The wind blows a little piece of today into a forgotten homestead

By Jayson Jacoby June 25, 2010 09:30 am

We drove past an abandoned homestead the other day and my wife, Lisa, said that looking at the place made her feel a little sad.

I understand what she means.

It’s hard not to come off a trifle melancholy when you see a pile of weathered wood, crumbling concrete and rusted cans and realize that on some distant day children probably scampered happily around this very patch of ground.

Where today, like as not, you’d end up needing a tetanus shot if you got to messing around.

There are of course quite a number of homesteads in Baker County, and most of them could reasonably be described as abandoned.

And it’s likely that some of the people who did the abandoning were only too happy to be leaving.

This particular encounter wouldn’t have piqued my curiosity except that the homestead in question stands astride what seems to me an intriguing intersection — one which is technological and social as well as geographic.

Within a mile or so of the rotting remnants of the shanty stands a pair of thin metal towers, these being of much more recent origin.

Their purpose is to measure the wind that frequently buffets this high rangeland between the Burnt River and Brownlee Reservoir.

Someone — I don’t know who — is interested in building a wind turbine farm nearby.

I do, however, know who is not involved: Randy Joseph. I figured the towers were his, as I know he wants to build Baker County’s first wind farm later this year, and that his site, which is on public land, is nearby.

But Randy, who lives near Sumpter, told me that the wind-test towers are not his, nor does he know who installed them. The site for his farm, which would consist of six 115-foot-tall towers that combined would make enough electricity to power about 800 homes, is a couple miles away from the place I’m writing about, and a few hundred feet lower in elevation.

Anyway, as Lisa and I looked up at one of the test towers, which is basically an extra-tall flag pole to which anemometers are affixed at various heights, it struck me as passing strange that this place, which apparently is no longer capable of supporting a single family, could soon cool and warm a few thousand people who might live 100 miles away.

And recharge all their iPods.

When I ponder what I think about this I’m plagued by ambivalence.

On the one hand I endorse our fledgling effort to gain something from the gusts besides a speck of grit behind a contact lens.

Yet on the other, it seems to me that we might all fare better, in the long run, were it still possible for one family to live on that homestead and to procure from that little plot of well-tended land all that it needs to prosper.

Even electricity, an amenity which I suspect was not available when the collapsed home was so new the boards still smelled of fresh sap.

Perhaps a single windmill of modest scale, the sort of thing a man and a few of his neighbors could cobble together, is preferable to putting up half a dozen skyscrapers.

I don’t mean to imply here that I yearn for the simplicity of a bygone era.

(Have you ever noticed that although eras tend to be bygone, almost nothing else ever is?)

I quite enjoy living in town, cosseted by all the modern luxuries.

I like that the water flows whenever I twist the faucet, and that when I desire hot water I don’t need a hatchet.

Also I appreciate flush toilets.

Especially when it’s 15 below outside.

Still and all, it seems to me a curious, and possibly deleterious, trend that has brought us to this point.

The people who settled this section of land probably could see from their kitchen window the source of almost everything that sustained them.

The grassy vale that plumped their livestock, the spring-fed stream that nourished their garden, the dark smudge of the fir forests that stoked their stove.

Today the best use of this place, apparently, is to harvest an invisible force and send it to homes which stand out of sight, far beyond the folds of the hills.

Some, I’m sure, would say it’s just as well.

Better to corral most people in the cities and leave the hinterlands unsettled.

There’s something to that notion, I suppose.

I doubt it would count as an improvement if the scraps of this particular homestead were hauled away and in their place rose a new home bristling with satellite dishes and motion-detecting floodlights.

(Although the latter would at least amuse the coyotes.)

Soon enough the rock-strewn road that leads here would be paved, and from there Hillsboro is no great journey.

Or something that looks near enough.

The people who lived on that homestead likely are long dead.

I wonder when they left, and why, and whether they lament their choice.

But most of all I want to ask what they think about the proposals to construct wind farms near where they once toiled.

I’d like to believe they would laugh.

“Well at least,” I imagine them saying, “somebody finally figured out how to do something useful with that infernal wind.”

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.