How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Cape Wind

Spoiling Walden: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Cape Wind
Henry David Thoreau, the Gulf oil spill, and me

Editor’s note: It’s been 10 years since a proposal was submitted to build America’s first offshore wind farm in Nantucket Sound off Cape Cod. The federal government finally approved the project earlier this year, although court battles continue to delay construction. After a decade of division, our contributing editor shares his personal journey of acceptance. This article is r eprinted with the permission of the author. It ran originally in the NRDC magazine "On Earth."

Let's start with love. A good place to start, yes? In this case love of a place and love of a book. The book is Walden by Henry David Thoreau, which I read as a young man, and the place is Cape Cod, or, more specifically, the East Dennis beaches I have been coming to since I was very young. My love of those beaches is, at first, a young man’s love, but later it grows into something deeper. Inspired in part by Thoreau’s book, I move there after college and work part-time as a carpenter while writing my own first book. Though I have now lived all over the country, it is still the first place I think of when people mention "home." It is my Walden and Cape Cod Bay is my Walden Pond.

So of course when someone -- a businessman no less -- suggests that he wants to place 130 wind turbines -- bird-killing turbines! -- in Nantucket Sound off the shores of my Walden, I react with outrage. Not in my backyard? Not in my backyard! This is a sacred place, a place apart, and if this is a sacred place then these wind turbines are, as I tell anyone who will listen, a desecration.

I cling to this position for years, holding tight, but then, gradually, my grip starts to loosen. Some things happen, some things change. The story of those things, those happenings and changes, is the story of my wind journey.

One thing I do is to move away from Cape Cod, and so I start seeing the place I still consider home from a distance, from arm’s length, while at the same time seeing how that place connects to others. Another thing I do is start to travel extensively, reporting for an environmental magazine. I visit Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, which seems like driving onto Cape Cod a hundred years ago, until I reach a city called Sydney Mines. The city looks like it has been cracked open and had its insides sucked out, which it turns out, is pretty much what happened. In Mike’s Place Pub & Grill, I talk to a local man named Keith who tells me the story of the town’s glory years, when it supplied coal for much of Canada, and of the depths to which the town fell after the coal was gone.

"The coal was gone and they had taken everything out of the town. Where it had beenwall-to-wall with people on a Saturday night you suddenly couldn’t find anyone. Maybe a stray dog and a single taxi. A ghost town."

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His eyes drooped as if in sympathy with the town. His voice sounded beautiful, his accent vaguely Irish.

"There were no jobs, you see. Other than funeral directors. There was a big call for those."

The more I travelled, the more I found men like Keith and places like Sydney Mines. Places hollowed out and then deserted. I began to think more, not just about beautiful places, but about what we extract from them. This culminated last summer when I travelled along the Gulf Coast during the height, or depths, of the BP oil spill. There I found the most intense juxtaposition of beauty and energy as I spent mornings birdwatching -- seeing roseate spoonbills and ibises -- near Halliburton Road and oil refineries, or spent a night out in a fish camp, a few hundred yards from a fringe of marsh that appeared burned, but was, in fact, oiled.

The place was stunningly beautiful, and for the Cajun fishermen I met, like Ryan Lambert, it was their Walden. But it was also slathered in the substance that we all use to power our lives. The Gulf has been called "a national sacrifice zone," and it seemed to have been sacrificed so that the rest of us could keep on living the way we live. I thought to myself: this place is connected to Cape Cod. Not metaphorically, but literally, by its waters.

And I thought, because I could not help but think of it, of energy. Where we get our energy from and how we pay for it, in the broadest sense. As a birdwatcher, I know that every animal is required to do the math of energy in its own way, and humans, whatever we may think, are not exempt. It was Thoreau, our patron saint of frugality, who created the initial ledger sheet, the personal math that many of us have begun to think about again during these difficult times, the calculus of our own input and output. In Walden he did his figuring right there on the page for us. Here is how much I spent and here is what I gained. It is the same math that animals rely on instinctively when they hunt. By Thoreau’s reasoning, human lives, like the lives of other animals, require a strict mathematical relationship with energy, its gains and losses, its conservation and squandering.

