Here's a puzzle I bet you've never pondered.
Imagine you are very, very pregnant. For the purposes of this mind game, you are a married American woman (with an American spouse) and you are about to board a plane and, pregnant as you are, they let you on.
Your flight, on Lufthansa Airlines, will leave Frankfurt, Germany and travel nonstop to the Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean. Germany is cold, wet and unhappy-making, and you crave the aquamarine waters, the balmy skies of the Maldives.
You take off. Then, hours later, just as your plane passes 37,000 feet above Karachi, Pakistan, heading south, your baby, in an inconvenient act of impetuosity, decides she wants to be born right then, right there — and so in row 13, Business Class seat 13B, you give birth to a healthy, somewhat surprised baby girl. The moment of birth happens as you are directly above Pakistani territory. Karachi is passing below as she emits her first cry. Everybody's fine — you, the baby, the crew.
Now comes my question. We've got an American mom on a German airplane in Pakistani airspace. What nationality is the baby?
Is she American? German? Pakistani? Maldivian? Or, some combination of those? Baby's choice? Mom's? Pakistan's?
I ask, because the question comes up in a book I'm reading, Unruly Spaces, by Alastair Bonnett. It's a book that thinks a lot about place. In this case one of the pertinent questions is, "Who governs the air?"
Theirs All The Way Up To Heaven
There is an ancient doctrine, enshrined in English common law, that says "Cuius est solum, eius est usque ad coelum et ad inferos," which means, "Whoever owns the soil, it is theirs all the way up to heaven and down to hell."
That was the old rule, before the advent of air balloons, then airplanes, then V2 rockets, then spy satellites. It's been seriously amended (at least in Britain) to, a much more modest, you own the airspace necessary for "the use and enjoyment" of your plot of land. So how high up is that?
Apparently, not that high. Clouds, for example, don't belong to you.
Nations have made bolder claims to owning the sky. Some countries say their territory extends 43 miles up, some say 99. Everyone agrees there's an upper limit, but legal theories differ. One notion says when there's no longer enough air in the atmosphere to lift a plane, that's where outer (and shared) space begins. Others say the private zone must include the path of an orbiting satellite. Eight equatorial nations, in the Bogota Declaration of 1976, bumped their claims to 22,300 miles above earth — where geostationary spy satellites can park and look down.
The Airborne Baby Question
Whatever the reach of nations, most of the earth is covered by ocean, and nobody owns the seas; so when traveling above the oceans you are geopolitically nowhere or everywhere. There is, of course, a notion from admiralty law that says if your ship is French, then while on board, you are legally in France.
Which means, writes Alastair Bonnett, "that if your plane is registered in Norway, even when you are in mid-Pacific, flying between Fiji and Tahiti, you are still in Norway and have to abide by Norwegian law." And that gets him to the Airborne Baby question:
This precept also suggests that babies born on planes will sometimes be citizens of the country where the plane is registered and sometimes take their parents' citizenship.
Apparently it depends. The national registry of the airline matters. The nation you are born over matters too. Some nations grant citizenship to fly-by babies. Some don't.
According to Alastair, "If you are born over the United States, in a foreign plane with foreign parents, you can still claim U.S. citizenship." Really? That's so generous! (Do Brazil, Russia, Egypt, grant a flyover baby the same option?)
I may be the only person on earth fascinated by this legal puzzle, but I bet there are some of you out there — lawyers, airline attendants, maybe even a real life "flyover baby" — who know if there's a general rule governing sky-births. Is there a practice followed by most nations, or does every case turn on its details, on its particular who, when and where?
Whatever the current practice, I have a suggestion. If you step back from our planet, and see that thin wisp of atmosphere girdling our big blue orb, it seems that air should have a special legal designation, with extra privileges for anybody lucky enough to be born in the sky. If I were king of the world, babies born in airplanes, balloons and blimps would, instead of choosing to be German, Maldivian or American, all get special heavenly blue passports with a stork on the cover labeled "Sky Baby" — and they'd be allowed to come and go anywhere they please. But that's just me talking.
Even for those of us who despise the heat and are well past school age, it's always kind of sad when summer vacation comes to a close. It feels like the end of an era, every year — goodbye to the swimming pools and water parks, the long days, the late evenings with friends. Those "back to school" sales are a kind of low-grade torment, even for those of us who kind of liked school.
Or maybe not. It's tough to look fondly on your childhood summers when your childhood summers were always pretty terrible. "All children want to go to space," David Connerley Nahm writes. "Earth only offers parents wailing about overdraft notices and evening news playing in an empty den. Dead pets too. Childhood is a rot."
There's plenty of what you might call anti-nostalgia in Nahm's wonderful debut novel Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky — a shell-shocked sense of intrusive memories that come to the surface when you're least prepared for them. For the protagonist of Nahm's book, it's a sensation that is inevitable, painful, never-ending.
Leah Shepherd runs a nonprofit organization for women and children in the small town of Crow Station, Kentucky, dealing with troubled and poverty-stricken clients every day. Leah is poor herself — her retirement savings were wiped out settling an unfair lawsuit, and she drives the same ancient, unreliable car she's had for years.
Much of the novel is told in flashbacks, as Leah remembers spending her youthful summers trying to fit in, occasionally accepted, mostly bullied. Her younger brother Jacob clung to her, scared to be out of her presence because of a mysterious man he claimed to see sometimes.
Jacob disappears one day, and the Shepherd family live in a false kind of hope for a long time, not quite willing to accept that he's gone forever. One day, a group of boys find a stack of folded clothes — the outfit Jacob was wearing when he was last seen. The clothes are stained with blood.
But not even her brother's disappearance can keep the bullies away from Leah; they torment her for years, speculating loudly about where her brother's body is buried. "They weren't bad children, were they?" Nahm wonders. "They just wanted to carve their names into something while they were still sharp."
Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky is far from a conventional novel — it's told in a series of poetic, impressionistic vignettes, moving from the present to the past with little warning. Nahm is equally good at powerful descriptions and authentic dialogue; there's nothing about the writing that's forced or glib. The pacing is perfect — while this isn't a thriller, at least in any traditional sense of the word, it's deeply suspenseful, and it ends where it needs to.
More than anything, it's Nahm's deep sense of place that's most apparent in his novel. His descriptions of rural Kentucky are gorgeous, but he digs far below the surface to portray the real soul of the town. In one remarkable section, he writes, "Crow Station, Kentucky: a girl at the window watching a shift in the shadows, listening to the sound of the night, the glittering dark above her bed, her father's hands having placed the sky there, cracked plaster rivers among constellations of dead boys and girls."
This goes on for nine pages, and it's impossible to stop reading until you've gone through each beautiful line, a beauty that infuses the whole novel, even in its darkest moments. It's not quite enough to call Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky a book about memory and loss, although Nahm explores those themes gracefully and with real insight. There's no abstraction here, only real people enduring unspeakable pain, two siblings who "were rippling reflections of one another," one who's gone, and one who almost is.