Atmospheric Perspective

text and photographs by Jessica Stammen


I’m writing from the air right now, and I’m thinking:

I’ve traveled quite a bit these past few months.  Enough anyway.  I visited a brother in Seattle, drove a friend to New York, spent a weekend dancing in Vermont, watched another brother get married in Dallas, and just now I am returning from Thanksgiving in Costa Rica where a turkey was not baked, I was.

Airplane windows are rounded like the edges of a painter’s palette and lately from them I have viewed the colors in order: deep summer greens, mottled fall ocher and orange, a last hurrah of cad red.  Mixed together you get the deeply basted, brown color I am now.  Perhaps tonight as we land and I look down with the moonlight an Artist will have wiped the surface clean and fields will gleam white with winter.  It is December 1st.

Friends, too, have traveled in the past few months – Hawaii, the Middle East, Africa, Guatemala.  They will return just as the world returns to this little corner of the globe every October when Camden hosts PopTech, a technology and social innovation conference.  This year’s theme, The World Rebalancing, brought together a Bangladeshi photographer, a Botswanan judge, the President of Iceland, an Indian economist, scores of folks from New York, and many, many more.  They came from all over to talk about balance, maybe even find a bit of it here.  There is nothing like flying into Maine to feel your feet firmly on the ground.

Yes, there is nothing like flying into Maine.  This is what I thought to myself when I returned from my brother’s Texas wedding and overheard the exclamation of a women sitting in front of me: “Look at all the trees!”  It was overcast; we dropped out of the clouds like rain and there was a magical now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t quality to our approach.  Each glimpse produced another gasp.  Spots of sun began to show through here and there.  The plane was a tiny shadow on the ground and we raced it.

At that moment in the air I remembered.

I remembered the first time I went flying with my brother Greg, the one who lives in Seattle and is now a Navy pilot.  From the Knox County Regional Airport we lifted off the coast, roller coasting over islands and yachts big enough to have helipads.  Another time we decided to fly to the movies because Syriana was only playing in Augusta.  Why would we drive 45 minutes if we could fly?  It was winter and it was night.  The cockpit was tinny and cold.  After we followed the sleeping ridgeline of the Camden Hills the twinkling lights of homes and towns passed below us.

“Now that’s a backyard, see.  That’s a backyard.”  Back to the woman sitting in front of me on the flight from Texas.  What was she pointing at now?  Was it really just a yard, a single yard?  Or was it the whole state?  Dallas’ complete lack of both yards and pedestrian culture left quite an impression on me and I guessed her comment (by way of accent) originated from this home ground standard.  It can be difficult to remind myself that experiences are multi.

During the time that I worked as Alan Magee’s studio assistant I learned about a quality of attention that results in a gradually perceived beauty of a thing or place, no matter its initial outward appearance.  This attention was the topic of a recent email exchange with a friend, a friend from Michigan who now lives in Maine.  He wrote:

Beauty and attention…very important for a person growing up in the Midwest. We must work harder for our beauty there. It’s not as sexy or sharp or in-your-face as Maine’s stunning coastlines and mountains and inlets and damn near everything about Maine.  In the Midwest, more attention must be paid to the subtle colors and small contrasts and contours in the mostly-flat horizon.

My friend Chad is, indeed, a hard worker.  His nonprofit assists communities in creating beauty and balance through sustainable and democratic means.  No matter how flat the horizon of a place, no matter how few or many the yards, Chad’s work is attentive to the uniqueness of a place and its people in a way that can transform the community’s vision of itself.

But in my response to Chad I reminded him that –guess what? – I’m originally from the Midwest as well, and the horizon in West Central Ohio is even flatter than it is in Michigan.

My family moved to Maine when I was in the third grade.  On the first fall morning that was a fair bit frostier than I was accustomed to I remember writing “I hate Maine” on the school bus window.  Our driver was Jane.  She was a severe woman with eyebrows penciled-on in strait lines.  She was nothing like Byron, my bus driver the following year, and every year after that.  With Byron there was always a water balloon fight on the last day of school.  But with Jane I sat alone.  I watched frozen yards and bare trees pass by through the shapes of the letters I traced drippily with my finger on the glass. My view was limited to the “I-H-A-T…”

We view places through windows, but these very same windows also view us.  Planes and buses, routines and mindsets, one year and another, here and there; each is a frame by which we see and understand where we are, where we have been, where we are going.  Sometimes the frame is limited, sometimes it is expansive.

I wonder about the words I am writing right now as I fly through the air.  What kind of window do they offer me?  What do others see through them.

I love the concept of atmospheric perspective and I think about that now.  I think about a day not too long before I left for Costa Rica, a day in November that was so incredibly mild my bike sprayed water behind me as I rode out through Lincolnville and Hope despite there having been no rain.  The air was viscous and it mixed with the pigment of island, hill, and mountain so that it was the space between foreground, middleground and background that shimmered alive.  It was this space that was as thick as the paint on my pallet.  It was this space between the window of my eye and the land, this space between me and a geographic place that was so real it made me exclaim, “This is where I get to live!”

This is atmospheric perspective.  Flannery O’Connor writes, “Where you came from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it.”

This is where I write from at the moment; and yet, still, there is nothing like flying into Maine and feeling my feet firmly on the ground.