Got flight?

I thought it might be nice to make this Got Flight Week on WIZ’s People Month.  Posts this week will play with the question: Can humans fly?  If you’ve had a flying dream or other liberating experience related to flying, please, feel free to post it in comments to this post or others published this week or submit your flight narrative to WIZ.

One of my hobbies is collecting words carrying the meaning of “understanding” and whose root words are bound up in the metaphorical pairing of perceiving and grasping—of aligning the focus of attention on something and the physical act of laying hold upon or seizing.  The American Heritage Dictionary gives the following definition for “understand”: To perceive or comprehend the nature and significance of; grasp. See synonyms at apprehend.”  There follow three more definitions relying upon the words “comprehend” and “grasp.”  At the heart of both “apprehend” and “comprehend” lies the Latin root prehendere, “to seize.”

Here is a partial list of other words and phrases conveying the concept of understanding that contain root words set in the act of grasping or seizing:

have hold of (an idea)
take hold of (an idea)
get hold of (an idea)

The list goes on.  Interesting to know: the root of prehendere, “ghend,” meaning “seize,” “take,” runs deep into words like get, also formed from “ghend.”  The word beget means, at its depths, “acquire.”  Words like forget mean “lose one’s hold.”  The fun word guess means, at its playful roots, “try to get.”

Also related:

apprentice (formed from the past participle of apprehendere, “to seize”)
apprise (also from apprehendere)
comprise (from comprehendere)
reprehend (from prehendere)
prize (as in “something worth gaining,” from prehendere)

And so forth.

The root “ghend” likewise figures into words like predatory and prey.  Well, naturally.

I wonder what it means that so many of our words for knowing or learning rely so heavily on the physical fact of the structure of the human hand and its ability to close over or upon objects—on the act of manipulating or acquiring.  I’ve wondered how deeply this metaphoric take on knowing has affected the way we understand, form our worldviews, and otherwise approach being-in-the-world. 

What, I’ve mused, is knowing or understanding to creatures who don’t have hands or whose hand-like structures have become adapted for other purposes—you know, like birds’ wings are for flight?  In his book The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild, Craig Childs notes that if you inspect the bones of bird wings, they will “anatomically correspond exactly to each human bone from the arm to the longest finger.  But in birds, the forelimb is compacted and simplified so that the wrist, hand, and fingers are fused into a single elongated bone.”  He concludes, “one of the more structurally advanced animals of the planet is the bird” (p. 101).

What is knowing to birds, whose tipmost wing feathers are able to spread on the moving, changing air like open fingers of an ungrasping hand?  If so many of our words for learning and knowing are based upon our all-important opposing thumbs and the mechanics of grasping, are birds’ conceptions of their being-in-the-world based upon the physical structure of the wing and its ability to gain lift?  Having watched swallows, swifts, and golden eagles as they work with wind flow and gravity, high above any perspective I can gain from my place on the cliff they zip by or wheel past, I’ve begun to think their language and being rides, so to speak, on the wing.

Personally, I think humans missed out when they chose opposing thumbs over wings.  This, though our ability to grasp and hold in part made it possible for us to conceive of and build airplanes.  And, using our hands, some of us can swim, something only a few birds can do.  It might be said we’ve got the best of all possible worlds, but I wonder if, at times, we might rely too heavily upon the this very basic action of grasping in defining ourselves in relation to the world around us.  At times, does knowing as a form of grasping lead us astray and cause us to miss that which cannot be seized upon?

Another thing—why do so many of us limb-grasping, ladder-climbing, hand-over-fist human beings dream of flying after we close our eyes at night?  Is this some yearning or understanding that exceeds our grasp-sense, maybe even carrying us beyond its reach?

When the mind opens to new awareness, is it actually “grasping” a new concept or is it letting go of  a favorite perch?  What is flying to humans, that we should dream of it when we let go of the day?


Childs, Craig.  The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1997. 

2 thoughts on “Got flight?”

  1. Hm…so did we develop the thumb thing so we could open our pickle jars and PB jars, or did the jars develop alongside us in the wild, in a symbiotic relationship so to speak?
    The book you mention is still on my wish list at paperbackswap. I am now in the single digits in the line waiting to read this. I can’t hardly wait to read it.
    As for flying, I wonder about the appeal. I find it hard to put in words. But I can say this: of all the worlds we want a taste of, on this great conglomerate of smaller worlds, the highest clouds hold a greater pull on us than the deepest ocean. We certainly want more to be like a hawk than one of those glow in the dark creatures at the bottom of the Marianna Trench. This might be because the hawk is in the sunlight, while the sea ‘monster’ lurks in the darkness. Maybe our flight is connected to our light?

  2. Lora,

    I don’t know much about peanut butter jars, not having had contact with many. But I’m fairly positive that pickle jars are the master manipulators behind much of the dumbing-down, keep-them-focused-on-their-thumbs plots afoot in the world.

    Interesting points about hawks vs. toothy glow-in-the dark fishes. There is something more–heavenly, shall we say?–about rising into the light, and something a bit hellish about sinking into the depths of darkness where you’re forced to become your own flashlight.

    Okay, that’s not fair. But yeah, if I had to choose between being a hawk and anglerfish, I’d probably choose hawk. The bioluminescence thing fascinates, though. Marine biologists think that besides being an attractor (of mates and food) and in some cases a strategy for camouflage, bioluminescence plays an integral role in communication between members of bioluminescent species. To be able to speak “light” …

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