If we are quiet, we are reminded that it is not us but the world that makes its own electricity.
Before the flight takes off, the young boy next to me pulls from the mouth of his red canvas backpack a book on planes. He flips to a watercolor of a Boeing, the windows inky and black. Only one window is painted pale yellow, suggesting the slightest dash of human presence. “There,” he shows me. “That’s us!” Outside our own window, the earth begins to slip away. The wings tilt and shift, gathering air. The airport shrinks until it glints on the ground, a wedge of tinfoil.
The protagonist in Lorrie Moore’s novel A Gate at the Stairs describes lift off as “the plane tipping side to side, finding itself.” I’m enamored of this description, not only because it’s so spot-on, but also because it humanizes this hunk of metal; gives it a mind. Part of it is second nature—we relate to the world through ourselves. Part of it, too, is maybe preservation. We want to believe everything has our best interests at heart, so we make the inhuman humane.
The boy chews his thumbnail. His mother, he explains, waits for him in Michigan. Mine does, too, I tell him. It’s only his second flight alone, and now he watches over my shoulder as rain frets the glass, sluicing Atlanta’s city blocks into watery segments.
“I wish it wasn’t raining,” he says, settling back in his seat. Then: “I just said goodbye to my dad, he’s in the airport now. He tried to walk me all the way through security and everything, but they wouldn’t let him!” He kicks the seat in front of him nervously, rattles off airplane facts from his book, speaks mostly in exclamation points.
I envision his father, a middle-aged man, waving goodbye in the lobby beyond the security gate, and because I crave the solace of consistency, I imagine him waving forever on repeat, growing smaller and smaller in the airport growing smaller and smaller below us as we disappear into the sky.
I prefer traveling by car. Of course, driving takes longer, but this is part of why I prefer it: it doesn’t sever me quite so bluntly from reality. When driving, I’m engaged with the land rising and moving past on all sides; when in a car with the windows open, I become part of the landscape. I am wearing it: the sun, the front yards, mountains and canyons and prairies and Christmas lights. Flying in an airplane is passive whereas driving a car is assertive. And driving gifts the illusion of control. I can choose whether to turn left or right. When to press the brake pedal. When to stop and pull off for the view.
There are hierarchies: biking twines the body even closer to the land; walking, even more so. I once lived in a small city where I didn’t own a car. I could bike wherever I wanted within 15 minutes, and this combination of short commutes with physical exertion was a sort of luxury. It was only during the times my bike was out of commission—a flat, a broken lock—that I’d walk, and these walks were always startling lessons in the experience of seeing. There were many things I never noticed about my city when I was zipping quickly through on my bike, things that became focal points during a stroll: the white cat who spent his mornings draped over the red wooden gate, the “MJB” (Mary J. Blige?) scrawled inside a heart into the cement on the corner of Park and Lombardy, two lion gargoyles keeping watch over a large fountain in a front yard. There was so much I never saw before, in the interest of saving time.
Once, my boyfriend Brad and I drove for hours through South Dakota, a state I could never imagine having the occasion to visit except to speed through it on long road trips, which is exactly what we were doing.
For most of the day, the view through the windshield never changed, though we moved at 80 miles an hour: just the road narrowing like a syringe to the horizon, dry grass passing on either side. On and off throughout the afternoon I played a disorienting trick on myself, shifting the tectonic plates of my brain just enough so that the world appeared to be moving rather than the car: the grass rushed by like a river, and I sat still on the asphalt bank.
This is what the earth was like without humans, I kept thinking, except that really, there was evidence of us everywhere: the road; the grass which, having long been cultivated by settlers and farmers, bore little resemblance to the original prairie grass that grew hundreds of years ago, bits of trash here and there stumbling in the wind along the shoulder.
