A Cape Cod Notebook 4/29/08

listenMountain Wind

By Robert Finch

Last month I took a road trip to West Virginia with my daughter Katy. It was something of an intergenerational, nostalgic journey. Not only did I spend my adolescent years in that mountain stat e, but Katy and I stayed two nights in the lodge at Blackwater Falls State Park, in the heart of the Allegheny Mountains. I last stayed here a half century ago, when our eighth grade class took a field trip into the mountains. The new lodge had just opened, and I remember that we staged a kind of impromptu talent show in the auditorium, where three of my classmates and I lip-synched to a recording of the hit of the day, "Little Darlin'." I don't remember much else from that earlier trip except the sight of the falls itself: the Blackwater River thunderously cataracting over ledges of limeston e and sandstone at the bottom of a 1,000 foot deep canyon. It is one of the most beautiful and stirring natural sights in all of Appalachia.

On this trip both the lodge and the park seemed little changed. A light blanket of snow lay on the ground, and the falls was full of snowmelt and recent rain run-off. The water shattered on the ledge s below, coating the dark hemlock boughs and the leafless deciduous branches with an icy jewelry.

There are exhibits of the park's history and origins in the lodge now. In one large photograph, take n in 1912, the whole canyon looked like a war zone. Its ridges, slopes and valleys had been denuded, the forests clear cut for the pulp wood industry, the hills strip-mined for coal, the landscape left des olate, scarred, and poisoned. As journalist Harry Caudill put it in 1963, "Coal has always cursed the land in which it lies." But less than a century later, the land had healed itself. To uninformed eyes, it mi ght have seemed always to have looked this way: a ravishing natural landscape.

There was another change in the landscape as well, and my reaction to it surprised me. From the window of our room at the lodge we could see, on the ridge beyond the park boundaries, a line of windmills - at least two dozen of them - modern, industrial, three-bladed, electricity generating windmills similar to those being proposed in Nantucket Sound. From a distance they looked like toy windmills, but I knew they were several hundred feet tall and stretched across miles of mountain rid ges. Later we drove up close to them. Certainly theirs is a stark architecture - unadorned steel - and in their starkness somehow menacing. Katy said they reminded her of the alien space ships in War of the Worlds. But there was also something arresting about their motion. The turning of the great blades w as much slower than I had anticipated and somehow - I could not deny it - graceful and even beautiful. Each turned at a slightly different speed from its neighbors, giving the impression of an asymmetric al ballet. It was mesmerizing.

I don't know what the local controversy about these windmills is here - or if there even is one. I don't know what environmental benefits or hazards they are said to provide. I don't even know how seeing these structures up close has affected my own feelings about the Cape Wind Project in Nantucket Sound, which are mixed. I only know that, compared to the past pillaging of the land here - among th e remaining hill farms, abandoned slag heaps, still-polluted creeks, and deserted river towns - these great, silent, turning wheels in the sky seemed a reconciliation and a benediction on the land.