Like gingerbread men cookies, human beings are limited to two arms and two legs. Unlike angels, we do not have wings, and unlike mermaids and mermen, we lack fins. Thus, our movements are usually confined to the ground, and we busy ourselves wandering back and forth across a two-dimensional plane, until we encounter a mountain to climb up or a canyon to descend. But what if we were able to explore a three dimensional space, without the need for an airplane or a submarine? What if we could simply jump up into the sky or plunge into the depths of a lake and navigate with the ease of walking?
The concept of flight often conjures images of birds: a soaring hawk, a flitting sparrow, a diving albatross, a wheeling gull. Unlike the crowded ground, where terrestrial beings must constantly weave left or right to avoid foot traffic and obstacles in their paths, the sky is open, expansive, and much less populated. Instead of carpets of ants or throngs of pedestrians, there are flocks, wingmen, and solo flyers, with the blue sky stretching above them and the air rustling below. What is life like, when your perception of a tree is not limited to five or six feet from the ground, but can encompass the tens of feet directly above it? How does your sense of direction change, when you can soar up to meet the midday sun, watch the shadows stretch across the grassland as the hours pass and the sun sets, and visualize the lay of the land towards the horizon?
Anyone watching a flock of birds will have noticed a curious phenomenon. Despite the endless possibilities to fly in any direction at almost any time, these creatures often exhibit a tendency to school together. Geese migrate in arrow-shaped formations as they call to one another, and miniature shorebirds dip and dive in a choreographed dance above the water’s surface, a mesmerizing cloud of song and feathers. If one or two decide to descend from the air, so too will their companions, as if they all agreed on where to go next in a matter of seconds. Much of this behavior is attributed to instinct and the necessity of protecting themselves from predators, but one has to wonder if, as a member of the flock, they have ever observed the beauty of these concerted movements as we, the outsiders, do.
Flight is not limited to the sentient; just as birds and insects navigate the wind currents, so too do plants, particularly their seeds. Dandelion seeds float as a result of their lightness and the fluffiness of their dainty white parachutes, and maple seeds spin in the wind like little propellers as they journey towards the ground. Puffs of pollen disperse in the breeze, and nearby, fragrant petals of cherry blossoms twirl along the air currents. The unique architecture of these flowers and seeds plays an important role, allowing them to be carried a sufficient distance from the parent plant for adequate access to light and nutrients. There is an additional benefit, however: their abilities to fly and float provide wonder and delight to those of us who are land-bound as we watch them drift towards our faces, past our fingertips, and finally land on the ground at our feet.
There is another class of organisms that possesses the ability to move in three dimensions, and these are the species that live in the waters of ponds, rivers, streams, lakes, and oceans. Endowed with fins, flippers, or webbed feet, they propel themselves easily through the water to jet in any direction, whether towards the surface or down to the sandy depths. Swimmers have experienced the exhilaration of performing a turn or somersault in the water, and synchronized swimmers know the feeling of floating upside down, legs poking above the pool’s surface, buoyed by the water. With the air in our lungs and the cavities of our torso, we are like balloons, floating on the surface of the gentle, rolling sea, but most underwater organisms are different. Fish, for example, contain a structure called an air bladder, which they can expand and contract to control how deep they settle as they swim. Jellyfish look like little parachutes, drifting with the currents the way a sail might catch the wind, but with a simple pump of their caps, they can rise back up and catch a new current.
The waters at the shore of a sea or a lake can be quite crowded, as anyone who has gone scuba-diving in a tropical location knows well. Schools of fish wriggle in a frenzy of glittering scales, while their larger brethren float past like large shadows. On the sea floor, crabs may scurry across rocks covered with barnacles and snails, and in forests of kelp, smaller, wary prey keep watch. If you were a pedestrian on the sea floor, the world above might look full of color and life, as if airships and jet planes dominated the waves in a riot of color and activity.
How different would the world be?