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Windmills a welcome addition to landscape [Column]

Put me down in favor of windmills.

Way back when I was a boy learning in social studies about the wide world out there, one of the things we were taught was about the relationship between windmills and Holland. Giant buildings equipped with what appeared to my boyhood mind to be massive airplane propellers were responsible for pumping the sea water out of Holland so the country's territory could be expanded.

I was astonished to learn as I got older that the windmills of Holland had long since been replaced by more reliable mechanical pumps, though plenty of old ones were retained because of their historic importance. Also, I learned that windmills could be found in other places, like Spain in the days of Don Quixote, and, to my surprise and delight, the farms of the United States.

My dad pointed out to me an agricultural windmill of the kind in common use in the 1970s, a variety that can still be seen on farms, especially Amish farms. It was a metal tower with a rather small propeller at the top, and a fin behind the propeller.

I didn't regard it as particularly elegant. For one thing, I wanted to be able to go inside a real windmill, and this metal tower had nothing approximating an inside like the images of those old Dutch windmills I had kept filed in my imagination. So imprinted were they that I had come to the mistaken boyhood conclusion that the classic Holland windmill had influenced the design of America's first space station, Skylab, whose array of solar panels included four that had gave the ill-fated craft the look of a windmill.

As I got older, I came to respect the practicality of modern metal windmills used in agriculture and I've come to regard them as classic bits of practical architectural engineering in their own right. Then, about a dozen years ago, I was on a trip through the mountains of central Pennsylvania on I-81 when I caught a glimpse of something I'd only seen photos of: Massive modern windmills used to harness the power of the air passing over the Appalachians and convert it to electricity.

I was astonished by their size, as well as their look. Though nothing like those classic windmills forever associated in my mind with wooden shoes, tulip bulbs and flat farmland laced by canals, they had an enchanting quality all their own. The propellers certainly did spin, but at speeds that seemed relatively low compared to what I would have expected. Turns out, they're not designed to spin at dizzying speeds, but rather at constant rates. (Similarly, it was something of a revelation when I learned the turbines at Conowingo Dam are equipped with governors to ensure each has a flow of water passing through it to result in a consistent rate of spin.)

It came as something of a surprise to me that in Maryland, and elsewhere, there would be staunch opposition to these modern mountaintop windmills. Sure, there's no missing them, and it's clear they aren't part of the natural scenery. In my mind, though, they're fairly elegant human intrusions into the natural world. This, by the way, is a stark contrast to other human constructs on mountaintops and in other high visibility places. Broadcast transmitters have been parked in high places for decades to extend the range of TV, radio and cellular telephone signals. To me, these structures lack any real visual appeal, and are made that much more unpleasant when they are sometimes disguised as trees, like the one that is especially conspicuous to anyone traveling Route 152 in Fallston.

As is the case for anything else, beauty – or ugly – is in the eye of the beholder. Windmills and lighthouses constructed prior to 1900 have their advocates. The same goes for plenty of other human constructs. Cars of certain vintages are regarded as classics, even as some of the same age are nothing more than junk or jalopies. Certain railroad locomotives similarly have strong followings based on how they look, even as others are regarded as visually unappealing.

There are those who find beauty in aircraft, space vehicles, even steam engines and military equipment.

And there are those whose eyes are offended when devices of human construction are imposed on the inherent beauty of the natural world.

I suspect I fall somewhere in the middle. For many years I regarded a massive flat-topped mountain of shale and coal tailings that sat alongside I-81 near Tower City in Pennsylvania as an eyesore of the first order. I had an uncle, however, who regarded it as an emblem of his childhood home. Still, I was glad when a power company came up with a way to burn the coal out of the pile and it eventually was trucked away.

A few miles up the highway from Tower City it is possible to catch a glimpse of the latest high profile incursion onto the wilds of the mountains, those massive windmills. To me, they have the lines of a classic car or a locomotive from the golden age of steam. Other folks find them every bit as irritating as I find radio towers.

I suspect it will take many generations before it is clear if those modern windmills end up being held in high regard like their Dutch predecessors, or if they end up relegated to the status of engineering jalopies.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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