.”
Marshall McLuhan

Over the past decade, I’ve taken up something I call “strolling.” It’s a form of very slow walking, usually after dark when the surrounding suburban streets are deserted. The slowness of the pace seems to encourage a heightened awareness of one’s surroundings, a state that rarely accompanies walking for exercise, and never while jogging. The second desirable development, one that may or may not occur with each episode, is a slow emptying of the mind and an emergence of a Zen-like state of being. Many who know me would say that the emptying of my mind should be quick work indeed.

The other night, after ten, I left the house to stroll. The night was mild for late March, soft with a clear, star-filled sky. I am aware that we live beneath one of the major North bound flyways, but the sudden passage of low-flying jetliner caught my attention, and triggered a modest experiment – to count the number of aircraft I might observe in the night sky during the thirty-five minute course of my stroll. The total was thirty-one, and because my view was restricted to the direction in which I walked, there were probably many more that I couldn’t see. Still, thirty-one airplanes in thirty-five minutes at ten at night is a lot of airplanes.

What I find interesting in that total is that it is an omnipresent environmental condition, one that I, and I assume most of my neighbors, are almost normally unconscious of. Another fact is that to a person of my age, seventy years old, the unawareness speaks to a kind of numbing of a sensibility. As a kid I lived in a house with an active railroad line less than one hundred and fifty feet from our front-door. Within a month of moving into that house, I ceased to hear the constant passage of thundering steam locomotives. That was at a time in my life that the overhead passage of an airplane brought an almost involuntary response of my looking up into the air. Now, like the coal-fired engines of my childhood, even larger airplanes fly over me at a rate of at least sixty planes an hour, and I hardly know they are there.

In his 1930 classic, “The Revolt of the Masses,” the Spanish political-sociologist Jose Ortega y Gassett noted that the then, newly emerging “mass man” moved through the man-made environmental structures of his civilization much the way the savage moves through a jungle. The savage is not even aware that he is in a jungle.

Living in an ever-changing and complex technological and economic environment, we can become, in historical terms, very quickly anesthetized to the world we inhabit. With our cell phones, three hundred channels, iPods, the internet, and yes, blogs, it becomes increasingly easy to lose our focus on our position in time and space, and what it really means to be alive, here and now.

If it was possible for me as a child to chose not to hear the fast freight trains passing day and night in front of my home, and now I’ve chosen to neither see nor hear huge metal jetliners continually whining and roaring in the skies above my head, the relevant question becomes: What else am I missing?

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1 Response to “Watch The skies!”


  1. 1 Kate November 18, 2008 at 10:03 pm

    “Slow down, kid, slow down. This isn’t a race. We’re strolling.”

    I’m ever thankful for the evening strolls with Uncle Pete. For the insights and the quiet noticing that doesn’t happen in the full tilt hurry.


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