I have heard the arguments pro and con, listened to the reasoning, felt strong emotions on both sides. And through it all I have done my share of soul-searching. I’ve been internally divided, as one who consumes energy with the best of them yet also as one who cherishes wild, undeveloped places. What do I really believe, I ask myself. What is it I really want? I carry on the debate within myself.
Many feel wind towers are things of beauty, and I agree they can be, as kinds of machinery and wonders of technology. So are many human-made structures beautiful, in their way, but they do not belong everywhere and anywhere. A bridge, however elegant, is not appropriate across the Grand Canyon, nor should a fine memorial be plunked down in the middle of Yosemite, nor a grand stadium erected on the beaches of Cape Cod National Seashore. By the same token, would anyone seriously propose wind towers atop cathedrals or the pyramids?
I agree it is imperative for us to begin to move away from dependence on fossil fuels and toward renewable alternatives, including wind, which the experts say could provide up to 20 percent of our state’s energy. Yet I wonder how many wind towers on how many ridges it would take to wean ourselves of oil. Will they do anything to urge us into serious conservation, or simply lull us into the belief that we can still have all the energy we want?
The experts also say that, for legal, topographic or other reasons, only a few of the highest peaks would be available for consideration in Vermont, and only a fraction of those suitable for power generation. But that is with today’s technology; what happens tomorrow, when the demand is that much higher and the technology that much more refined?
I hear the justification that we have already dented and scratched and heaped upon the mountains with television and microwave towers, radar stations, ski trails, roads and power lines, and we have gotten used to that, even benefited financially from them. So we have, but do these transformations automatically mean there should be others? Yes, we can and do get used to almost anything, including parking lots that pave over the sources of childhood memories, and commercial buildings that supplant farmlands and woodlands, and ‘no trespassing’ signs posted where once we roamed freely. I suppose we even could have become used to the Green Mountain Parkway, the ‘scenic’ highway that once came close to reality along the highest peaks the length of Vermont.
But to me such losses are a high price to pay for our success and good fortune, and profits should not be the overriding standard by which we weigh our actions. Surely there are better measures of our humanity.
Some brand as NIMBY (‘not in my back yard’) whiners those who oppose wind towers the most ardently, claiming they are holding hostage a greater common purpose for their own interests. But I think all people fight most strongly for what is in their back yards, the place they live and work and call home, where they build intimacies day by day, year by year, with the land and each other. That they do fight does not invalidate their views; to my mind it actually strengthens them.
But as I wrestled with the issues and tried to determine which way the balance tipped for me, something else arose, a more deeply seated belief akin to faith.
Our human heritage, across all time and continents and cultures, includes a powerful sense of the sacred and the spiritual, representing that which is beyond our earthly aspirations or control. Such sacredness is imbued in certain places on the earth, mountaintops among them. There people go , if allowed to go at all , in reverence, respect and humbleness, to honor their gods, feel the divine in this world, and be restored.
But in more utilitarian-minded, resource-consuming cultures, nature has another meaning, another role to play. Nothing escapes the covetous eye; no place eludes scrutiny for its potential to supply a need or want. Marshes and estuaries, the wellsprings of so much life around us, dredged and drained. The ancient forests cut and hauled away. The prairies plowed into fields of corn and wheat. Ocean bottoms drilled for oil and gas, vast tracts of soil scraped away to find the coal beneath. Great rushing rivers dammed and stilled.
We have pushed the gods from their earth and called it ours. In the process, while our presence and our work do not necessarily destroy the places, they make them different, change our relationships to them. I have never felt quite the same about the moon as I look up at it now, knowing that the wreckage of our explorations is there for all time.
I read recently how one man expressed his opinion at a public meeting on wind energy: “Personally,” he said, “I think it’s my responsibility to accept the consequences of our demand for energy. I’d be willing to have (a wind tower) behind my house on the Worcester Range.” But is that the way it must be, the only choice we have? Are the ‘consequences of our demand for energy’ so inexorable and inevitable? Must the land be sacrificed on our behalf, as it always seems to be, yet we rarely sacrifice for it?
When all the arguments and reasoning are done, and decisions must be made, it comes down for me to something other than opinion. Something so utterly personal it is inarguable. A mountain is more than what we want from it. It is a matter of sanctity.
Charles W. Johnson was the Vermont state naturalist from 1978 to 2000. He is author of ‘The Nature of Vermont: Introduction and Guide to a New England Environment’ and co-author of ‘In Season: A Natural History of the New England Year.’ He lives in East Montpelier.
Charles W. Johnson, East Montpelier