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Spoiling Walden: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Cape Wind

image of David Gessner
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.

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 been wall-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."

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.

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.

image of David Gessner
David Gessner is the author of eight books, including My Green Manifesto and The Tarball Chronicles, both of which grew out of reporting for OnEarth. He has won the John Burroughs award for best natural history essay, taught environmental writing at ... READ MORE >
David Gessner for President, definitely a few members of Cape Wind in the cabinet. Who is really protecting our natural legacy? Is it the responsible agencies and their partners funded by the government? Is it the industries whose commercials swearing alliegance to everything worth a slogan with their hard hats on sounding uber serious and concerned? Is it the industries sucking the life out of the ocean for its mile deep rock and minerals while fish migrate to odd places and grow extra legs? It's the writers and the environmentalists who advocate the truth and the solutions. Whether or not we listen, they make us think, and in doing so, further the possibility that alternatives like offshore wind deserve a place in the sun and on the water wherever the wind blows best. As long as writers keep telling the truth, we have a counter to exploitation and misrepresentation holding up our future. Run David run - with Jim Gordon on the ticket
Dear Mr Gessner, Thank you for your article, and welcome to "our side". As a born Cape Codder (Chatham, many Novembers ago) who also loves & has taught Thoreau, I have supported Cape Wind for many of the reasons you now support it. The energy status quo has far too many externalities, and I am glad you recognize those huge costs imposed on all of us. The damn thing about externalities is that while we pay for them, it doesn't show up on out electric bill. We will be paying for the Gulf oil disaster for many decades to come. Harvard Medical and Cornell Medical & Duke University professors have issued research reports this year indicating that the status quo (oil, natural gas, nukes) have huge costs not reflected in our electrical bill--costs that make them as expensive as renewable energy. In the few days that have passed since you wrote your article the EPA has reported that fracking has polluted drinking water supplies. Today, there are reports that fracking is associated with earth tremors in formerly stable areas of Pennsylvania. Who could have predicted that high pressure injections of toxic waste could cause a problem?? Re: your "capitalist" comment about Jim Gordon. You may have missed my favorite anti-wind quote, from the Koch (born an oil & coal billionaire, funder of astroturf political movements) brother appointed co-chair of the Alliance to Protect Our View: "I am here to save you from the greedy capitalists". I like capitalists, & I like Jim Gordon without ever having met the man. If capitalists like Gordon can help save us from the status quo. more power to them, and more clean power to us. Thanks.
Funny, In Arizona, its the spoiled view(look) of the tiled roofs, if you install solar panels. ha.. So, what did I do:
You are making this sound like they are just throwing this out in a random body water and people are just throwing a fit cause its ruining their view. Thats ridiculous and careless. The specific body of water they want to build the wind farm sits directly between Cape Cod, Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard. There is an enormous amount of traffic and recreational use. This isnt just a random bit of ocean that people are putting up fuss about. For you, Cape Wind amounts to a half an inch on the horizon, so you dont understand the threat. After all your "Walden Pond" is Cape Cod Bay which is across 10 miles of land to the north of Cape cod. The beach you grew up on about isnt even on the body of water they are planning on building the wind farm?!?! For the people who lives are directly connected and actively use the area where the the turbines will be, they stand 248 feet tall. But you have made a point that for people looking from a distance everything seems inconsequential. And i think thats the problem when people start throwing around the NIMBY argument. I think the people of Cape Cod should have a say in where specifically this wind farm lands. A few miles south would make a huge difference.. but apparently the spot they chose is the only place the wind farm could be which really makes me wonder how promising of a new energy source this is if the Nantucket sound is ONLY location it can be.. if that's the case its not a promising energy source,.... but Im betting my money it can be built in a different location, it just would not be as profitable for Cape Wind, and that what's frustrating about this.
Is Cape Wind building where they are because it can bring them the most energy for their money? Of course they are. However, its not simply a matter of them turning the best profit. It's really being able to provide energy at costs that are competitive with fossil fuel energy sources. If they were to choose a less efficient location, yes they would still be producing electricity and probably lots of it. But if the reduced production there means that they need twice as long to pay back their investors, or that electricity prices will be twice that of a coal fired power plant, how can they be expected to go through with the project at all? There are so many issues behind Cape Wind from wildlife interference, to tribal rights, but in the end, isn't manmade climate change a far bigger threat? Think about how the Nantucket Sound's sense of place will be affected if ocean acidification means that there will be no fish in the sound and sea levels rise 5 meters. You wont be around to see it, but if you're really for the preservation of places, there are bigger fishes to fry.