Eventually, we exited the highway and camped for a day and a night at Badlands National Park, so called the badlands because of the arid temperatures, the scarcity of water, and the difficult terrain. Officially termed “exposed sedimentary rock,” the land resembles a series of sienna canyons flipped upward, red craggy mountains jutting straight from the earth. It looks like a different planet entirely. With the hikers and campers crawling over its hills and buttes, the badlands resembles what I imagine Mars would look like, if we were to ever colonize it.
The Lakota Sioux referred to the land as makosika (land bad) and early French-Canadian explorers translated this name and made it their own, calling it les mauvais terrers a’ traverser, or “bad land to travel across.”
I find the connotations of the name “badlands” fascinating, largely because in first-world modernity there exists no land too bad or too difficult to cross in some way via technology. This name—as all names and titles are, to a point—refers not to the land exactly; rather, it acts as a record of our relationship with it: the land was bad for us; ill-suited to our own needs or expectations for survival, for settling, for multiplying our population.
Now that we no longer need to traverse the badlands on foot or settle there to survive, it’s become land for pleasure and recreation. The government works to preserve the land, rather than humans manipulating the land to preserve us. And so the original name gifts the surroundings with a leftover menacing personality—it certainly helped form my perception of it while we were there.
What does it mean, now, for a land to be bad? Is this even possible?
Flash floods and thunderstorms in the badlands are common. The day Brad and I arrived, a storm lingered far-off, dividing the sky into black and a sliver of yellow underneath, like a heavy theater curtain descending or rising. We spent the entire afternoon planning our hikes around this hypothetical storm, wondering if it was coming or going, but the storm never hit.
The geography—how it jutted from the ground at odd angles, the sharp contrast of blue sky with orange land—was at once beautiful and alienating. The land felt intrusive in the way it announced itself, but then, so were we; our fingertips crumbling red dust from the rock as we climbed around the spires and buttes.
At night, the park put on a star show, led by a ranger who pointed out constellations using a laser pointer. “Compared to so many cities, with their smog and light pollution,” he bellowed, “the sky over the badlands remains one of the clearest places in the entire country to see stars.” He waved the laser back and forth over Ursa Major.
In the morning, as I reached to unzip the tent, the silhouette of a rabbit outside darted across the canvas, its slight footfall on the hard ground like rain on a roof. Signs everywhere warned, in bold red font, of rattlesnakes. The air rang and buzzed in the heat. If we are quiet, we are reminded that it is not us but the world that makes its own electricity.
Back in the plane. Spread across my lap is a magazine article about two dancers in a New York ballet company. The boy next to me looks up from his picture book, arches an eyebrow. “Is that any good?” he asks. “Yeah,” I answer, but in truth my mind keeps wandering. The text traffics the page in black cars.
In the story, two famous dancers, a man and a woman, choreograph a ballet, practicing in front of a trial audience. “The next time that Lugo lifted her,” the journalist writes, “Eighten gently stepped in space, as if she were so transported by the relationship that she couldn’t tell whether she was grounded or floating.”
There are no photographs in the article, so my mind’s eye invents an image of the woman: she hovers on toe at the edge of the stage before the man lifts her just barely off the ground. The long shadow, like the neck of a heron, her leg tosses across the cedar floor, across the faces in the front row. The audience, transfixed, forgets itself.
The plane hits turbulence and dips. Something in my stomach falls off its shelf. Clumsily, the boy constructs the sign of the cross as if to sew himself shut, the flight of his hand just over the armrest suddenly far away.
I am en route to see my mother and my family for the first time in a few months. The last time I saw them was for my grandmother’s funeral. Perhaps it’s because I’m thinking of both her and my mother that I find myself imagining the roar of the plane’s engine as the blood-rush of the womb. There is something familiar and primal about this noise, which is discomfiting because it’s also robotic, constructed by machines rather than organic, rising from our bodies. Usually the engine sound falls away from my ear after about an hour, becomes part of my regular aural landscape, so that I occasionally forget we’re sailing casually above the earth.
