Maria

clouds over louisianaAway out here they have a name for rain and wind and fire.

The rain is Tess, the fire, Joe, and they call the wind, Maria.

Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe, Paint Your Wagon

We had been in Flagstaff all day, and when we got back to Winslow it was dark. The wind had blown, as it often did in the Arizona desert, and small dunes of sand and silt littered the yard and driveway. When we tried to go inside, the front door wouldn’t open. We went through the garage, and found the house full of red dust. The base of the front door was covered by red dust about four inches deep, and every window sill had its own pile. We were in for a long night of coughing and cleaning.

Friend or Foe?

The wind permeates every aspect of our lives. In the fall, it swirls the leaves in pretty patterns around the yard, and frustrates efforts to corral and collect them. It moves litter around the streets, hanging those white plastic grocery bags in the top-most branches of our trees to annoy us all winter. In the winter it blasts us with chilling cold and adds more peril to driving and just being outside. In the spring, it heralds a new year of growth and greenery, and brings refreshing rain to succor the water-starved plants and animals and remove the grit and grime of winter.

But summer is wind’s playtime. Its thunderstorms are exciting and dangerous, reminding us our our mortality. It energizes sails, kites, whirly-gigs and pin wheels. A summer breeze cools you down and carries the scents of flowers and cut grass, the sounds of children playing, the crack of a bat and the rustle of leaves. Lying in the grass and watching the wind-blown clouds can remind us that, really, all is right with the world.

I became conscious of wind while learning to sail. Of course, sailing is all about learning to use the wind to your advantage, to get it to send you where you want to go. Unfortunately, the wind isn’t always on the same agenda as you, and it can send you to far away places you didn’t want to go. If getting there is half the fun; getting back can be twice the agony.

A beach we visit frequently is long and flat, and usually the wind blows from the north at varying strengths. The twisted trees behind the dunes reveal the constancy and power of the wind. Someone rents beach tricycles at the north end of the beach — low-slung, plastic and somewhat difficult to pedal. Groups rent them and careen down the beach, enjoying racing across the damp sand, trying but failing to complete donuts, and paying no attention at all to the wind at their backs. After a while, having blown quite a ways down the beach and beginning to tire, they consider their return. By then the wind is stronger, and heading into the wind for the return slog to the north is daunting. Luckily, the tricycles are light and not too difficult to carry back. However, the knowing smirks of other beach-goers confirms your obvious lack of planning. It really blows — in a couple of meanings of that word.

Driving around the American west, one of the constants is the windmill, standing alone in the middle of the prairie, turning to the breeze and bringing up water to keep the dusty cattle or sheep or goats alive.

Another icon is the barbed-wire fence. Some sag and tilt, reflecting years of service. Their wooden posts often rot in place, providing homes for insects and means of escape for the stock. Other fences are newer, use steel posts and taut wire that stretches great distances. Both provide resting places for birds and a perch for hawks and owls looking for prey. The wind carries the ubiquitous tumbleweed, famous in legend and song, only as far as the nearest fence. They pile up, creating walls of tangled brush that can pull over a weak fence in a high wind. Ranchers come along with homemade flamethrowers, burning the mass of invasive weeds conveniently collected by the wind. It’s too late, however, to prevent the spread of the tumbleweed seed that has already been scattered across the pasture by the complicit wind.

The wind can be incessant, driving man and animals to seek shelter and respite. Cattle will drift downwind in a blizzard only to mass up against any fences they come across. In the midst of a windstorm, it is not hard to imagine the thoughts of those early homesteading women who were driven insane by it, living their lives in sod houses in desolate land, far from neighbors and friends, no hope for better conditions — just the ever-present wind and dust and dirt.

Too, the wind carries the scent and smells of life on the prairie. Insects can detect and follow the scent of blooming flowers, and buzzards can taste the scent of carrion from miles away. Wind can also carry the smell of smoke great distances to wary travelers or enemies, and spread the scent of hunters to potential prey – as well as the reverse.

Catch the Wind?

I’ve had occasion to work up at Rocky Flats, a windswept plain abutting Colorado’s Front Range. It is common for massive winds to rake the site, and we were cautioned to park our cars in ways to avoid blowing gravel. Gusts can often reach 100 mph or greater, and car windows are blown out with surprising frequency. They also told us to keep some windows cracked when leaving our cars, since the gusts could create a pressure difference that could blow windows out, not in.

The severity of Rocky Flats wind was known from early times; indeed the wind carried away much of the sand and soil, leaving a rocky surface; hence the name. A wind energy test station was once built to try to capture the wind and evaluate its use for power generation. Huge turbines on massive towers test the designs and efficiencies of various types of wind power generators. However, Rocky Flats isn’t a good place for power generation. The wind is too erratic and the gusts are too great.

Wind power does work where there is a more constant wind, such as on certain ridge lines and at the mouth of some canyons. Sea coasts fit those requirements pretty well, as do the high plains and western deserts. Wind power has been shown to be effective and wind farms are common across the U.S. and in other countries. Siting is a key factor to be able to provide a predictable supply, and as with solar power, wind power is subject to the vagaries of the weather.

Wind turbines in some locations appear to have a significant impact on birds, particularly migration routes. The ridge line that seems ideal for wind turbines may also be the ideal soaring spot for local raptors, other birds, and bats. Impact of both migration routes and bird/bat mortality are being studied, and mitigation measures, if necessary, may be defined in the future.

The use of wind power within communities may create problems with noise and visibility, primarily aesthetic issues. Use by individuals may also create administrative difficulties with connection to the power grid. The ability of wind systems to provide continuous, consistent power is uncertain, and they are most likely to be effective in concert with other systems. If wind power is to be a large part of our future power supply these concerns will need to be effectively addressed.

Meanwhile, the wind blows as it will, ignoring our puny efforts to capture it.

Maria blows the stars around, And sends the clouds a’flyin.’
Maria makes the mountains sound Like folks were up there dying.

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