Whispering giants: Wind farms are good for the world but hard on the heart. A lover of wilderness reshapes her own instinct for beauty
November 2, 2012
It is pale dawn and I am climbing steadily up through wet chilly bracken and across patches of sheep-cropped green grass. As I get higher, long views of peat moorland open around me: up and down, green and gold and beige and brown. I can see no houses (there are only 10 in the surrounding 30 square miles — a widely dispersed community). Occasionally, I catch silver glimpses of the little river or of the single-track unfenced road that struggles up from the coast, through the village seven miles down the valley, over the watershed, and across into the next valley.
I am walking up to Arecleoch, the fourth largest wind farm in Scotland, but for the moment it is hidden by the rising ground in front of me and, briefly at least, the valley feels restored to the empty beauty that brought me here. This walk is part of a three-year struggle to resolve the issue that wind farms have forced upon me: how do we choose between two virtues, between beauty and justice in this instance? Working on the theory that knowledge breeds love and that writing clarifies thought, I keep coming back — physically and in writing — to the wind farms: to why they have created such a conflict and, more crucially, what I can do about it.
I came to live in this upland valley in south-west Scotland because it was so beautiful to me. I recognise that moorland is not always regarded as beautiful and does not fit either of the two culturally favoured aesthetics: the ‘sublime’ (the ferocious wildness of the Highlands, for example) and the ‘lovely’ (the lush green meadows and ancient woodlands of the Cotswolds). You might say the vertical or the horizontal, rather than anything in between. Given the classical association of beauty with symmetry this makes sense, but it is a small palette relative to what is available. Moorland beauty is neither of these; it is too gently curved to be sublime and too austere to be lovely.
I came here to live alone in the huge hush that is both visual and aural and is, to me, exceptionally beautiful
It is the beauty of emptiness in part, of featurelessness. Of course it has ‘features’ really: it has the river, little and playful; there are sea trout, water voles and, they say, otters, although I have never seen one. It has lichen-patched dry stone dykes, many of them now in disrepair, and ruined ghost walls running away up the hillsides. It has greened fields — areas of hard-won, drained and stone-cleared pasture. There is a complicated variety of Neolithic remains — barrows, field systems and standing stones, easily confused with the even older erratic boulders left by the retreating ice of the last glaciation and the newer heaps of stone hauled out of the cultivated fields. There are the farm steadings and the ruined abandoned houses. There is a railway line — a single track that carries the Glasgow trains down to Stranraer where there is no longer a ferry-crossing to Belfast. There is an extensive tangled cat’s cradle of cables.
Inevitably, there is also the forestry, both great swathes of it and a series of ‘pepper-pot plantations’ — the little rectilinear patches of conifers that were such a cunning tax-avoidance wheeze in the 1970s. And all these are in addition to the more subtle ‘natural features’: chunks of extrudant granite; the complex patterning of reed beds, rough grass, bracken, heather, sphagnum moss and sheep-shorn lawn; low clumps of sallows, gnarled old hawthorns, a few neglected coppiced hazels. There is a rich flora, including sheets of orchids, bog asphodel and meadowsweet in season, and some good bird life, although nothing particularly impressive or unique. It does not amount to a site of ‘exceptional natural beauty’ in most people’s book. Nonetheless, I find it heart-wrenchingly beautiful.
The valley does have one notable and distinctive characteristic: it has an exceptional ‘soundscape’. It is not silent in the pure sense that an acoustic chamber, say, or a desert on a windless night are silent. Rather, it is ‘hushed’, and such sound as there is comes from a complex relationship between the various elements of the open, broken land. Like a piece of music compared to a painting, a soundscape is more fluid and varying than a landscape. It is more seasonal, because the migratory birds come and go: the haunting, bubbling call of the curlew is heard only between mid-March and high summer; and the distinctive, almost mechanical ‘chip-chip-chip’ of the invisible grasshopper warbler only between May and July. Because of a phenomenon called ‘attenuation’, the way sounds resonate and carry is different in hot and cold, and in wet and dry, weather. But in the soundscape here, the background noise is so minimal — neither waterfalls nor motorways — that each identifiable sound is distinct and laid onto a sort of murmur or breath which is flowing water and teasing wind, rising, singing, pouring through the day: silence made audible, made musical, if indescribable.
In The Great Animal Orchestra, Bernie Krause defines soundscape by breaking it down into ‘geophony’ — the sounds made by the physical environment (wind, water, etc); ‘biophony’ — the sounds made by animals, birds and insects; and ‘androphony’ — the sounds made by human activities. A soundscape is the interaction and balance of these factors, based on a pretty much correct assumption that there is never absolute silence. Here on the moorland, we have a delicate soundscape that is unusually ‘geophonic’ because we have so much water and wind, but no trees and very little ‘androphony’, even in the distance. To those who listen and care, this is notably pleasing.
The soundscape is important to me, partly because I came here seeking silence in the first place, and is certainly one of the things that makes this place so beautiful. However, I am aware that this is very much a minority concern. Currently our response to nature is almost entirelyvisual. We barely have a language to discuss the aural. So much is this the case that the Environmental Impact Assessment, which planners now require for many kinds of development, does not take seriously any aesthetic criteria except the visual. The EIA guidelines on noise are deeply confused; changes to the quality (as opposed to the quantity) of sound are never mentioned as grounds for rejecting a proposal. And the source of the sounds seems to be regarded as irrelevant. A chaffinch in your garden, or a waterfall, or beach nearby might be considerably noisier than a motorway a mile off, but still be more pleasing, or less disturbing of the peace…