We set out from Marfa one recent Tuesday at a predawn hour so raw that only ghosts were awake, our truck rolling eastward with a mare bound for a distant vet appointment. It was too early for many words. As the featureless dark country spilled past, a syncopated spray of red lights appeared near Iraan, blinking not quite in unison from hidden hillsides. Wind turbines, we surmised, and by the time we entered Schleicher County, dozens of them gently greeted us at sunrise, their arms turning slow-motion cartwheels against the sky.
Looking at them, it’s hard to know which to prefer: the sleek, mesmerizing giant turbines or their spindly ancestors, the ambitious, hard-pedaling windmills that first sprang up in the American West in the nineteenth century. Their functions are different, but they are equally useful. The turbines use wind to generate electricity, while the more diminutive windmills harness it to draw underground water to the surface. Yet they populate similar territory and, to function, require only blowing air, of which Texas has a great deal. The turbines provoke a stir for their enormity and exoticism. Windmills, though, have been so ubiquitous in our landscape that they are almost invisible, like a barbed-wire fence tends to disappear as you drive along. As cities eat up open country for housing developments and box stores, I suspect windmills are becoming fewer. In contrast, the number of wind turbines is on the rise, with almost 17,000 in Texas so far, producing more wind power than all but three countries in the world.
Somewhere past Elm Grove we pulled to the side of the road, alarmed by a staccato thumping that developed below the hood. Six heavyweight Angus bulls in a nice stand of grama grass regarded us from their side of a fence. My husband propped open the hood with a baseball bat, peered at and under the engine, then disappeared beneath the truck with a bag of zip ties and a roll of duct tape he’d brought for the trip, just in case. He is a genius.
It was a fine place to wait, the agreeable kine slapping their tails at flies and the mare in her trailer, nibbling hay. In the pasture stood a windmill, spinning in workmanlike fashion. Sometimes you’ll see windmills with their brakes on, stilled, perhaps a sign that the storage tank is full or that a solar-powered submersible pump, which uses the sun instead of wind to do the work of pulling up the water, has been installed. When I was a child, windmills were common, and it’s pleasing that plenty like this one still dot our country places. Three are visible from our porch back home, the farthest of which is but a slight mark against the sky, more the suggestion of a thing than the thing itself; a fourth, which I admire for the sharp silhouette it cuts against a fiery sunset, is just beyond our neighbor’s hillside.
I’ve never been close enough to wind turbines to speak of how they sound, but windmills, as they spin, sing a sort of song. They groan and clink and sigh according to the force of the wind and the tinman state of their various parts. When our son was a boy, we passed the time on trips by keeping count of windmills standing solitary in their fields and prairies. Their larger cousins, the newfangled wind turbines, would’ve been a gas to count, or try to, for they are grouped in forests of their own kind—too many to number aloud as we speed past and our son now too old for such pursuits and living far away.
Our truck fixed and the noise quieted, we continued eastward, dropped off the horse, and found a place to stay and sleep. My mother would turn 92 the following day, and we would see her, with a dime-store tiara in her hair. When, after dinner, the staff where she lives emerged singing and bearing a piece of cake with her name, she looked at them with unmasked delight and astonishment. I thought of windmills. For her, for us, the days are spinning faster. There is nothing to do for it but bear witness to joy when it arrives. Out in their pastures, ignorant of frailty and fueled by an unseen force, the windmills will keep beating their own relentless time.
This article originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “When the Wind Blows.” Subscribe today.