The small plane took off. I was tightly strapped to my dive instructor and packed in with 15 other skydivers. It was a clear day with clouds spotting the sky like marshmallows. I could see the central North Carolina landscape for miles in every direction.
There is something so wondrous about aerial views. You get a vast, uninterrupted view of the landscape below. Being 5’4”, I see the world from this average-height view—unless, of course, I lie down on the ground. I usually don’t get any higher than my kitchen stepstool! It felt like a privilege to be this high up.
In the plane I could see how the land had been divided between highways and streets, treelines and hills. When I wandered through the Modern and Contemporary Galleries the other day, I was reminded of this landscape while looking at Richard Diebenkorn’s Berkeley No. 8. Curator John Coffey says in the Museum’s cell phone tour that this painting “was inspired really by [Diebenkorn] flying over the Southwest on a commercial airline and just seeing the way that the land was all parched and also broken up into large fields and meadows, bisected by roads, and interrupted by streams and things.”
The plane reached 13,500 feet, and it was “go time.” People scrambled in an orderly fashion to jump out of the plane. They fell so fast they were gone in an instant, hurtling to the world below. (To give you a hint of what it looked like, push your pen to the edge of a table. Push it off the edge and notice how quickly it’s gone from view. It’s like that—but human beings are the pens, and the table is 13,000 feet tall.) It was my turn; the instructor counted “1 … 2 … 3 …,” and we jumped. I learned later that we averaged 123 miles per hour in free fall.
During free fall the instructor spun us around, and the ground became blurred. He released the parachute, and the immense rush of falling 7,000 feet in about 60 seconds came to a halt as we gently made our way back to earth. The ground now looked less like the abstracted landscape view of Diebenkorn and more like the landscape in Hans Thoma’s Wondrous Birds. The land below was lush with trees and calm. I saw a few cars rumbling down roads, but all I could hear was a breeze as we circled down to the ground.
It took another few minutes before we landed on the grass about 50 feet from where the plane took off. I was back to my normal 5’4” vantage point, still catching my breath, but looking forward to my next opportunity to see the world from a different perspective.
Emily Kotecki is associate coordinator of teen and college programs at the North Carolina Museum of Art.