I wrote this on the plane ride back from Charlottesville to Wooster...
As we are climbing into the sky over the Richmond airport, I watch our plane's shadow speed across the ground. At first it is crisp and well-defined, but as we gain altitude, the edges fuzz out. Around the shadow, reflective objects shine briefly as we pass close to the direct line between them and the sun. I am blinded by reflectors on highways and mailboxes, by tin roofs, by chrome bumpers. (I confess that it took a moment for me to make the connection that the shadow being colinear with the plane and the sun means that we were nearly colinear with the sun and objects near the shadow. Yet, there is still an element of this logic with which I am uneasy; I know not which.)
I first notice the bright spot when we are still close to the ground. The area immediately around our shadow seems brighter than the surrounding land by a significant degree, which I attribut to 1) the reflectors, and 2) the contrast with the shadow. However, once we gain sufficient altitude that the plane's shadow is lost, the bright area remains. Why should this be? I simply don't know.
Flying is really the best way to get a sense of plate tectonics. It is immediately apparent that vast forces have been at work, folding the land upward into wrinkles much like those in a tablecloth when a pot is dragged across the table. The wrinkles form perpendicular to the direction of compression -- in this case, along an East-West line. In one place, two close, parallel ridges diverge and reconverge. A rather spiky lake sits between.
Many of these ridges have a cross-section like an arc of a large circle with a small triangle on top. The shape bespeaks eons of erosion -- if that's just the destruction, how much more time did the formation itself take? And what happened prior?
We are now far enough up that the ground takes on a blue tinge, especially according to my camera. Is this because there is enough air in between that the air's diffraction of blue light is visible? (If that is true, then I should be able to enhance my high-altitude photos by layering in a slight orange film and adding contrast to the blue channel.) I am reminded of a photo I once took of a high-altitude jet, one of those planes that is sensed only as a faint and varying ambient roaring from the sky, and sometimes is visible as a glint of sun. When I zoomed in on the photo on my computer, the jet appeared translucent, showing the clear blue sky behind it. Now I realize this is likely the same effect as I am seeing now.
The meandering rivers are really a sight. One lies against the base of a ridge, tightly following the hollows and slopes. Perhaps the land is on an eastward slant.
Some areas are so contorted and intricate that they must have been produced under the force of erosion. And the amount of earth and rock lost to form valleys indicates the amount of earth and rock that once capped the peaks as well. How tall were they?
I switch my atention to the skyline. It is a clear day, with a few patches of low, curdled clouds. The horizon itself is a rather bright white, fading both above and below into pastel, sky, baby, flat, and medium-powder blue. The sky above is a mysterious color, somewhere between ocean blue, cobalt, and slate. The sky below is hidden only by the ground.
Ahead is a rather ominous brown cloud. (I've seen one of these before, hanging over Charlottesville. The sky was a beautiful blue around it, but this oppressive mass only allowed a kind of brown light to filter through. It stretched in a band from North to South, from horizon to horizon. Off to the east and west I could see others, similarily shaped. My dad said it was an inversion, where cold air had trapped smoggy warm air beneath it.) We fly beneath it, and the air grows thick and white. The horizon blanks out, replaced by varying shades of gray and white. The ground below is mostly obscured -- I wonder, can they see the patches of blue above that we are privileged to see?
As the air clears for a moment, I am startled to see what appears to be the edge of the world. The flat gray sky reaches down past the now-visible horizon and reaches under the land. My astonishment only lasts a moment -- we are flying at the edge of Lake Erie, which is as blank as the sky.
To the other side, I see another area of reflected light. It is an area between the plane's and the sun's hypocenters, as opposed to the first. It is also brighter. This is the only region I would expect to see large reflections from. I am at even more of a loss to explain the other patch.
As we enter the Cleveland area, the fields turn bone-white. The first time I flew into Cleveland, this surprised me -- it looked like the area was dead, under salt or ash. This time, I am moderately less surprised. It is a rather sudden transition, nonetheless. Only moments before, I had seen the first snow-capped peaks.
We bank sharply to approach the Cleveland airport, effectively executing a U-turn. The landing gear deploys with a familiar jerk, the touchdown is smooth. When the airbrakes take effect, I can hear carry-on shifting forward in the overhead bins. The usual clicking chorus of seatbelts being unlatched is complemented by the sound of the flight attendant's usual "please don't unfasten your seatbelts until the plane has come to a complete stop" announcement. I am back on the ground.