The flight attendant, red scarf like an elegant wattle tied around her throat, begins to traverse the aisle with the beverage cart. Little pouches frame the corners of her mouth. Her eyebrows perfectly trimmed. Flight attendants are always collected and calm and put together. Even their flaws seem starched and ironed; I wonder how exhausting that must be. As the drink cart rattles and the plane sinks again, she remains composed. Her hand continues to shovel the ice into plastic cups as she smiles at the passengers, showing all her teeth. The seatbelt sign dings.
It seems arrogant to me that we fly at all, to assume we have this ability to navigate the world with all its mess and weather. We catch ourselves thinking that we have, with our technology, changed this simple fact about the earth: its bigness, its expanse. By shortening distances and obscuring perspective, flight and most forms of new technology encourage an expectation of undemanding transitions. It instills the confidence that everything will work out. So what happens if and when it doesn’t?
A few months ago, my mother stood shin deep in the ocean off the coast of Massachusetts, scattering her own mother’s ashes. The sound of cinders on water on wind, like velvet sliding across velvet, or a toe shoe dragging across a wood floor. If I’m quiet enough, somewhere above the engine of the plane I can hear her: her pace parting the sea, the hem of her dress fanned on top the water, the contrails of foam following. And in her calves half-swallowed by water, I could see the shape of my own calves beginning—how I would become her, and, at once, how she would turn to ash, my mother. How I also would turn to ash.
The turbulence. I don’t want the boy to know I’m afraid. I know I’m supposed to be the one who acts like there’s nothing to fear. I’m the adult now. I know the plane won’t crash. But my heart has sped up, my fingers clutch my magazine, my eyes squeeze shut.
For years, my mother was a dancer. She performed all throughout her 20s. By the time I was born up until I was about five or six, she taught dance and aerobics classes at the Y. My father and I would pick her up and wait for her at the doorway, watching her lead the entire class in front of the mirror: my mother, in her navy leotard, and her reflection, moving together like two wings.
In her book, Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit observes that walking ties the body to thought. “The body and mind can work together, so that thinking becomes almost a physical, rhythmic act,” she writes. Similarly, I believe dancing—a movement with no destination—suspends thought so that something more pure—a thought unburdened by words—can rush in.
Growing up, I was a figure skater—an interest that evolved from the years of modern dance classes my mother enrolled me in. When I skate, or when I dance, how much of that is me, and how much is my mother?
Our national parks guidebook, which we read obsessively so we could better understand our surroundings (an obsession which I worry now only served to separate us from our experience by mediating it), told us the badlands have “been compared to an enormous stage set—colorful, dramatic, and not quite real.”
Millions of years ago, the badlands and the rest of the Great Plains were a shallow sea. And according to the National Park Service website, the badlands “erode at the rapid rate of about one inch per year.” It is hypothesized that, one day, if the earth is around long enough, the badlands will again be under water. I find this partly comforting, partly threatening—the fact that imperceptible changes are happening, all the time. In a way, it’s very human. Or maybe I just hope it is.
I occasionally had to skate beneath spotlights so bright and hot I couldn’t see beyond a foot of where I was going. The audience remained hidden, sending out bursts of claps like the pops of signal flares. I spun and jumped into the darkness.
Driving through South Dakota at night with the brights on was a little like this, so dark and expansive as to become claustrophobic—any creature or human could have materialized on the road ahead and already it would have been too late. The yellow lane markers perforated the road like quick flames.
A velvet blanket pierced with holes: this is what a boy in elementary school told me the sky was. And the stars were heaven or some other universe shining through. Though I didn’t truly believe him, I enjoyed the optical illusion of it, how the image dissipated my assumed boundaries between the world and myself. Looking at the sky like that, you become a cricket trapped in a glass jar, staring up at the punctured lid. Trapped—but the bright stuff beyond the dark top at least doesn’t seem so far away.
