The Friday Fillip: The View From Above

Height is a thing with humans. You can see it in the various English phrases that capture a de haut en bas relationship: we “look down on” lesser people, and may well be given “oversight” over them, and if things are truly insignificant to us we are likely to “overlook” them. But this fillip isn’t really an essay on wordplay. Rather, it’s a sort of overview of the prospect from the gods.

Let’s start with maps, that most common of views from above. It takes an act of imagination to position yourself in the bosom of the clouds and gaze down at the earth, a trick that not every group of homo sapiens managed at the outset. So, for example, here’s one of the earliest known maps, this one from what is now Ukraine something like 14,000 years ago:


It’s said that this shows dwellings in a settlement by the river, and if so, you can see that they’re shown in elevation (i.e. side view). But then there’s an artifact from roughly the same time that archeologist argue is a map showing rivers, game, fords and the like all in plan (i.e. from above.)

The thing with maps, of course, is that they’re drawn, and so some things are included and some left out. And since it’s only the cartographer up in the sky looking down, he or she is free to bend or distort the truth.

Which leads me to my next set of views from above, these being some old Japanese postcards, of all things. There’s a large and beautiful set of these online at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts dating from around the start of the 20th century, only a very few of which use this airplane view of the world. To take us from maps to postcards, here’s one of the latter that places Japan in the centre of a rather subdued and faint world:

Click on image to enlarge

Here are some others that use the unusual perspective to produce delight instead of a more dominating sentiment. (You’ll need to click on the image to see it somewhat enlarged.) The one on the left, by the way, is titled “the kiss.”

Nowadays an airplane view is nothing. We’ve got the view from space, whence looking down on things somehow doesn’t seem quite so judgmental. And, proudly Canadian, we offer up Commander Chris Hadfield’s pics from the international space station, communicated via Twitter. Follow him @Cmdr_Hadfield for the full experience. But for the moment, here’s just one of his views from above (which, oddly, looks something like the map scratchings on bone referred to at the start of this post):

Click on image to enlarge.

Click on image to enlarge.

Cmdr_Hadfield: Farming in the river delta, Topolobampo, Mexico. (Unless, of course, it also turns out to be Tucson.)

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