I am realising that the rather depressed tone of my last posting represented the end of a period of feeling somewhat demoralised about what I was doing, and not, as I thought at the time, a statement about being in the middle of such a period. What helped me realise this were primarily the helpful comments to that posting, and several conversations on Twitter – social media can be a wonderful thing!
A few days after that posting we went to Strathpeffer for a weekend (weekends away are a very rare and precious occurrence, given my wife’s work!). This is several hours drive from our home in Edinburgh.
Travel is often productive thinking time for me, and on this journey north an idea began to form. This idea then encountered various stimuli over the weekend, including a conversation on Sunday morning with Iain Sarjeant and Iona Finlayson that touched on some key issues about what ‘home’ was, what and where it could be, and related topics. As we were driving south after that, these ideas became much clearer to me, and I am now able to articulate them in an early form: I want to pursue a detailed photographic essay examining wind farms in Scotland.
What’s so special about wind farms?
If you follow the news in Scotland, you will be aware that wind farms are a very controversial issue, with proponents and opponents disagreeing about whether to support their construction or not. It seems that much heat and little light is generated in these debates. Perhaps, through some photography and writing, I can contribute a little to some light?
My journey north and then south again meant seeing a fair number of wind farms on the hills. Just down the road from Strathpeffer it was possible to see a number of windmills on the hillsides. There are wind farms fairly close to Edinburgh. There are plans for more all over the country: last summer on the Isle of Lewis we heard of plans to build a wind farm in the centre of the island. And the windmills themselves elicit strong reactions. I began making some images last weekend, and tweeted about this:
Kath Hudson responded with a visceral comment:
When I said that I had encountered smaller ones in Germany that were still intimidating but nonetheless impressive, Kath wrote back to say: ‘They really did give me that creepy shiver down the spine feeling. They are just unnatural and WRONG. Too big, too alien… ‘
I think many people will relate to Kath’s reactions, but, whilst important, the key issue for me is only partly about aesthetics and emotional reactions of this kind. On another level: it is undeniable that wind farms alter the appearance of the landscape, but so do nuclear power stations (see Bruce Percy’s study of Torness on the A1), or the dirty coal-fired power station at Cockenzie, just down the coast from me and almost always in view, it seems, when I’m on the beach:
Cockenzie power station from Portobello beach
The thing is… my leftie, green and social instincts all say “nuclear/coal etc. bad, wind/solar etc. good”… and yet, and yet… I do get the point behind some of the wind farm objections. So what I plan to do in this essay is explore some of the related issues around wind farms and reflect on different ways of understanding and interpreting them. If the only perspective, the only quilting point we use, is the idea of despoiling wild land, then opposition to wind farms becomes almost automatic. If, however, we use alternative quilting points, alternative starting points, then we might find our response to wind farms becomes more nuanced. For example, a slightly different perspective that comes to mind is a fairly common one: what about the alternatives – nuclear, coal, but also hydro, solar etc.? However, I am also interested in the question of power, understood in different ways: wind farms generate electrical power, but are also statements of power (over the landscape, in their construction, ownership and so on). How, for example, do these two forms of power relate to one another? Using that question as a quilting point leads to a series of other related questions and quilting points, such as:
- windmills versus wind farms – why does Germany often have individual windmills, whereas here we seem to go for large wind farms?
- what do wind farms say about my understanding of my home – how do I envisage and help to create the kind of home I want Scotland to be, for me, for those around me?
- it is often argued that wind farms are put in places that are ‘wild’, but what do ‘wild’, ‘wildness’ and ‘wilderness’ mean in contemporary Scotland?
- what is the meaning of ‘green’ in this context – ‘green’ landscape, and ‘green’ environmentally-friendly? I might also add that I recently joined the Green Party…
- local democracy – who gets to decide on the construction of wind farms?
- if, as many campaigns seem to argue, ‘there’s a place for wind farms, but it’s not here’ – what and where is their place?
- land ownership – how does the ownership of particular areas impact upon the construction of wind farms, especially considering much of Scotland’s land is owned by people with no significant connection to it?
- social justice – in what ways do wind farms impact upon employment, housing and so on?
These latter issues also play directly into the current social, political, civic and ideological context around the question of independence: the 2014 referendum in Scotland will decide whether Scotland continues as part of the union of England and Scotland or becomes an independent country once more. Independence in this context means, for me at least, that Scotland will be free to govern itself without undue interference from Westminster (and in framing the question like this, it will be clear that I am now firmly on the ‘yes’ side!). Over the years I have sincerely sought to understand and reflect upon the ‘no’ argument, a position I almost ‘naturally’ come from, but, with Joyce McMillan, I see a paucity of any kind of positive vision for the future in the ‘no’ campaign, something that the ‘yes’ campaign inspires and addresses in a multitude of ways, sometimes naively, mostly realistically. Decisions about land, home, planning, social justice and all these other issues that make up the kind of society we want to be are issues that play directly into the referendum. How would we think these things through if we could look at them afresh, as a ‘yes’ vote has the potential to allow, whereas a ‘no’ vote is likely to continue with the same rotten system we have now? Using wind farms as a quilting point perhaps has the potential, as the 2014 referendum approaches, to offer interesting insights along the way – at least for me! 😉
There will be many more issues that can be addressed, and I’m sure I’ll discover new quilting points and new perspectives as I go. For some of these issues, I can imagine the kinds of photographs and texts I might create, and for others I have no idea how I might address them photographically, or in any other way! And yet this not-knowing is very exciting. There is no end point, just exploration: I just want to see where all this takes me. Of one thing I can be sure: there will be blog postings about this, and also gallery pages.
As an aside: my new large format camera seems ideally suited for certain elements of this effort: there are certainly going to be elements of architectural photography, and so utilising the view camera’s movements to photograph windmills makes sense. In other contexts, I may find my smaller cameras more suitable.
I’m aware that there are many others who have pursued this kind of project in the past (for example, Rob Hudson recently sent me a link to Francis Hodgson’s piece in the FT on Richard Misrach), but perhaps there is still something new to be explored here, in my context, in my home?