Years ago, on Cape Cod, I had been quick to embrace, and mimic, Thoreau’s love of nature but slow to hear his sterner message of personal responsibility. I rationalized this by saying that I preferred Thoreau the celebrator to Thoreau the preacher. But in the Gulf I found myself returning to the other, stricter Thoreau. His relationship with energy was simple but profound: instead of just focusing on getting more, he limited his input and refined his output.

As I travelled through the Gulf, I also thought back to a meeting I’d had two summers before. A friend had put me in touch with Jim Gordon, the president of Cape Wind, and we met for lunch in Hyannis before driving out to one of the beaches that would face out toward the hundred-plus turbine towers that would make up the wind farm. The beach was crammed with people, umbrellas sprouting and kids running this way and that, and once we got to the shore we looked out past kids on inflatable rafts and roaring Jet Skis and powerboats to where the towers would stand on the horizon. One of the arguments that wind opponents have made is that putting wind turbines out in this water would be like putting them in the Grand Canyon. Jim, consciously or not, was using this beach as both prop and stage, and the message was clear: this ain’t the Grand Canyon.

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The question many have asked is: does having a wind farm out on the horizon detract from that elemental experience of the beach? The argument that Jim Gordon was making, without saying a word, was that this experience was already limited enough, and that the site of blades blowing in the breeze was not going to detract from it one iota.

Now Jim held up his thumb against the horizon.

"From here the turbines will be six or seven miles out. They’ll be about as big as my thumbnail."

This, of course, was another big point of contention. How big would they really look from the shore? And what would it mean for Cape Codders to look out at their theoretically wild waters and see what would be, for all its techno grace, an industrial site? While I had deep sympathy with the aesthetic point of view, it was hard to argue that windmills that would appear a few inches tall on the horizon would ruin the place’s wildness.

And with what Jim said next, he almost won me over entirely. "We need to connect the dots," he said.

Connect the dots. Wasn’t that what Thoreau had tried to do? Wasn’t that the definition of ecology?

"We would barely see the turbines from here, but maybe we should see them," he continued. "It’s what we can’t see that’s killing us. Like the particle emissions from the power plant in Sandwich. And the oil being shipped to run that plant."

He shook his head and stared out at the horizon where his windmills would turn. "Maybe it’s not such a bad idea for us to see just where our energy is coming from," he said.

I nodded. At the time my thoughts on wind power were still in flux. But with this I could not disagree. I still was, and still am, worried that migrating birds might run into the turbines. A million birds a night migrate over the Cape during the fall migration, and I fret that by supporting wind I am becoming an avian Judas. But it is a time of tough choices.

"Do you know the windfarms will kill more birds in a year than were killed during the whole Gulf disaster?" a wind opponent said to me recently. This "statistic," of course, hinges on a very narrow definition of bird fatalities. My accuser was not thinking of habitat destruction and warming, and the whole host of other consequences of the rabid pursuit of oil. Meanwhile, Jim Gordon’s camp claims that the slow-moving and well-lit turbines should prove less of a threat to birds than most tall buildings.

I am not sure of that. What I am sure of is that there are no more Waldens, or, more accurately, if there are Waldens then they are all interconnected. Cape Cod has been called "a place apart." I am writing this from Cape Cod right now, and I understand what the phrase means: the land of this fragile ex-peninsula is very specific to itself, and when you come here, and cross the bridge, you leave other places behind and enter a place like nowhere else.

But I can no longer use this term to describe the Cape. It is not apart from the fragile Louisiana fish camp where I spent the night, oil lapping nearby, and it is not apart from Sydney Mines. Each place in this threatened world, separate but connected, must now make an accounting, keep its own ledger sheet with a cold and honest eye. We hold onto our pristine place by sacrificing other places. I hear that up in Nova Scotia, where I visited Sydney Mines, they are proposing power plants that will take advantage of the massive tides. I hope they do and I support it. I also support Jim Gordon and his wind farm. There is no place apart.

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