Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s love of flying and the perspective it gave him on the world was something he wrote about extensively. He famously liked to read and write in the cockpit while flying and despite the number of times his plane came down, he persisted with the activity, flying both in war and peace time. This extract is actually the whole foreword to his book Wind, Sand and Stars, a memoir of his days flying with Aéropostale in Africa and South America. An introductory note to a book about survival, Saint Exupéry tries to communicate the magic of flying over an earth shrouded in darkness, reaching out to every speck of light that represented a human being down below.
The earth teaches us more about ourselves than all the books in the world, because it is resistant to us. Self-discovery comes when man measures himself against an obstacle. To attain it, he needs an implement. He needs a carpenter’s plane, or a plough. Little by little, as he walks behind the plough, the farmer forces out a few of nature’s secrets, and the truth which he uncovers is universal. In the same way the aeroplane, the implement of the airline companies, brings man face to face with the old problems.
In my mind’s eye, I still have the image of my first night flight in Argentina. It was a dark night, with only occasional scattered lights glittering like stars on the plain.
Each one, in that ocean of shadows, was a sign of the miracle of consciousness. In one home people were reading, or thinking, or sharing confidences. In another, perhaps, they were searching through space, wearying themselves with the mathematics of the Andromeda nebula. In another they were making love. These small flames shone far apart in the landscape, demanding their fuel. Even the most unassuming of them, the flame of the poet, the teacher or the carpenter. But among these living stars, how many closed windows, how many extinct stars, how many sleeping men …
We must surely seek unity. We must surely seek to communicate with some of those fires burning far apart in the landscape.