The view across the bay

By Jeffrey Lewis | Nov 06, 2009

I love this time of year in Maine, when the changes in the weather and the changes in the landscape shake me out of my natural inclination to stay deluded that everything will remain the same.

This morning I took some fresh cider from trees from our own backyard (so to speak) to my son’s second-grade class for its Halloween party. And then I took the long way home just because I could, and because I wanted to take in the beauty of the morning. I went by Rockport Harbor, and by the belted Galloways and into Camden Harbor where the outer harbor seems to have a lot more water and fewer boats. It is evident everywhere now that the colors are beyond peak both by the water and up the mountains. The bursts of yellow and red and orange have relaxed into a more subdued and uniform color somewhere between golden and gray.

Near the cemetery where Chestnut Street turns into Sea Street there is a narrow meadow between two stands of forest. The clearing offers a beautiful view across the bay and to the islands of North Haven and Vinalhaven. And right in the middle of the piece of the island that is visible from this part of “the Maine” (as they used to call this coast that is connected to the rest of the continent) are three new objects that were not there even a season ago. Three new windmills stand there at the ready. Their blades are still in the morning sun, but soon the machines will come alive with the natural, renewable and endless flow of wind. The same wind that moved the great ships that powered Maine’s economy for generations is connecting our future to our heritage.

I see the island communities as setting themselves free in a new way. Not free in the sense of isolated independence, but free in a responsible, thoughtful, practical, reasonable and economic interdependence. They are also signs of being free in the sense that the electrons that will flow through the walls and lights and machines of homes, schools and businesses will come from the natural, free energy that blows through people's backyards nearly every day. It is not every day that I see something that is at the same time so inspiring and so practical. And every day that we get closer to winter there will be more and more wind. This time of year will always be a time of hunkering down in some ways, but it is promising to think positively about winter as a time of extra available energy and opportunity. Mainers used to use the winter to harvest their renewable ice. In the future we will harness our renewable wind.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Recently I sat in a friend’s living room that has the kind of view that some would die for. As we drank our warm coffee on the warm side of his huge glass windows on a brisk fall morning, the view across Penobscot Bay was stunning. The water, the islands, the sky, the blinding light sun …. It was actually – as usual – a bit much; it was so pretty. And at the same time there was no mistaking the same three objects standing at attention on the island across the bay.

I dared to ask my friend what he thought of them. This was a bit of a risk for both of us. He probably knew that I was biased. I happen to think that certain kinds of wind turbines are inherently, by design, beautiful – beautiful in the same way that a schooner is beautiful or a glider is beautiful. Elegant, curvy shapes that work with the natural flow of wind or water to do something useful always turn my head. When someone tells me that wind turbines are ugly, I just accept it as a subjective value statement. I don’t think it’s my job to convince anybody of anything – especially in matters of what I think is beautiful. But I am interested in hearing what others think. The proverbial “cow in the living room” in the view from my friend’s living room was the three new 1.5 megawatt wind turbines in the middle of central window pane number three. The turbines are not only clearly visible; they are unmistakable in the morning sun over his coffee table covered with books. “So what do you think of those windmills?” I asked.

“In some ways,” he said, “you can say that they have polluted my view.” (Ouch, I thought – “polluted” is a strong word.) He said that when the sun gets low in the west, the towers and blades light up all orange and pink against the sky. And when the sun goes down completely and the twilight fades to black, there are subtle but noticeable flashing red lights that used to not be there. The point I heard is that you can see them. As he spoke I had an insight: We are not used to seeing our sources of electricity. In fact, we are used to not seeing them. There is a sort of magical disconnect between our daily reality and the systems that support our way of life. If I imagine the electron stream on the other side of any electrical socket, there is usually nothing pretty on the other end. In fact, in most cases, for most of us, what is at the other end is not only nothing pretty, it is usually nothing good.

We burn coal, we burn oil, we burn gas or we split atoms to make heat to turn turbines inside power plants that no one loves to look at or live downwind from. In all these cases, damage is being done and costs are being ignored or displaced so that we can keep the lights on. Wind turbines, like any power-generating systems, are visible. But with wind turbines, there is something less. What you see is what you get. That’s it. There are no fuel barges to feed them. There are no emissions coming out of them. There is no pernicious waste to guard for 10,000 years. Yes, wind turbines are visible, but what you see is what you get.

My friend went on. “Do you really know what I see when I look at those windmills? I see signs of hope.” He told me that he sees that we may yet – perhaps – learn how to live in the 21st century. I thought of that this morning as I looked across the cemetery and through the meadow and over the bay to the windmills on the island. These are signs of hope that we may yet learn to live in the 21st century. Great changes are coming. If we learn how to live more sustainably in the 21st century, then perhaps, our posterity will thank us in the 22nd.
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