Introduction: Windmills

May 2013

For me, windmills have something magical about them.

Bread, cheese, and a candle to celebrate the goodness of food...

Bread, cheese, and a candle to celebrate the goodness of food…

My own childhood memories of windmills are connected to bread. I knew that these slightly odd-looking buildings – that were static like the houses we lived in but were odd in that they had moving parts sticking out of them – were instrumental in producing flour that then went into bread. When I was small, I don’t think I really understood what this meant, but I knew that something that farmers grew in fields was taken to windmills, their huge vanes appeared to turn by a kind of magic, somehow flour was produced, and that was used as the main ingredient for making bread. And I loved bread.

I cannot recall a time when I have not loved eating bread. Not so much the flabby British sliced-cardboard-type of bread that is made into perfectly shaped squares, but what I pejoratively call real bread, with unpredictable shapes and strong flavours, with interesting seeds, corns and spices. Growing up partly in Germany, I had the opportunity to taste and appreciate far more varieties of bread than most children in Britain do: Germany has ‘always’ (in my memory) had a far more vibrant and inventive bread culture than Britain. In fact, for quite some time as an adult, visitors from Germany would be even more welcome if they brought with them a proper heavy Schwarzbrot (in the meantime, there are the beginnings of a more interesting bread culture in Scotland, indeed in Britain, so this ‘need’ has diminished).

The perfect combination: bread, cheese, wine...

The perfect combination: bread, cheese, wine…

Still, it is perhaps no wonder that I romanticise windmills. But I am not alone in doing so. Perhaps the most famous tale about windmills in the Western literary canon comes from Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, as the deluded ‘knight’ sets off to fight a number of windmills, thinking they are giants and that he will be able to claim their defeat as a great victory (a recent children’s edition even has windmills on the cover, together with a morose Don Quixote). This is but one of many instances in which Don Quixote misinterprets what he sees, with predictable results. Cervantes’ story gives us the phrase ’tilting at windmills’: tilting being jousting or fighting, with the implication that action is being taken on the basis of mistaken heroism, and perhaps even, that the fight is rather pointless. Nonetheless, I have always thought of it as a romantic tale.

In the context of today’s wind farms, we might well ask if the resistance to such projects is about ’tilting at windmills’ – but I am getting ahead of myself… that is perhaps something that will emerge in the coming chapters.

Legoland, Billund, Denmark, 2001 (Fuji Sensia 400)

Legoland, Billund, Denmark, 2001 (Fuji Sensia 400)

There are, of course, many kinds of windmills. For much of my childhood, windmills were what I would naively and without any scientific basis, call ‘Dutch windmills’ – dumpy brick or wooden buildings with disproportionately-huge wooden vanes. I think I can remember seeing such windmills when travelling through the Netherlands with my parents on one of our many trips back and forth between Britain and Germany visiting family. This is, I think, a common image. Certainly, this snapshot from Legoland, taken in 2001, would suggest I am not alone in thinking of windmills in this way.

In the meantime, I wonder if for many children these Legoland windmills could be seen as classical Baudrillardian simulacra of Late Capitalism,¹ in other words, the children in the theme park² may never have seen a real windmill, so these simulacra not only precede, but also perhaps replace any need to engage with an ‘original’ windmill such as the ones I recall from my childhood.

And yet, my sense is that we are now beginning to think of windmills differently. I think that for many people, windmills do not evoke thoughts of flour and bread, or even crazy Spanish ‘knights’, but are instead connected with electricity generation (and are more correctly called wind turbines, though I think I am not alone in thinking involuntarily of “windmills” rather than “wind turbines”). These tall, thin, white or silver steel structures stand on hillsides making “whooshing” noises, but not obviously making things – such as flour. Furthermore, in Scotland, the concept of a “windmill” is rare: I would venture to suggest that they are usually thought of in the plural, as “windmills“, collected together in wind farms.

The environmentalist Iona Finlayson, in discussing wind farms with me this Easter, said that she didn’t understand why, in this country, we had to farm everything. Why, she asked rhetorically, did we seem to favour monocultures, rather than allowing a natural diversity to occur that would be far better for the environment: salmon, pine trees – and now even wind! It is the exploration of this question about farming wind that I wish to pursue in the coming chapters, beginning with “my” wind farm, Dun Law, south of my current home, Edinburgh.

Go to next chapter.

  1. click to go back I am aware that not many 6 year olds would use this language – certainly my son didn’t discuss Late Capitalism with me as we went round Legoland! However, I think Baudrillard’s concepts are very helpful in this context.
  2. click to go back The theme park can be seen as a kind of Foucauldian heterotopia: see Of Other Spaces; it is also available in various places on Scribd… a short and stimulating article.
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