Jerry Nelson: Living with wind
Wind is a constant source of botheration in this part of the world.
I’m not just talking about the kind of wind that can arise from consuming a questionable gas station burrito. While that type of wind can be a major health hazard in enclosed spaces, it’s easily alleviated by going outdoors where the noxiousness is quickly dispersed by the wind.
The movie “Paint Your Wagon” includes the song “They Call The Wind Mariah.” I have never heard anyone out here on the wind-swept prairie be anywhere near that benevolent when it comes to naming the wind. Folks tend to say things like, “The blankety-blank wind blew my toupee off and the dog thought it was a squirrel and tore it to shreds!” or “That stupid north wind was so strong yesterday that when I drove south I was able to put the car in neutral, but I still had to ride the brakes to stay under the speed limit.”
There’s a good reason that a common saying in these parts goes, “On still days our chickens fall over.”
Tractor cabs hadn’t yet been invented when I was a youngster. Fieldwork had to get done, rain or shine, wind or no wind. And it’s always windy. The tractor’s rear tires brought up loose dirt which the wind used as a sandblasting agent to afflict the operator. By the end of the day, your entire body – including every imaginable orifice – felt gritty and grimy. The post-bathing bathtub looked like a muddy river delta.
While the wind can be vexatious, it can also be a friend. For centuries, farmers have used the wind to pump water. The iconic windmill that every farm once had was more than just a handy item for BB gun target practice, especially the first “o” in the name Aeromotor.
Dad said that when he was a kid, an extended calm spell was something to be dreaded. No wind meant no water, which meant that all of the farm’s water had to be pumped by hand. In other words, it really sucked when the wind didn’t blow.
Mom said that when she was a girl, her father decided to buy a radio. This was long before the advent of rural electrification, so an alternative means had to be found to operate a gizmo that contained a gazillion power-hungry vacuum tubes.
She related that Grandpa solved this problem by installing a small wind generator on the roof of their farmhouse. The generator was wired to a bank of batteries in the basement.
“The batteries could only power the radio for so long,” Mom said, “So we had to wait for Pa to come in from doing chores before we could turn it on. We would all gather around the radio and listen to the news and Jack Benny and ‘The Green Hornet.’”
The radio was their version of the internet. Minus the funny cat videos. And the endless playlist of on-demand music. And the ability to instantly learn about the comical mating antics of the people who live in that peculiar place called Hollywood.
OK, so it was downright primitive. I will never again complain about a sluggish internet connection.
Over the past couple of decades, armies of colossal wind turbines have sprung up on hilltops all across the Midwest. The region that stretches from Texas through North Dakota has been referred to as the Saudi Arabia of wind. This isn’t exactly news to those of us who have walked around in our wind so much that one leg has become longer than the other.
These humungous turbines – I wonder if Don Quixote would have mistaken them for one-legged giants? – have enabled us to harvest the wind and decrease our dependence on energy from foreign sources such as Saudi Arabia.
There are two obvious benefits about using wind turbines to produce electricity. One is that the cost of their fuel (zero) will remain constant. The other is that their fuel supply is pretty much constant.
I recently heard a narrative that I desperately hope is true.
The story goes that a coastal urbanite lady, having driven through this region for her first time, related a glowing report about the area to a friend.
“They take really good care of their cattle out there,” gushed the lady. “They have even put some huge fans on the hilltops. They turn the fans on when it gets hot out so the cows can enjoy a nice, cool breeze!”
Yes, dear urbanite lady, that is exactly what we have done! But sadly, whenever we turn the fans off all of our chickens fall over.