A Different Solitude: Pioneering Aviator Beryl Markham on What She Learned About Life in the Bottomless Night


“I learned what every dreaming child needs to know — that no horizon is so far that you cannot get above it or beyond it.”


A Different Solitude: Pioneering Aviator Beryl Markham on What She Learned About Life in the Bottomless Night

“For a moment of night,” Henry Beston wrote in his exquisite century-old love letter to darkness, “we have a glimpse of ourselves and of our world islanded in its stream of stars — pilgrims of mortality, voyaging between horizons across eternal seas of space and time.”

Nobody has ever written more exquisitely about this pilgrimage or done it with greater elemental courage than the author. Beryl Markham (October 16, 1902–August 3, 1986). She is known as Amelia Earhart, the first solo sailor to cross the Atlantic East to West in the sweep of night. This was against strong headwinds and severe storms.

Beryl Markham can be used in two ways

Born to English parents and raised by her single father, Beryl grew up in the untrammeled bush of East Africa’s Great Rift Valley, running barefoot and spear-hunting with the local boys and men. When she was a young girl, she survived a lion attack. With her childhood best friend — a Kenyan boy named Kibii — she learned to jump as high as her head, because Kibii’s elders from the Nandi tribe believed that no man who couldn’t was any good. As a teenager she was tall, lanky, and could quickly lift her opponent to his feet to wrestle Nandi style.

At eighteen, after her father left for Peru, having sold off all of his possessions and sold his only daughter into a marriage to their neighbor, Beryl persevered by becoming a professional racehorse-trainer — the only female in a fiercely competitive world, in which most were older than her by decades.

Soon, she divorced her husband of choice and flew solo.

By her twenties, she was the only woman working as a licensed pilot in all of Africa, soaring through the clouds in her light two-seater plane affectionately known as the Kan for the registration letter VP-KAN painted in silver on its turquoise body, which blazed across the daylight as “a small gay complement to the airy blue of the sky, like a bright fish under the surface of a clear sea,” and flitted through the night as “no more than a passing murmur, a soft, incongruous murmur above the earth.”

Beryl Markham in her twenties

In the 1920s and 1930s Kenya’s only female pilot, she was able to deliver oxygen to the dying, track herds of animals, and rescue others who crashed. She walked out of Kan wearing her flying suit, her Hollywood glamour, and looking like a rugged angel of redemption.

In her extraordinary 1942 memoir West with the Night (public library) — which Hemingway found “bloody wonderful,” gasping that “the girl can write rings around all of us,” but which slipped into obscurity for forty years until its rediscovery in the 1980s — Beryl Markham recounts how she first fell under the enchantment of the sky as a young student of flight:

The mastery of one craft and the mastery of another element was what I witnessed. My world and my entire life were reduced to grains in cups by the magic of perspective. I learned to watch… I learned to wander. I learned what every dreaming child needs to know — that no horizon is so far that you cannot get above it or beyond it. These were all things I quickly learned. Most things took a lot longer.

One of the hardest things to come, and the most rewarding, was a taste for the transcendent solitude of night — a different species of solitude not attainable on land, amid the companionship of even its most silent creatures:

Even though night flying in the uncharted country can be lonely, it is possible to do so with the help of radio guidance and instruments. However, the loneliness of being alone and in complete darkness while not having the companionship of an earphone or knowing that there are life and lights ahead of you makes the experience more lonely. Sometimes it seems so far-fetched that the possibility of seeing other people is not possible. Hills, forests, rocks, plains, and darkness are all one. The darkness is endless. The earth is no more your planet than is a distant star — if a star is shining; the plane is your planet and you are its sole inhabitant.

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Around the time that Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was incubating the ideas that became The Little PrinceHe writes about his experiences as an air pilot, and she draws on that experience to write:

For me desert is a state of being in darkness. None of the images you can see are permanent or real. The desert, like night, is endless, comfortableless and infinite. The desert intrigues the brain and can lead to futility, much like night. You feel the despair of a man who has flown half-way across the desert. It is like he’s waiting for the dawn to come. It seems like you fly endlessly, becoming tired with the same scene over and over again. When you finally get out of its monotony, it is all gone.

She looks back at her many lonely nights in Africa and the years she spent living here. Her unique instrument to deepen self-knowledge, as well as her communion with all things living, is her serenade of the horizonless nighte.

Night… was a world as old as Time, but as new as Creation’s hour had left it.

It had no form. It was formless when it saw the stars at low levels and it was covered in silver fog by the moon. This must be the place the firmament had been after the waters receded and the Fifth Day fell on those still captivated by their existence. Because no one had ever joined sticks together to create a house, scratched earth for a road, or embedded his transient symbolisms in the clear horizon it was an empty place. However, it wasn’t a dead world. It contained the genesis for life and was deep under the earth.

At night, sharing a campsite with her fellow travelers, she could then attain the same feeling without leaving Earth — for transcendent experiences have a way of infusing themselves into our ordinary lives, so that after we have had them, the commonest activity can shimmer with some of that remembered radiance. She wrote:

You were alone when you sat and talked with the others — and they were alone. You are always alone, no matter where you may be. You are the only one who can hear what you have to say, and you know exactly what your thoughts are. The world is there, and you are here — and these are the only poles, the only realities.

[…]

[Others] are here… but sharing with us a single loneliness.

Art by the English artist Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Prints available.

In a passage of extraordinary prescience, given today’s computational and cultural mundanities of air travel — another technology “killed by kindness” — she considers the bygone romance of an earthbound mammal steering a bird of metal and glass through the throbbing cloudscape of the elemental:

After this era of great pilots is gone, as the era of great sea captains has gone — each nudged aside by the march of inventive genius, by steel cogs and copper discs and hair-thin wires on white faces that are dumb, but speak — it will be found, I think, that all the science of flying has been captured in the breadth of an instrument board, but not the religion of it. The stars of the sky will one day be familiar to every man, just as well as landmarks and curves and hills along the way to his home. One day, this will all be a part of an aeronautical life. Men will forget how to fly by the time they are old enough to be passengers aboard machines that have labelled buttons. In these minds, knowledge of the sky, wind, and weather is as fictitious as fiction.

And yet there is something that remains of the romance of night to the airborne traveler, pilot or passenger, even today: The day I cease to be staggered by the star-salted blackness outside the window of a transatlantic flight — this portable mountaintop of body and mind — I shall have ceased to be human or alive.

Complement West with the Night — a ravishing read in its entirety — with the pioneering polar explorer Frederick Cook’s lyrical account of the first Antarctic night and James Baldwin on the raw clarity of the small hours, then revisit Walter Lippmann’s eulogy for Amelia Earhart, which remains the finest thing I have ever read about what makes a hero and which applies tenfold to Beryl Markham, lack though she did Earhart’s publicist-husband and the alluring mystique of disappearance in the prime of life, dying instead as an old woman in Africa, having lived a long and largehearted life.


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