Posted by: anthropologyinthewind | December 2, 2012

Changing Skyscapes

In my last post, I wrote about the unique relationship with the sky that many people in Caithness seem to experience, ending with a query about the place of wind turbines in these extraordinary skyscapes. Several people have since pointed out to me some of the other manmade changes that the Caithness skyline has undergone over the decades, in particular, the erection of electricity pylons, power cables and telegraph poles – changes which they suggest closely parallel the current concerns over wind farms.

In ancient Greek, the term 'pylon' referred to a celestial gateway and was often associated with rebirth.

In ancient Greek, the term ‘pylon’ referred to a celestial gateway and was often associated with rebirth.

Whilst I am unfamiliar with the reactions of Caithness folk to the advent of electricity (and which, incidentally, I think may tell a different story to the spread of the pylons further South – if you can remember the arrival of electricity in Caithness, I’d love to hear about it), it’s easy to see on a broader scale the correlations between the march of the wind turbines and the progress of the National Grid. Certainly in other parts of rural Britain, such as the Lake District, the New Forest and the South Downs, there arose vociferous anti-pylon campaigns in opposition to what was seen by some as the draconian state impositions of the Central Electricity Board in the 1920’s. The CEB was tasked with establishing a national infrastructure for the supply of electricity, an undertaking which employed around 100,000 men, and included 4,000 miles of transmission lines running through the estates of over 22,000 landowners, and was viewed by many at the time as the greatest manmade addition to the British landscape. The tranquillity and cleanliness of the ‘Electrical Revolution’ was contrasted favourably with the dirt, smog and noise of the Industrial Revolution. Yet this excerpt from a letter to the editor of The Times, entitled “Pylons in Somerset”, and featured on the BBC4 documentary, Wiring the Nation: The Secret History of the National Grid’, demonstrates the concerns and anxieties that people had in response to these developments:

“It has been suggested to me that the next generation will not regret that the Quantocks, still one of the unspoilt areas of England, have been ruined in this way. If this be true, well may we echo Wordsworth’s lines written close to where a pylon will stand on its 8ft square concrete base:-

                                “Have I not reason to lament

                                “What man has made of man?”

I am far too young to remember the installation of the original National Grid, so, like many others of my generation, I have grown up surrounded by pylons and cables. Whilst unlikely to extol their virtues or praise their beauty (although have a look at this if you are a pylon fanatic!), I largely remained indifferent to the structures, often rarely noticing them. Or, at least, I didn’t until last year when a friend from America said to me something along the lines of ‘I can’t understand why you Brits get so upset about wind farms when the country’s scarred with monstrous pylons…I came here expecting a landscape of beauty and heritage, but all I see are these great hulking piles of metal desecrating the countryside’. After that, I began seeing and hearing them everywhere I went.

I was initially incredibly disappointed to note the pole transformers delivering their electrical cargo and trailing cables across the fields to the front and back of the house I rent here in Caithness. I found them intrusive and hostile, blocking my view from every window. Three months later and my opinion couldn’t be more different: I’ve spent many hours gazing out of the windows and becoming accustomed to my surroundings, and gradually, imperceptibly, the once ugly structures have become an important part of where I call home: I hear them softly buzzing in the darkness of night; they add an extra dimension to my hundreds of photos of the sky; they attract countless birds to rest for a moment from their flight path; and they act as a constant reminder of the infinite ways in which I am connected to the world around me.

Sunset at ForssSunrise at ForssSunrise at ForssA Murder of CrowsSunset at Forss

Returning to the march of the wind turbines, a significant number of the local people that I have spoken with take a fairly neutral, or even disinterested, stance on their appearance in the region.  One person suggested that I focus my research elsewhere, decrying the current furore over wind farms as ‘a storm in a teacup, soon to blow over’. Perhaps they are right: perhaps, just like the buzzing electricity pylons and power cables criss-crossing the countryside, we will all soon become so accustomed to the sight and sound of turbines across the land that we barely notice them, subtly absorbing them into our awareness of the environment.

But, from my conversations with people who are concerned with the spread of turbines across the land, I think that something other than a simple dislike of the appearance of the turbines is causing their apprehension.  Will Self, arguing that in a largely manmade countryside, wind turbines can be seen as the latest, and very fitting, chapter in a long British tradition of landscape management, states that “no-one could reasonably claim they [wind turbines] are objectively ugly”. In many ways, I agree, but I would argue that the visual appearance of a turbine isn’t necessarily the issue here. Rather, the story of turbines in Caithness is linked with issues of power and control, with understandings of what it means to be a community, with current employment opportunities and future tourism potential, and with the heritage of land ownership.

Forss Wind Farm

What do you think? Are the debates about wind farms a storm in a teacup or an environmental controversy with long-term consequences?

And don’t forget, if you have memories of the introduction of electricity into Caithness, post them below or contact me privately with your stories.

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