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Something in the Air

In Marfa, winter, spring, summer, and fall are joined by a fifth season—wind.

By February 2016Comments

Photograph by James H. Evans

My husband and I were out of sorts with each other one Sunday not long ago, sniping churlishly back and forth about something insignificant. This is not like us at all; we rarely disagree or even bicker. During a pause in the action, we glared at each other across the kitchen table. Michael nodded slowly, recognition dawning across his face. “I know what this is really about,” he said. “It’s the dang wind.”

He was right. Out here, living on Marfa’s vast, nearly treeless plain, the wind is both friend and enemy. In the balmy summer, the breeze is a welcome visitor, a kind entity that preludes a late-day thundershower or dries the sweat worked up from mowing the lawn, playing third base, or shoeing a mare. Just a little breath from the wind shimmies the cottonwood’s leaves prettily. On the flat near Valentine, slender dust devils skim and twist across the desert floor. Turkey vultures kettle in the thermals, giving a shape to the wind that can be felt but not seen. In its benevolence, a flutter of wind might sail through the window screens and slam shut the front door, or cool a sunny afternoon picnic taken by the pool at Balmorhea. Now, that’s a friendly wind.

There are other, more pugnacious instances of wind. Marfa enjoys a short spring, a long, light-filled summer, a lovely autumn, some bitter cold winter nights, and then, lumped in with late winter and spring—which is to say, right now—there is a fifth season, dedicated to wind. While a big wind can descend in any month, the windy season typically revs up in February and huffs, puffs, and howls all the way to the start of May. Not every one of those days will be windy, but lots of them will be, all day long, sometimes for several days at a stretch. Our particular wind pattern is because of something called the Marfa Dry Line, where dry desert air surges down from the Rockies to meet warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico. The dissimilar air masses collide here and, poof, we get wind.

Days in the windy season start out calm, but by mid-morning it’s blowing fitfully, and by mid-afternoon things are really gusting along. Generally, when the sun drops, so does the wind. Not always, though. I recently opened the kitchen door to find my neighbor on the porch. He’d worked two weeks without a day off, long twelve-hour days outside wrestling with cattle, horses, and machinery. Finally, a Saturday arrived when he could sleep in, but an early-morning windstorm apparently loosened a flap of tin on our barn. We couldn’t hear it bang-bang-banging from our house, but the neighbors sure could. “I’ve got these real good long anchor bolts if Michael wants them,” our neighbor offered sweetly. “I’ll even come over and give him a hand with that, if he needs.”

Prolonged wind becomes tiresome, as evidenced by my own domestic spat, or even crazy-making, as Texas writer Dorothy Scarborough astutely observed in The Wind, her 1925 novel. The wind curls around buildings and choruses in off-putting minor keys. It snatches hats from heads, scatters the mail on the truck’s dash upon opening the door, and sends dust, a great deal of dust, into the air, where it diminishes the view and, regardless of vigilant housekeeping, lands in a fine film inside.

Genuine care must be taken handling gates and trailer doors in wind, for they can rip from your grasp in a gust and wallop someone senseless. In town, dumpster lids fly open, loosing trash into the alleys. Cartwheeling tumbleweeds acquire grocery bag sashes; prickly pears wear Styrofoam cups impaled on their spines. Marfa in February can seem drab, brown, and sad, through no fault of its own.

The wind will sap the cheerfulness right out of a person. It is provocative and searches the body for vulnerable, unprotected crannies. Any outside project becomes markedly more difficult. Roofing, fencing, painting—it’s all going to be lousy. “I’d much rather work in cold than any wind,” a ranching friend told me. “I hate the wind. I can’t stay warm while the wind is blowing, and then if my feet get cold, I’m done.” Wind brings out contrariness in another friend. Joey is an avid cyclist, for whom it’s routine to ride even on the windiest days. “I love the wind—love it,” he declared one day, his eyes gleaming with passion, or maybe dementia.

Animals cope in their own ways. Cattle turned out in a pasture will swing their woolly rumps windward and carry on. Riding horses in a stiff wind is not a pleasure, as the wind can make them disagreeably jumpy and nervous. Windy days are tough on birds. Once, while we hiked a cliffside trail in Big Bend National Park, a raven flew up next to us. Despite zealous flapping, the bird hung abreast of us in the headwind for several long moments, so close we could have touched him. “That’s a hard day at the office,” Michael said, and the raven cast him a glance before canting its wings and dropping away. Other animals hunker down, waiting it out. The pronghorn that amble regularly in our pasture suddenly disappear, as do the deer. My ranching friend pointed to a Spanish dagger as we bounced along in his truck. “When the wind gets bad, you’ll see that small clump of brush around that dagger and there’s a little bit of an antler sticking out,” he said. “Then the antler becomes two antlers and all of a sudden you realize there’s a whole deer in there and he’s got friends in there with him.”