From the vantage point of an airplane window, the badlands would, of course, turn into something else, the way streets and houses become pillboxes when you fly over them, how cities spider out like frost growing on a windowpane or bacteria crystallized on a microscope slide. A conflation of the small with the large.
To look at the land from above—to assert your dominance over it—is to destroy the passage of time, to experience the brief illusion of being outside of history, and therefore, outside of identity. Because the earth gives us meaning and insight into who we are, the removal of our bodies from earth has always seemed to me the temporary removal from our selves.
A plane touches down on tarmac like the alert mind returning to the body as it wakes. Allow me to stretch this metaphor, and our bodies become a mind of the earth: that is, that which guides it and helps to determine its outcomes.
Our undeniable marks: contrails and ash in the water and fuel and carbon and receding ice caps. I’m not sure how to reconcile the enormity of a changing climate with my own personhood (not that I deserve that luxury). Attempting to do so is the same as trying to reconcile my own individuality with the collective decisions and consequences of millions of unknown people before me. How do we traverse this gap between ourselves and our communities? How can we surmount the distance between ourselves and the earth we live on, when that gap is widening?
A remote plateau in the badlands known as the Stronghold Table, accessible only by driving through rutted, hard-to-navigate grasslands, is thought to be the last known site of the Ghost Dance, performed by the Lakota Sioux in December of 1890. Our guidebook told us that the view was “unspectacular,” but that the visit could be emotional, “depending on your perspective and imagination.” Translation: if you possess the ability to make your mind comprehend the past.
Packing up my grandmother’s apartment with my mother, we found an entire box of photos, many of me and my younger sister when we were children, photographs we had never seen before.
In one Polaroid, my sister and I (ages three and seven, respectively?) parade around the old living room in tutus, legs kicked out, arms triumphant in the air. I say triumphant because we seem proud of our movement; we are showing off. Logically, rationally, I know that this is me dancing in the picture. But this tiny person is also a different girl entirely. My small hand waves pale in the light from the window like a white flag.
I don’t remember this day that we dressed up as ballerinas at my grandmother’s house, but, years later, my same hands holding the photo, I am already assuming and assigning a story. I fall into this photograph as if from a great height:
The tutus scratch at the backs of our legs, but we feel too glamorous to care. In the backyard, shrimp and salmon cook on the grill. My mother sits on the couch with a glass of wine, wearing her old glasses with the coke-bottle lenses, her hair still shoulder-length and dark. On her left tooth, that same pink smudge of lipstick, the one that annoys and endears me to her all at once.
My uncle is alive again. He’s telling jokes to my father in the kitchen, keeping an eye on the grill out the back window. My grandmother is also still here, here with all of us, breathing. Her hands, alert with blue veins, are the ones holding the camera, crescents of soil tucked under her fingernails from when she kneeled out in the garden earlier. The costume rings crowded on her fingers glint like electricity flicking on and off in a building as she clicks the shutter.
Do photographs, like airplanes, temporarily smooth over the passage of time? The strangest thing to me about getting older, accruing more and more memories, is that the majority of my life is no longer the surrounding scenery, but a landscape veiled by fog, vague and hard to see from high above.
Unlike the earth, we are not given the time to undergo so many transitions, inhabit so many identities.
The Ghost Dance became a popular ritual among American Indian tribes in the late 1800s. In many sources, it is referred to not as a dance but as a religion. The Lakota Sioux believed that dancing the Ghost Dance until exhaustion would conjure visions of a world free of white settlers, white encroachment upon the land. They believed that the action of dancing would defeat the white settlers and return their land to them.
Obviously, I cannot begin to imagine the circumstances or conditions in which the Sioux found themselves, but I recognize from my days of ice skating that when we move with purpose and intent, we feel we could move the earth with us; we feel we could escape it, escape our bodies. Movement gives our bodies authority in times we feel powerless—it has potential to alleviate anxiety over a source of inaction.
