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Wind turbines on prairie farm, with clouds

The Wind Farm Does Not Require a Farmer

By Jeff Gundy

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What to do with such absence, such emptiness, such vacancy, all of it blown over by the relentless winds?

 
1.

Its processes continue almost without human intervention. Maintenance and adjustments two or three times a year for each tower generally suffice, according to commercial sources. From a control room in Houston, one company monitors all 2,000 towers under its supervision, identifying any deviation in output, wind speed, oil pressure, and frequencies of vibration immediately. “Every turbine we have in the world is connected,” said Jacob Andersen, the company’s director of wind service for region America. Highly trained local technicians are dispatched with precise instructions as required. They work efficiently at great heights and in very tight spaces. Training is underway to lessen the danger of dropped tools and other objects. Gearboxes are expensive to repair, but reliability engineering efforts have improved the failure rates. Andersen is a former technician himself.

The wind farmer has no responsibility for maintenance or oversight, no duties or obligations, no investment except nostalgia, sentiment, and an obscure sense of possible sublimity, interlaced with layers of disaffection, boredom, suspicion, impatience, with faint undertones of rage and grief that he believes ought to be stronger. His title, like his duties, is entirely imaginary.

He is not going to save the land, or its people, or himself.                            

He will not write an earnest book about human and natural calamities spreading like weed killer from some gigantic farm implement across the black soil of Livingston and McLean Counties, though he fears this is the most likely future. He will not write a martyr book, no matter how sadly his friends judge him for his lack of gravitas.

He will not write an epic of the tribes that for millennia made the prairie their homes, leaving only the sparsest hints of their lives in the bones and arrowheads and fragments of pottery that surface now and then.

He will not write a politically charged book about his miserable prairie childhood and the pernicious effects of poverty, alcohol, fornication, and abuse. The wind farmer’s parents didn’t drink, smoke, or fool around, and they tended their children as carefully and skillfully as they did everything else, with (he realizes now) an astonishingly small amount of drama.

The wind farmer wishes he could write a large, important, terrifying book. He regrets his lack of the aptitude, energy, and commitment required to write hundreds of earnest, grave, thoroughly researched pages about the collapse of prairie cultures and ecosystems, about poisons and environmental crises, but even the imagining bores him beyond all his capacities to resist.

Just because we have birds inside us, we don’t have to be cages, the poet Dean Young says. The birds the wind farmer knows best are the chickens his family raised, stupid birds that lived out their miserable lives crowded into wire enclosures, eating and shitting and obediently laying a white egg nearly every day. What sort of bird could weave in and among the great vanes of the windmills, nest in the nacelles at the top, live amid the noise and the vibrations, raise its young there, feed them until they are strong enough to fly and smart enough to find their way into the open air?

All he can imagine is something sad but light, a hawk or a crow or a heron, not a tractor with four-wheel drive, a climate-controlled cab, and an elaborate GPS system. Something restless, not relentless. A fox like the one his father saw in the waterway, and watched for weeks as it raised a litter there, barely visible from the home place. But that was years ago, and the wind farmer had already moved away, and now his father lives in town and has forgotten nearly everything.

Wind turbines on prairie
Wind turbines on the prairie, viewed from atop a grain bin on the farm where the author grew up, which his brother still farms.
Photo by Jeff Gundy.

2.

David Abram tells of traveling with an aboriginal man in Australia. The man began telling stories of the place as they drove along, but got more and more agitated as they went, because there was no time, even at four-wheel drive speed, to finish one tale before they had left that place and come into the next one. Finally, the driver slowed to a walking pace, and the man relaxed and told the stories as they needed to be told, if the place they were traveling was to be remembered properly, if the land was to be respected and named as it deserved.

Even when the wind farmer was a child and the roads were gravel, road speed on the prairie was 60 miles an hour, more if the driver was reckless or just in a hurry. Plumes of dust and big V-8s were standard, seat belts were not. The less-traveled roads had two tracks for wheels, and if you met someone you both slowed a little and edged off into the grass. The space between origin and destination seemed more or less empty, featureless and nameless, requiring no attention except navigation.

In those days most of the roads weren’t even marked, much less named. The crossings were devoid of signs, as if it had been decided that anyone who did not know the way already deserved to be lost. Directions were given by miles and compass points: east to the stop sign, two miles south, and a mile north would get you to church. Two miles north and a half mile east and there was Flanagan. Few landmarks—only fields, ditches, roads, farmyards, towns.

Finally some official must have noticed the strange vacancy of such roads, inconvenient for record-keeping, and the roads were numbered, though they still lack names. How would they be named when they have no history, no folklore, no stories of what happened here last year, last century, in the dreamtime? The elders who remember the old days are gone, and their children have gone too, working fast food or the prison or the hospitals. The whole prairie is nearly bare of names, and as thinly storied as it is peopled.

The turbines have numbers but no names. Nobody watches from the top of the towers. Mostly they are lonely as widowers in farmhouses. There’s a long ladder inside, and a lift for heavy parts, but only rarely must workers go up for maintenance and repairs.

What to do with such absence, such emptiness, such vacancy, all of it blown over by the relentless winds? Why not fill a little of it with steel and copper and aluminum, with blades to shift a little of the wind, to draw its restless energy into another form, to make it into light and heat and images on 10,000 screens?

 

 

Jeff GundyJeff Gundy is Distinguished Poet in Residence at Bluffton University. His most recent books of poems are Without a Plea and Abandoned Homeland, both from Bottom Dog. Recent work is in The Sun, Georgia Review, Cincinnati Review, Christian Century, and Image.

Read poetry by Jeff Gundy appearing in Terrain.org: one poem and three poems.

Header photo by Free-Photos, courtesy Pixabay.

Terrain.org is the first online literary journal of place, publishing award-winning literature, art, editorials, and community case studies since 1998.