I understand what your trying to say, and believe you've made a good point concerning the longevity of our environment but I am still weary of the wind farms being a realistic energy source... As you said, how could they go through with this if building in a different spot means less efficiency and twice the cost as that of coal energy? Thats my point! They couldn't!! So if the Nantucket sound is the only place this is going to work where do we go from here? That just tells me that Wind Farms are not going to be apart of the future of energy in the US... 20 years from now it may very well be a dead industry. Do we destroy another beautiful area with a technology that has already been around for decades but hasn't caught on? There are already TENS OF THOUSANDS ABANDONED WIND FARMS ACROSS THE US... What happened there? Yes, Cape Wind is supposed to be responsible for clean up.But will they really? This is a company that hid the true costs of what this will cost MA taxpayers until after the got their approval. What's left to hide? I think the idea of wind farms is cool. And aesthetically when they are brand new they look kind of cool too. I'm a little weary of the noise... How loud are they really? Fog horns all night long? ... But my biggest fear is the presence of an industry who once all the papers are signed will not give a real damn about anybody who lives here... I don't believe turbines (as they are now) are hear to stay and and more likely than not wont be here in 25 years and when it fails Cape wind is not going to be able to afford to dismantle I think we're at the dawn of some pretty amazing advances in technology and renewable energy and there are promising alternatives starting to take shape... I think investing in a wind farm now is like buying a 20 Disc CD player the year IPods came out.
Correction-- tens of thousands of abandoned turbines not farms
I came around to this idea myself from a different perspective, more of a practical one. 70% of the surface of this planet is covered by water and we live on land. If all we are looking for is a place to put stationary objects, like wind turbines, why not put them offshore? When you consider that in nature, the boundaries are where the action is (think of tide lines or river banks, anywhere two unlike surfaces/area meet), it's no surprise winds are more plentiful off the coasts. Why not use them? I was surprised to read that a proponent of a plan like this would argue for making them visible but I agree with his reasoning. Yes, we should know and be reminded of the choices we make. I have wondered why no one has put together a plan to make floating power collectors/generators that would be portable and expandable. Many years ago, the city of Tacoma was powered by the newly-christened carrier Lexington, as she was built as a massive generator. What if we followed that idea and built floating platforms with turbines and solar cells that could be connected together or floated to places where they were needed? If we can build oil rigs and other off-shore structures, surely this isn't too great a challenge. At one time, there was a proposal to make floating nuclear power stations which, in the wake of the disaster in Japan, might have some merit. A floating station would be immune to earthquakes, would have unlimited access to cooling water, and if it really got hairy, could be towed far away from any population center. But for now, wind and solar power would be a good start. As for the idea of turbines killing birds, I have looked into this and from what I can tell, more birds are killed by cats than by turbines. Tall buildings in our cities kill more birds than turbines. I'm a fan of birds and an opponent on unintended consequences but I really wish we could confine these issues to verifiable facts. Maybe there are ways to divert birds around these installations, perhaps a sound or light signal that will warn them. But first, let's be honest about the risk.
I always get a bit peeved when Thoreau gets used in this way. He would be appalled, but possibly not surprised, at our entire lifestyle. In Walden, Thoreau argues against the installation of indoor plumbing. Trying to resolve his point of view to a debate over wind farm vs. power plant is, at best, fraught. If you want to force people to *see* where their power is coming from, then the emphasis should be on developing that power quite literally in their own backyard. Stick a turbine in the middle of your manicured lawn. Cover your faux-traditional cottage roof in solar panels. But don't shove a bunch giant turbines into the ocean floor.
Right on, Matt! You've hit upon the answer! Distributed (and local) power is the only way to go!
It's quite possible that the ecological impacts of offshore wind will extend beyond just the living things that fly above the water. It's very important to take into account, collect data on, study....the probable ecological impacts to things living IN the water, under the water, etc. It is also important to consider the impact on coastal ecology. All of these interconnected ecological systems need to be taken into account. If it turns out that, on balance, offshore wind makes sense, it needs to be done in ways that consider the health of ecological systems not immediately apparent to humans.