One major aspect of Romanticism that draws me to it over and over is the deep and ever intense experience of we feel at the vast and powerful places in our landscapes that leave us feeling in awe of nature and – perhaps – at the whim of it. This quality is called the sublime, and is a feeling of some perpetual study in aesthetics and, whether it be spiritual or artistic, I find myself returning to works over and over that tangle with the immensity of nature.
It was with a jolt of familiarity that the work of John Pfahl first caught my attention. I grew up in the central Florida lands, with a father that worked for nuclear power plants in Crystal River and all across the country. He still does today. These images are at once striking and reminiscent of places well-known to me.
In the artist statement for the series Power Places, Pfahl states, “power plants in the natural landscape represent only the most extreme example of man’s willful domination over the wilderness. It is the arena where the needs and ambitions of an ever-expanding population collide most forcefully with the finite resources of nature.” In them, I see the power plants subjugated to mostly secondary roles in their compositions, with much of the focus paid to their wild surroundings. In many cases, the landscapes are picturesque, as many of the plants require either rivers or lakes to power turbines or cool reactors. Interestingly, the power of the landscape here is both innate in its natural resources and, as Pfahl has captured, able to be dominated to a point of industrial conflict. Which is more powerful, the landscape and its sublime qualities, or the literal energy that is exported from its power plant?
This work then reminded me of a backlash in the mid 2000s from a sector of the American public regarding the proposal of offshore wind energy installations. The United Kingdom, Denmark, and Germany lead the world in offshore wind farming, but the United States has still failed to catch up with this new arena of wind energy. One compelling reason may be the aesthetic qualities of our coasts. Many people find their views and enjoyment of beaches would be obstructed by wind turbines, which extend above the surface of the ocean and are typically installed in a grid pattern. Some of these arguments come from wealthy coastal homeowners who have a stake in what happens to their views. Other arguments include the fear of bird kills, or protecting the “natural area” of proposed sights. Some other concerns about offshore wind energy are the unknowns regarding how the presence of the farm will affect marine life in the area.
All of these arguments are valid and of course, should be explored. I still cannot help but think of the hundreds of other, lesser seen places in America that are providing this resource every day on land. Wind farms have been growing in the Midwest, where energy from the turbines can be harvested and fed into the grid. Many of these farms are in what some people call “the fly-over states,” because the vast area of midland between the East and West coast is full of states like North and South Dakota, Montana, Nebraska, and other places that seem easy to forget. But these are the places full of sublimity: miles of plains, badlands, and rushing rivers, national parks and snow-capped peaks. These are picture-perfect sites, and the gas stations sell postcards with their fields of grain and their fields of wind turbines.
But I digress back to the beautiful ocean views. Let’s not forget momentarily what it means to anoint something with the power of the sublime. Soon, we may have too much ocean at our coastal doorsteps, and the view we would have had in 2005 won’t mean much in 2030. Taking steps now to reduce our use of fossil fuels is a step that means we are protecting these sacred vistas. Renewable energy protects what we value most, and in the work of John Pfahl, we can see the “power” play second fiddle to the intensity and glory of nature.
John Pfahl, Power Places:
Jeremy Firestone, Willett Kempton, Public opinion about large offshore wind power: Underlying factors, Energy Policy, Volume 35, Issue 3, March 2007, Pages 1584-1598.