The first pictures from above the Earth come in the form of a drawing.
From the Astra Castra, about 4,000 feet above the River Dee, Thomas Baldwin drew rainy cumlo-nimbus clouds below, roads curving through fields, grids of villages and the river, red perhaps from erosional silt. Airopaidia, published in 1786 is Baldwin’s extremely detailed account of his flying adventures.
It is an extremely unusual perspective, looking straight down, isn’t it?
Leonardo’s extraordinarily innovative map of Imola might classify as one of the only precursors to what Baldwin saw. Leonardo put us there. He avoided the use of the oblique view of the Earth from above typical of medieval maps but rather the straight down perspective. The Imola map depicts every street, parcel of land and building as well as the river, itself painted in an unusual life-like manner.
Baldwain achieved the same view from above and then he went further. An 1810 black and white version of the same Baldwin view added odd topographical relief to the image.…or maybe it is better described as “depth”, even to the clouds.
Humans had not, as far as we know, seen the Earth from above prior to the first balloon flights. Before the intrepid Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier had taken to the sky in the Montgolfier’s aerostat, it was thought that human flight would reveal the secrets of the heavens. In fact, the secrets of the world below were laid bare and a new understanding of the Earth as a single, massive organism took hold in the mind of the pilots and those who could comprehend the drawings made from thousands of feet up.
The relationship of humanity and nature was also revealed in a new way. Towns marching into the countryside, a forest swallowing and abandoned farm, the differences and similarities of roads and rivers and the black acrid puff of the birth of industrialization.
The Parisian crowds, gathered to witness the launch of a balloon groaned and creaked with the tension of primal fears of the sky as well as the hope of scientific progress. Writers and poets flocked, as it were, to the new vision of Earth from above as a reason to celebrate the liberation of humanity.
Shelly, having just witnessed the 1811 launch of a balloon from Christchurch Meadows exclaimed a desire for balloons to open the world to knowledge of itself and the vision that ballooning would “emancipate every slave” and “annihilate slavery forever.”
From 201 years forward, I’m not sure I can share the same hopes of Shelly. Flight has not freed humanity from its perils. Instead, we’ve seen it used as a powerful instrument of terror and oppression. The greatest of human self-imposed tragedies of the past 200 years screamed out of – or fell silently from – the clouds and blue sky above.
And yet there from thousands of feet above the industrial and shipping heartland of western Europe, the Arabian Coast of India or the deserts of northern New Mexico, it’s hard not to touch the hopeful inspiration felt by the likes of Shelly.
I don’t even need to climb in the basket of a hot air balloon to feel it. Simply the rising of the wicker from the dust and sage makes all things possible. You just don’t know what is going to happen. There is hope is possibility – maybe not quite as much as Shelly thought but there is something to touch.
From a basket or a seat on a plane, our history and ambitions as a species open below: all the mistakes we’ve made and all of the things we’ve done right.
And I for one, have a hard time feeling anything but compassion for our species. We are a species of individuals struggling at great peril with the profound processes of survival.
If travel – and the view from 10,000 feet – has given me anything at all, it is a heartfelt forgiveness and understanding for who we are as confused creatures on a very tiny mass of earth at the far end of the universe.
The world, from above is, perhaps, not a hopeful place but I see it and us in a much more compassionate way.