by Sara Maitland

SRB Diary: Galloway Diary – Windmills on Her Mind

October 14, 2009 | by Sara Maitland

NEARLY FIVE YEARS ago I took a short cut, turning off the A75 onto an unclassified road up through western Galloway and into Ayrshire. It was just chance really. I drove up a pleasant valley and through a small village and then on over some decrepit cattle grids and onto a single-track unfenced road, which climbed steadily. Then suddenly, unexpectedly the views opened out into the landscape of my dreams. I had come home.

This was not the homecoming of Odysseus to rocky Ithaca, to his own kingdom lost and regained. This high open moor was nothing like the terrain of my childhood home. It was more like the homecoming of Abba Anthony, the great fourth century hermit. In later life, yearning for more silence and solitude, he travelled out into the desert and eventually arrived at Mount Colzim. He “fell in love with that spot . . . he recognised that place as his own home” and he lived the rest of his life there with “joyful determination”. That afternoon I too fell in love and recognised that place as my home. I had been looking for it for a long time – for that wide silence, open skies and curlews crying

It took over three years. There were singularly few dwellings on that road and most of them tenanted farms, but I found and bought a ruin and built a little house. I moved in two years ago; broke, weary and immensely certain – here, here is where I want, perhaps need, to live in the silence I delight in.

What was it that I found? Oddly the answer is “nothing”, huge views of nothing at all. It was that huge Nothing that drew me. In his 1935 Scottish Journey the poet Edwin Muir described the place: “It is difficult to give any impression of that beautiful and almost quite solitary stretch of moorland which lies between Newton Stewart and the bleak village of Barrhill in the south of Ayrshire. For about twenty miles I can remember seeing only two houses. On every side the moorland flowed away in low waves to the horizon.

There was no sign of life, except for a few distant sheep nibbling the harsh tufts of grass that grew here and there among the heather. . . and the only sound I heard was one of a lark singing high up. The thin air was sweetened by a thousand scents rising into it from every tuft in these miles of moorland, mingling as they rose, so that one seemed to be breathing in the landscape itself, drinking it in with all one’s senses except that of hearing, which was magically stilled. The silence of such places is so complete that it sinks into one’s mind in waves, making it clearer and clearer . . . In that silence the moor was a living thing spreading its fleece of purple and brown and green to the sun . .  . There was not one contour, one variation of colour, which did not suggest peace and gladness; and the loneliness and silence surrounding the moor were like a double dream”.

They are going to build a windfarm here. They are seeking detailed planning permission to erect 130 very large wind turbines – super-turbines: the new breed are far bigger than most of the ones presently in operation. They will be 145m tall – that is higher than a twenty-five-storey tower block. In the present proposal the nearest one will be less than 500m from my home, and will loom over it.

The moor is excellently suited to a windfarm: the wind is good, access to the grid is ready; the forestry tracks provide access; the development falls with the Dumfries and Galloway Structural Plan; and, of course, there are singularly few people to be disrupted by the construction or distressed by the radical change to the environment. Moors are not even, by most standards, places of “exceptional natural beauty”.

I believe in windfarms. I believe there is a twofold international crisis: global warming and a fast approaching fossil fuel shortfall. I believe that it is only simple justice that we in the west, having caused both these problems, have a particular obligation to address them and that windfarms are one appropriate way of doing so. I believe that the despoliation of our countryside will be less damaging to fewer people than the further exploitation and ecological destruction in, for example, the delta region of Nigeria, searching for more oil and putting off briefly the moment when there is no more oil. I believe that tackling global warming now will enrich, perhaps even enable, a human future. I believe that although we need a wider range of sustainable energy sources, possibly including nuclear generation, we have collectively behaved like ostriches and failed to develop alternatives and that it is only through wind generation that we can hope to meet our freely-entered-into international commitments to reduce our carbon emissions by 30 per cent by 2020, since we are demonstrably unwilling to reduce our energy demands. (I believe that it is important to fulfil international commitments.) I have even found turbines beautiful, that shining movement of wind-made-visible on a distant hill. I certainly find them more beautiful and no less “unnatural” than the vast areas of the Scottish uplands blotted out with rectilinear packages of conifers; or the sprawling ill-considered crisscross of pylons and overhead cables.

But . . . but for the last month I have not been able to drive up the little road and round the bend to where the valley opens away from me and I can see the river, my own house on the hillside and the wide sweep of moor and hill, without weeping.

So what? I have come face to face with my own despised inner nimby and I don’t like it. Get a grip.