You can get a general idea of whether it’s windy by looking west, toward Valentine, to check if the aerostat is flying. This squat, tethered blimp—it looks a lot like a giant Goldfish cracker—is part of a drug-interdiction mission overseen by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. In good weather, the aerostat floats serenely in the sky, but a strong wind can hurl it abruptly earthward, so its minders carefully reel it in during big blows.

Often, on fine days with mild to moderate wind, Burt Compton’s sleek bright-white sailplane glides overhead. He consults jet-stream data, surface analysis maps, and the Marfa dew-point chart daily to determine whether he can take flight students or sightseers on glider rides above Marfa. Even on days when he has no passengers, Compton will go up alone. “We’re hunting the thermal updrafts,” he said. “Cumulus clouds mark the thermals, so when we see a cloud forming, we go under it and there’s the thermal updraft.” Sailplanes can thus stay aloft for hours, circling one thermal after another. “The adventure in soaring is the unknown and the mystery,” said Compton.

Ranchers, too, depend on wind. Windmills are elegant, simple machines. Pressure from wind spins the sails, which activates gearboxes that make a rod go up and down and pump water from the ground. A pipe deposits the water into storage tanks for livestock. This basic design has not changed since the 1850’s. “Wind is critical for ranching,” said Robert Potts, the president of the Dixon Water Foundation, which owns the holistically managed 11,000-acre Mimms Ranch, near Marfa. “Most of this country didn’t have reliable water before windmills. Open range was all about water holes, and the areas around those got overgrazed. Once we figured out how to drill wells and put in windmills, ranchers were able to graze areas that could not be accessed before. It opened up the land.”

From our house on the edge of town, I can see two windmills. One tops a neighbor’s hillside, perhaps a mile to the northeast, and the other, less distinct in its silhouette, stands on a different neighbor’s land due east. A third windmill pops pleasingly into view just as we crest the hill into town. Long ago, when our son, Huck, was young, Michael and I used to entertain him during car rides by counting windmills as they appeared on the horizon, sometimes between hills, sometimes on a flat and surrounded by idle black cattle, or, often, rising starkly from a ridgeline.

The size of a windmill’s sails gives you an idea about a well’s depth. A big windmill with sails sixteen feet across has a deep well; a smaller mill has a shallower well. Mills are placed according to where the water lies, not according to where the wind blows. Up close, they croak and groan like living beings, their parts alive with motion.

Andy Prude is a windmill man who spends much of his time roaming far West Texas ranch roads, hired by ranchers to fix windmills that have busted in some fashion. He works by himself. Inventiveness and creativity aren’t job requirements, he said. Patience—that’s a necessity.

“Oh, it’s just a lot of hard work, actually,” he said. “Windmills are high maintenance. You get a high wind, it’ll tear a mill up right quick. The wind is very destructive on the sails, the gears, the tower. Windmills are durable, but if you get a little wear on one and the wind gets high, when one part goes, the rest will crater.”

As long as the wind blows, and its machinery is in good form, a windmill pumps water for free. This is a great arrangement, although not quite perfect. Strong winds draw a large volume of water in the windy season, but the wind quiets in summer, when the cattle need extra water. We do have sun, however, another free renewable resource, and lately ranchers are turning to solar units that power electric pumps. Once installed, they’re virtually maintenance-free. Prude said most of the windmills that dot the rangeland have been turned off and replaced with solar.

“People with windmills keep them going as long as they can, and then when it gets too expensive, we go to solar,” said Prude. “There are very few people to work on a windmill anymore. I hate to see them disappear. Times are a-changing.”

The ladder on a windmill’s tower is only a couple of hand-spans wide, and as you climb, the tower narrows. About twenty dizzying feet up is a tiny platform. Two decades of tending windmills, hundreds of them, has worn away any fear Prude ever had about standing atop a mill’s spindly tower, where he’s alone with the wind. “From the top of a windmill that’s on top of a mountain,” he said, “I can see miles and miles.” For now, the working mills still spin and groan. The wind sputters and gusts, exhales and draws its breath, at once everywhere and then not at all.

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