And yet: such intense movement simultaneously forces the realization of just how tightly we are bound to our bodies, our aching joints, our lungs begging for air.
But I would like to believe that our bodies do have this ability to change the world, not just harm it; that movement is not something we only do passively because that is how we were made. I hope we are not simply crickets beating against the glass.
In November of 1974, the German filmmaker Werner Herzog received a call that his close friend in Paris, Lotte Eisner, had fallen ill and would probably die. He decided to set off from Munich to Paris on foot, in the middle of winter, believing that this simple action of walking—and the meditation it would inspire—would keep her alive. Perhaps he was simply trying to understand a world where death happens, by trying to walk across it.
Rebecca Solnit writes, “The mind is also a landscape of sorts and . . . walking is one way to traverse it.” And: “It is the body that moves but the world that changes.”
Eisner lived another nine years.
One could not take such a personal journey by plane, disconnected from an earth that gives us our own personhood—the earth being an extension of our selves. And this extension is not merely a result of our interaction with it: at the risk of sounding unbearably sentimental, we are made of carbon, the same material as coal, buried at the center of the planet.
Gazing down at the land from an airplane, we describe what we see mostly through metaphor. City lights become constellations, a comparison disorienting in its reversal of land and sky. Many of our metaphors anthropomorphize the land: roads and rivers are arteries and veins, hills are breasts or shoulders, houses are little teeth—no wonder, then, that we view our bodies as our own individual landscapes. And no wonder we feel we could somehow move the earth through moving our bodies.
We produce metaphors to help explain our existence, and the creative logic behind them is a logic that implies everything is connected. It is this same connectivity that determines our lives—that our actions have consequences.
Just weeks after the Ghost Dance upon Stronghold Table, the U.S. Seventh Cavalry murdered over 150 members of the Lakota in the Wounded Knee Massacre.
I’m interested in the guidebook’s choice to refer to this view as “unspectacular . . . depending on your perspective and imagination,” because it elevates the human experience above nature. It assumes the view only turns meaningful once we can conjure the terrible acts that happened nearby. To me, a landscape itself cannot be unspectacular—unspectacular seems a more appropriate adjective to describe our own behavior and actions: how we treat others, how we treat the land.
Still, the guidebook’s phrasing speaks to something nagging at me, which is: What is the land, if not experienced by us? And: How can we remember and therefore try to understand the past, when the land doesn’t remind us of it?
If we can call a land bad, what do we call a land that changes? And how does an altering landscape affect our memory of it, of what took place there?
I don’t have any answers—but maybe all this the questioning will keep me wandering, wondering. A ritual for attempting to comprehend.
Already we forget the facts, figures, and predictions given to us by climate scientists. We forget these on a daily basis because it is easier than remembering, and because it seems out of our control.
I drive to work instead of walking, I pump my car with gas, I accidentally leave the light on. These small actions don’t seem so huge until I consider the millions of people who replicate them. How to help incite change in a modern world that requires me to use it in order to live in it?
In this case, remembering means action, assertiveness. It means reforming our habits, our entire lives around an abstraction. It means forgoing our own identities in favor of something larger than ourselves, though the sacrifices could still prove futile. It means movement, in some way. We clearly have no idea how to do this. To be more specific, to remove myself from a whole: I have no idea how to do this.
The very fact that I cannot imagine an earth without humans to perceive, engage with, and influence it—though such a place has existed before and will likely exist again—suggests our collective ego problem. We have written ourselves as the stars of a play completely dependent upon a theater that cares very little for us.
Back again in the plane’s cabin. “How old do you think I am?” the boy besides me asks, after the plane has passed through the storm. He looks about eight, but I sense I should guess older. “Eleven?” He shakes his head. “Nope. Wrong. Twelve.”
He tells me about his father and mother’s divorce, and how he’s going to Costa Rica with his father in the winter. He tells me about the monkeys that live there. “When I was a kid,” he says, “I used to really want a monkey.” He laughs and sighs as if to say, Kids, am I right? “I was downright silly back then.”
