Swimming in the air

When I watch the bats flying around my yard every evening, I wonder what it would feel like. What’s it like to be a flying creature, and how does that affect your perception?

What would it be like if we could swim through the air in the same way that we can swim through the ocean — as a space we can traverse at any height or depth? The ground would no longer be a surface to cross but simply a border, a lower limit. Mountains, valleys, and cliffs would no longer be dangerous obstacles but, perhaps, guideposts, notable less for their topography than for the thermals, winds, and clouds that they influence.

I imagine we’d perceive the world less in the terms of figure-and-ground than as a volume of space with upper and lower bounds. Perhaps we’d perceive ourselves as something more fluid. Moving around would be defined less by footfall on the hard ground, and more by rising and falling, a path to trace through the atmosphere like draped ribbon.

I can imagine gliding through the steep-walled Patapsco river valley near my home. The water reflecting the sky in a bright stripe to the horizon. Trees and rocky outcrops rushing past on either side of me. I’d tilt and bank to follow the water’s gentle curves, the air cooler near its surface, light fog trapped in the hollows, rising thermals near the hilltops.

Imagine flying at night. The air cool and clear, the land below a dark, soft-spoken silhouette. The dome of stars above, the moon almost in reach, the sky a map. Imagine that the night was no longer dark, that you could perceive the world with perfect clarity. Echolocation is a way of “seeing” with your ears and voice. Imagine if the silence of a moonless night was actually a cacophony of ultrasonic voices, shouting to find their way, to find a mate, to find dinner. Imagine if the dark woods, and the opaque terror and isolation we’ve ascribed to them for all these millennia, was instead a world lit bright and loud. You could perceive every leaf, gnat, spec of dust, water droplet.

Handwritten quote: "What would it be like if we could swim through the air in the same way that we can swim through the ocean?"

I like to roll these images over in my head because I like the disembodied feeling they bring. It’s a feeling of limitlessness. I think there’s some deep-rooted, instinctive longing we have to experience this, but I can’t put my finger on where, exactly, it comes from.

Perhaps it’s evolutionary, some kind of ancestral memory of the Precambrian oceans where life began.

Perhaps it’s spiritual. Images of darkness, ascending, and flying appear in various guises in religious and mythological stories around the world. The Prophet Mohammed’s sublime night journey. Saint John of Cross’ contemplative poem The Dark Night of the Soul. Swami Vivekananda’s description of the “Three levels of meditation,” with the last, samadhi, being a complete absorption in disembodied consciousness, a loss of the sense of oneself and the world as different things.

Again and again, we leave our terrestrial bodies and climb into darkness in search of God, in search of the infinite.

In Akiko Busch’s excellent book, How to disappear, she contemplates invisibility and anonymity from many angles. In one chapter, she recounts a scuba diving trip she took in the Caribbean Sea:

We all know the sensation of life slowing down, of being suspended in time, of being outside the rhythm of ordinary life, but underwater, that is the way things really are. There is a sense of vast remove, even though we are all occupying the same turquoise chamber; our amphibian selves are alert to both the immeasurable distance from and profound connection to the water world around us. Submerged, I have become a refugee from the visible world.

It makes sense to me that we take such pleasure in the state of weightlessness. Perhaps it comes not just from the sensory novelty, that thrill of zero gravity, but from some sensation of having a spirit self, some innate knowledge that it can be a good thing to lose the materiality of everyday life.

How one breathes, then, has a direct effect on body position and placement. Above the surface, such attentiveness to slow, measured, and continuous breathing is generally practiced in meditation, but underwater, this connection between breathing, motion, and placement is more intrinsic.

Swimming, and scuba diving in particular, are perhaps the closest most of us can come to experiencing the world the way that birds and bats and insects do. It’s the only way (Note: Short of, say, spaceflight. ) that we can experience the weightlessness of unassisted “flight.” And it gives us a feeling of dissolution, verging on disembodiment, that we somehow long for.

I remember, at the beginning of the National Geographic documentary Becoming Cousteau, there’s a scene where Jacques Cousteau attends what looks like a convention or school assembly. He takes the stage in a vast auditorium and a young girl in the audience, named Jennifer, raises her hand to ask him a question.

Jennifer: What’s it like down there?

Cousteau: It’s fantastic. Imagine having no weight. Imagine that this (gesturing at the auditorium) would be underwater. You would just inhale your lungs and you would float around. You would move like this (waving his arms around slowly), swimming above all your little friends. It’s beautiful!