Every summer through out my childhood we drove from Idaho Falls to Denver. My favorite part of the trip was a spot in Wyoming where the horizon filled with a field of stark white objects. They were windmills and as we drove past I strained to see how many blades were turning. Over the last century the windmill played an important roll in our cultivation of the western landscape. Today its place is being renewed.
We’ve all seen the photograph of a windmill silhouetted against the horizon, green fields spilling out around its base. Beginning in the 1850’s the windmill was the most visible mark of our presence in this landscape. Miles from the nearest town or homestead windmills were used to pump water for cattle herds. When horses were the only mode of transportation the task of transporting water between rivers and roaming herds was insurmountable. These simple machines, scattered across the landscape, easily pumped the hundreds of gallons of water needed to satisfy ranging cattle herds.
Windmills made ranching in the west viable. As the land filled with farmers and ranchers, grain silos and water towers sprang up. In the early 1900’s the first power lines went up, drawing great lines through the landscape as they strung together communities and power plants. Modernization of the west began to fill the horizon with humanity’s presence.
Today the old windmills are still there, some in disrepair others still spinning, but they are no longer the dominant object on the horizon. Though the land is still expansive, the vertical evidence of civilization continues to proliferate.
The immensity that drew ranchers here in the 1800’s has attracted a new pioneer. The windmill is back, but instead of pumping water, they spin for power. Here and there on the horizon vast fields of them emerge, three bladed, shockingly white against afternoon thunderclouds, spinning oh-so-slowly in the breeze.
One hundred years ago, homesteaders used the wind to provide the necessary ingredients for their success in this new landscape. What were once an icon of the wild west are now remade into icons of environmental progress. Many of the things that made this landscape perfect for ranching—open spaces, few people, constant gentle winds—are equally important for wind farms.
We change our landscapes to suite our needs. The western landscape of our ancestors is not the same landscape that we see today. Some will pine for the lonely iconic windmill while we further crowd the horizon. But the fields of white windmills have existed as long as I can remember and I have always found them transfixing. We are part of the first generation for whom these are new icons of the American West.