He asks me what my favorite part is about traveling on airplanes, and I tell him that when I first started traveling by myself, when I was about 18—far older than he is now—I liked how grownup it felt, how I felt like I was finally inhabiting a life that for years I had only imagined for myself.
The boy’s favorite thing about traveling on airplanes is unexpectedly poignant: “I like saying hello and goodbye in airports to the people you’re visiting, because you can see how much they love you. And then you don’t feel so alone.”
I’m drawn to this sentiment because it communicates that we feel, at heart, alone in a world of seven billion people. Is it that sense of alone-ness (which is different than loneliness, and which might be a natural symptom of a culture that values individual identity above all else) that makes it easier to ignore the problems that arise from an ever-growing population?
On the road, the badlands surprised us. The alien landscape wasn’t visible on the horizon until suddenly, rippling up, it was. When we left in the morning, the badlands disappeared just as quickly from the rearview mirror.
Later, a man working an otherwise empty gas station told us that if we had stayed on the interstate, we wouldn’t have seen the badlands at all.
When my mother called to give me the news that my grandmother had passed away, I was almost relieved. Her death was not a surprise. She hadn’t been well for a long time. For months, any time my phone rang and I saw the call was from my parents, I’d brace and prepare for the news.
But despite my lack of shock, I can’t see her death for what it is. Her death is something I will never be able to fly above. I will never be able to stare down at it so I can see how it comes together.
I once told my aunt, who flies frequently for conferences, about my fear of flying. That my fear might have something to do with the literal absence of my body from earth, a surreal separation that implies only one thing.
In response, she told me that such thoughts never plagued her: “When it’s my time to go,” she said, “it’s my time to go.”
I wish I could cultivate such an attitude. And it’s true I’ll manage to forget for long stretches at a time that we are mortal.
But other times, the world makes me remember: a day that opens with such force against the windowpanes that the room suds with yellow and blue. A tangled mass of birds swimming low overhead in the grocery parking lot so that walking beneath them is like getting caught in a school of fish. A stand of pine trees wearing a heavy coat of snow. An old videotape of my mother dancing. A road trip through states I’ve never seen before.
My mother spreading her mother’s body to the air makes me think of when I will have to do the same for her. I know it’s inevitable, just as I know it is inevitable that I too will leave this place. This is how the passage of time works. But, perhaps to keep me sane, I cannot accept it.
Because I don’t know where she’ll go, I can only believe that if my mother does manage to die—if I live in a world cruel enough to allow her death, a world cruel enough to erase itself—that she will, eventually, and if I want it fiercely enough, return to her body, like a plane unfurling its wheels and touching back down on the ground, a dancer running back into another dancer’s arms.
Descending into Detroit, the land’s veins and arteries come into view. Water leads to more water, roads connect to more roads. Rows and rows of houses, subdivisions neatly laid out like teeth in a mouth, their normalcy so common and orderly as to be almost alien.
The plane circles over the city; the pilot waits for the runway to clear. Soon enough, I’ll be down there, on the ground. I remember once reading in the news about an overcrowded airport where planes often had to circle the runway for up to an hour before there was room to land. The desperation of seeing the earth yet not being able to reach it.
The wing crosses the sun, sending its long shadow across the faces of the passengers to my left. The boy’s eyebrows furrow in sleep. When the sun reappears from the wing, flaming across his face, his eyes open, and for a moment, as the plane tilts again, his expression takes on a look of terror. And then he returns to himself.
Lena Moses-Schmitt’s work appears or is forthcoming in Best New Poets, Indiana Review, The Normal School, Ninth Letter, Devil’s Lake, and elsewhere. She is the poetry editor of The Collapsar, and lives in Austin, Texas, where she works as a book publicist.
Header photo of Badlands National Park by Falkenpost, courtesy Pixabay.