Czesław Miłosz has said that, in poetry, he was “not seeking an escape from dread but rather proof that dread and reverence can exist with us simultaneously.” Rebecca Loncraine’s memoir, Skybound, in which she recounts how flying in a glider helped her deal with breast cancer, offers that proof—and proves, too, that one can soar above the fear of death both literally and in language of unsurpassed beauty.
Loncraine’s fascination with being swept up in the sky began in her early childhood on the family farm in the Black Mountains of Wales, when she read The Wizard of Oz. Soon after finishing her doctorate in literature at the University of Oxford, she went to America to chase tornadoes and wrote a highly praised biography of L. Frank Baum. I met her when we were both at Oxford and enjoyed how naturally she brought scholarly research into her creative work, making her writing so focused and yet deeply felt. Skybound, her second book, moves through a history of engineless flight going all the way back to Leonardo da Vinci’s notes in the Codex on the Flight of Birds, noting his drawing of an “ornithopter,” a “machine with flapping wings.” Loncraine also takes us on a tour of the skies that begins a few thousand feet above her childhood home and continues above New Zealand and Nepal before returning to one particular burnt side of a hill near her farm.
From various heights, edging under the wings of magnificent birds and soaring far above mountain peaks that have remained inaccessible to most, Loncraine has crafted a language that helps her construct a map of her suffering: the view of the Alps on a flight map might look like an MRI scan of the landscape, while close to her childhood home, the hill with the burnt patch reminds her of her breast after radiation therapy. She returns to the landscape of her early life from above and understands it through new emotional and visual perspectives. Memories of her younger self growing up around the garden and the hills, surrounded by the rich song of birds, rise into consciousness as she soars above sheep and horses. She discovers the place of her family home in the larger logic of settlements within the landscape and from heights where the mountains and the glaciers begin to look like the backs of seals. As she travels up into the sky, she works to locate her own place in a world transformed by her illness.
A consummate scholar, Loncraine researched the geography of the places above which she flies and learned how people live there, their relationship to the environment. She studied the flora, the fauna, the shapes of rivers and lakes, and the structure of the winds and clouds above. When she walks on the ground, she is a botanist and the landscape shimmers with names and the colors of flowers, herbs, and grasses. From inside her glider we see and feel a rich and variegated world, winds howling outside, while she and her flight instructor, Bo, find holes in the clouds to go up and down and around the sky. In the Black Mountains she leaps above perfect rainbows, feeling like a child inside a drawing. In the Southern Alps of New Zealand she is thrown about in turbulence that tests the strength of the glider and awakens within her that essential fear that makes her understand that she is fully alive: illness hasn’t dulled the thrill of being. Several months later, she feeds a rescue vulture with her hand from a paraglider near Pokhara in Nepal: “He lands perfectly on my hand, decelerating from seventy kilometers an hour in a matter of seconds. He snatches the meat and then swoops off the gloved hand to the left and is swallowed again in the sky’s currents, which have become as thick as water at this speed.”
The language of flight gives Loncraine a way to talk about the devastating effects of cancer and the grueling treatment that pushed her to an edge from where she could see dread and reverence simultaneously. “Trying to get some hold on fear,” she says, “is like circling over a mountain; it shape-shifts as you move, showing dramatically different sides from different points of view.” At one point, she flies with the glider’s guiding instruments covered up, so she can rely on her body to lead her through the mysterious and often dangerous skies. Her descriptions of lessons and flights are at once practical and utterly poetic: “Like mastering an instrument, soaring requires a scientific understanding of the discipline, precision, hours and hours of practice, and total, passionate commitment … how to turn in the core of a thermal, how to recognize a convergence, katabatic winds, orographic clouds … ” Eventually flying is fluid, almost seamless: “I have the sense now that the sky has crept up into my spine, worked its blue way into my bones.”
Skybound is not a book only for cancer patients, though it certainly contains comfort and inspiration to keep going through awful treatments. In the deepest sense, the book is about the sheer thrill of being part of the astonishing earth we have in common, written by an extraordinarily sensitive and gifted writer. The freshness of the imagery and the childlike joy of being in the sky recall another book, Selma Lagerlöf’s The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, the story of an imaginary little boy who flies all over Sweden with the wild geese, and who has this conversation with a bird he meets during his journey:
“If I weren’t a raven, but just human like you, then I’d settle here and learn everything that is in books,” said the raven. “Wouldn’t you like to do that, too?”
“Oh, no,” said Nils. “I’d rather go around with the wild geese.”
Rebecca Loncraine died in 2016, shortly after finishing Skybound. In the final images of her story, we find her sleeping at home under the stars by which she can tell seasons and the time of the night as they move above the trees and behind the barn. We see her in the dawn chorus, which her mind has transformed “into a river of birdsong; I see it flowing past in my mind’s eye as I fall back into a doze with the delicious sensation of floating on a stream of song.” Her book was brought to life by her devoted parents and her editor. Her skill as a writer will ensure that she is long remembered.