Perhaps this is arrogant of me, but it feels more complicated that that. I feel that I have to find some way of making friends with both the nimby I have recently met and with up to 130 giants, plus their several

attendant servants, who are coming to live next door. The only alternative is to move – and even if I wanted to I doubt that this will be possible because the house will be un-sellable at least for the next three years while the construction is going on and probably thereafter too. And I don’t want to; I want to live with Anthony’s “joyful determination” in the place that I recognised irrevocably as home.

I have been trying to explore some personal questions – and I find I have very little equipment for asking, let alone answering them.

The first question is informed directly by my own ten-year relationship with silence. Why is our idea of the beautiful in nature so exclusively visual? As Muir’s delight makes clear the beauty here is not dramatic and it is carried in aural atmosphere rather than visual spectacular. So it does not register as a meaningful conservation issue. This is quite surprising in one sense because in fact more people engage with and are nourished by music than by painting, but when it comes to “the wild places” it is the high-impact visual Sublime – mountains, cliffs, waterfalls, large ancient trees – that count: they are not called “views” for nothing. (The word ‘landscape’ itself comes to us from painting – a landscape was originally a picture of the land. It was only later that it was applied to the subject itself – as though we all become ‘portraits’, because portraits are pictures of people.)

This awareness of the aesthetics of sound is made very clear in the Environmental Impact Assessment that the developers must (rightly) present with their formal application next year. In their preliminary survey there are a great number of questions about the visual impact of the windfarm – who will see it, where will they see it from, how can the turbines be sighted to limit such views – but there are no parallel questions about sound. There are questions about noise levels, but that is not the point: a turbine may create less noise than an oyster-catcher, the river in spate, wind driven rain on the windows or lambs bleating for their ewes, and still make a less beautiful sound. At this very moment there is a ‘noise level monitor’ in my garden – it does not record anything, it just measures decibels, as though they were all the same. So it is not entirely unreasonable of me to find wind turbines I can see beautiful, but wind turbines I can hear ugly. (And there is not a hope of getting the environmental assessment team to address the question of whether the smell of steel and concrete will or will not overwhelm the scent of meadowsweet and bog myrtle.)

But there is a bigger question. How might I weigh the competing claims of beauty and of justice? In his dark but lovely essay Art in Relation to War David Jones the poet/painter argues poignantly: “Man as a moral being hungers and thirsts after justice, and man as artist hungers and thirsts after form and although these are ultimately one . . . nevertheless for us they are not one, not yet, not by any means”.

How might we make them “one”, or choose between them? Certainly they are both good; they are both necessary to human flourishing. In her virtuoso, witty and possibly wise book, On Beauty: and Being Just Elaine Scarry tries to convince us that since the contemplation of beauty will necessarily lead to justice we should begin, at least, with delighting and defending beauty. That offers me real comfort. But sadly Scarry abstracts “Beauty” from any context and nowhere acknowledges its subjective status. I know that many people do not find moors like this one beautiful – they see them as bleak, empty, barren. How many people have to find something how beautiful before it starts to develop into the eager sense of justice that Scarry foresees? The related question of how much justice is it worth losing some beauty for is similarly problematic. It is well nigh impossible to discover how much power windfarms can actually deliver: 20 per cent of Scotland’s needs say the proponents; less than 3 per cent say the opposition – and it does make a difference.

The answer of course is to so expand my imagination and my sensibility that I can find the windfarm beautiful – not simply because it is just, but because it is pleasing also. The deep hum will add an accompaniment, new rich tones, to the wind’s music; the high circling movement will provide punctuation to mist and cloud; the vibrancy of sun-flicker will pattern the soft light; the glory of hard verticals will accentuate and elaborate the soft curves.

Well, I’m trying. It feels difficult, but I know that aesthetic values change like other values and that the excitement of learning new things is a stimulating challenge, especially worthwhile as I turn 60. I know too that the glen has changed through history – it survives the dykes and drainage cuts; it survives the railway line chugging through; it survives the pylons and poles; it survives the declining population; it survives the forestry plantations. These changes have shaped it into the place I love. Perhaps the wind-farm could be just one more change in the rhythm of my Huge Nothing and will gain in beauty as it merges into justice, and they will become one for me. To be honest I resent the effort involved and the fact that I did not choose it, but on good days even a failed attempt to make this true, which it is not for me yet, feels possible and exciting, a new adventure.

I am trying but still I am haunted by poor John Clare, the poet, wandering and raving, driven crazy by the loss of his home, the wild heaths and common land of his childhood, which had been destroyed by modernity.


A Book Of Silence
Sara Maitland
Granta, £8.99
pp311, ISBN 9781847081513

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