On summer weekends I swim in a nearby pond. Its water is as dark as Darjeeling tea, the hue owing to the pond’s bed of decayed leaves and organic matter cast off from the masses of trees and plants ringing its banks. The resulting sludge teems with microbes, insects, and all the other minute creatures that feed the snakes, snapping turtles, and bluegills I see as I do my lonely laps. Plants likewise feast on the nitrogen and phosphorus present, and as they grow, flower, and die, they themselves become part of the ooze. Its this virtuous cycle of rot and rebirth that makes ponds and other bodies of water throngingly alive.
Some time before 1879 the peasants of the remote and mountainous district of Telemarken, Norway, grew tired of using their skies solely for traveling along snow-clogged highways. They set out to transform this dull wintertime routine into a competitive and pleasurable sport by devising wild races and stunts that tested participants’ powers of vaulting. News of these hyperboreal capers reached nearby towns and districts, creating such a stir that soon annual competitions came to be held outside Christiania (present-day Oslo). In his 1905 book, Ski-running, D.M.M. Crichton Somerville describes these meets as “very ludicrious, the hill being neither steep nor long, the competitors riding astride their poles down the track, and only jumping, if jumping it could be called, a few yards.” The decidedly unspectacular nature of these feats spelled the competition’s early demise.
Only when they leap in the air do flying fish, with their small, box-like heads and gunmetal-gray bodies, betray their avian affinities. Aloft on broad pectoral fins, they sail just above the ocean waves. Should an impediment in the form of a ship cross their path, they in a body take flight in order to avoid it, rising as a glittering, undulating cloud to glide diagonally to the ship’s course, against the wind and seemingly also against gravity. Rough seas prod flying fish to greater feats: They glide without ever touching water, thus behaving more like gulls than like any gilled creature.