Could We Learn to Love Wind Turbines as We Did the Windmills?

Learning to love monsters

Stephen Case at Aeon: Today’s modern wind turbines seem to repel poetic or artistic engagement. It is difficult to imagine a landscape painter portraying their spare lines and uniform rows as icons of a pastoral idyll, as the windmills of the past often were.

Perceptions of modern wind turbines seem worlds away, for example, from how Robert Louis Stevenson described the windmills of England in 1882:

There are, indeed, few merrier spectacles than that of many windmills bickering together in a fresh breeze over a woody country, their halting alacrity of movement, their pleasant business, making bread all day, with uncouth gesticulations, their air gigantically human, as of a creature half alive, put a spirit of romance into the tamest landscape.

The aspects that struck Stevenson – the motion of windmills, symbols of prosperity, on the horizon – were highlighted a decade before by the French novelist Alphonse Daudet in his depiction of Provençal life:

The hills all about the village were dotted with windmills. Whichever way you looked, you could see sails turning in the mistral above the pines, and long strings of little donkeys laden with sacks going up and down the paths; and all week long it was a joy to hear on these hill-tops the cracking of whips, the creaking of the canvas of the sails, and the shouts of the millers’ men … These windmills, you see, were not only the wealth of our land, they were its pride and joy.

Yet perceptions of windmills have not been uniformly idyllic. Since they first appeared on the landscape of medieval Europe, windmills represented an imposition of the technological on the pastoral. They were, in the phrase of the wind energy author Paul Gipe, ‘machines in the garden’, straddling the boundary of the agrarian and mechanical. Unlike the static technologies shaping landscapes – from cathedral towers or canals in the past, to power lines, solar panels or rows of genetically modified crops today – windmills are constantly in motion. They refuse to passively disappear into the landscape.

With the spread of modern windfarms, the cultural positioning of wind power remains a contentious issue. But the debate is not new: for centuries, the symbolic nature of windmills – as technological monsters or icons of the idyllic – has been open to question. Understanding this debate can help open new avenues for engagement with today’s wind technology.

Though European windmills first appeared as early as the 11th or 12th centuries, there are still clues to how this new technology was initially perceived. In Dante’s Inferno, for instance, when the poet reaches the deepest circle of hell, Satan becomes visible through the gloom. As the ominous figure appears, he is described with a metaphor that would have been growing familiar to many of Dante’s original 14th-century readers:

As, when thick fog upon the landscape lies,
or when the night darkens our hemisphere,
a turning windmill seems afar to rise …

Through the darkness, the devil’s huge limbs are visible like the sails of a windmill pinwheeling on the horizon. To readers whose largest built realities were stable, unmoving church towers or city walls, the ceaseless, arching sweep of a windmill’s arms was no doubt disconcerting to say the least. Later, when Cervantes pictured them as giants in Don Quixote’s imagination, he could gesture to this lingering unease over this most prominent structure on the medieval horizon.

More here.

Infographic: Wind Corridor, Pakistan

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