By Barbara Falconer Newhall
I grabbed my camera and jumped into my cousin Jeanie’s car. We were going to chase some windmills.
Three-and-a-half years ago I burst into tears when I read online that a Scandinavian company was fixing to put 200 windmills in Lake Michigan — right in the lake, and fully visible from the sandy beaches of my Michigan childhood.
My heart broke at the thought. The lake would be damaged aesthetically, and probably ecologically. One hundred square miles of wind turbine towers, each one 45 stories tall, each one with its own concrete platform. And all of it visible from the shore. A blight on the landscape and a permanent, unremovable hazard for boaters and fishermen.
Money was raised by local folks to fight the windmills. Meetings were called. I held my breath from a 2,000-mile distance, hoping against hope that somehow the project would fall through.
Apparently, the Scandinavian contractors who aspired to fill the lake with windmills had miscalculated. According to another cousin, who lives in the area, the planners had overlooked the fact that Lake Michigan, unlike Scandinavia’s North and Baltic seas, is a fresh water body. It freezes in the winter, and when it thaws in the spring, it throws up huge ice floes capable of sheering the windmills off their concrete pedestals and casting them into the water.
If that happened, my cousin wanted to know, who was going to pay for the clean-up?
Today, there are no windmills in Lake Michigan. That project was scuttled.
But just inland from the proposed lake site, there now stand 56 wind turbines. They’re scattered across the farmlad of Mason county, not far from the Scottville farm where my father grew up and not far from the cottage where my family spent its summers when I was a kid.
It’s called the Lake Winds Energy Park, and it’s been up and running since last November.
When I heard about the new windmills, I resolved to take a look the next time I was in Michigan. Were they a noisy, ugly, menacing blight on the scenery?
Or . . . might they be an interesting sight — attractive even? Might they draw attention to the shape of the land and enhance it much the way Christo’s Running Fence once punctuated the rolling hills of Marin county back in the 1970s?
My chance to see the windmills up close came late in May. My son Peter was married in Minnesota on May 25. And my brothers and I flew on to Michigan a few days later to bury my Aunt Grace in the Scottville cemetery. I tacked some extra days on to my Michigan trip so I could spend time with Jeanie.
My cousin and I had had our share of girlish adventures – we’d breathed the piney air of the Michigan woods together and built sandcastles at the beach. We’d climbed Eagle Top. We’d chased toads and snakes and chipmunks.
A good half century had gone by since our childhood adventures, but I was pretty sure Jeanie would be up for another one – chasing windmills.
She was. We piled into her car and drove up Highway 31 to the Ludington Pumped Storage Power Plant run by Consumers Energy, then cut east to the farmland nearby.
And there they were: Gigantic 312-foot-tall structures, each with three curved and pointed blades with a combined diameter of 328 feet. They were sleek, modern, massive — otherworldly — against the misty summer sky. The local oak trees and farmhouses seemed inconsequential in comparison.
We stopped the car and took pictures, then rolled down the windows to listen to the blades as they spun in the wind coming off Lake Michigan. Sure enough, the turbines generated a soft, steady roar. Something like the sound of a generator or a car engine idling. Not too different from the constant hum of Lake Michigan’s surf a mile or two away.
The windmills were impressive. Grand even.
Not quite Christo. Not quite a work of art. They had been placed scattershot across the countryside according to practical rather than aesthetic considerations. They didn’t cohere or seem to comment on the landscape.
Not quite art. But definitely not blight.
I’d say that if the farmers whose land the turbines occupy are happy with their windmills, so am I.
Note: The farmers might be happy with the turbines — they’re paid for the use of their land. But some of their neighbors are not so happy with the flickering light and other disruptions.