Autumn has come to the Low Countries, and with it, heavy rains. The ground got good and soaked last night, and as the temperatures dropped, the wet land breathed fog. Urban areas, with all of their hard landscaping, still had good visibility. But this morning, the nature reserve near our house was wreathed in thick white mist. It seemed like a good day to divert my commute and cycle through it, stopping to take a picture or three.
This is the autumn of the Old Masters, spread across a landscape of ochres and browns, creamy and dimmed with the varnish of the morning mist. And it wouldn’t be the same without the hummocked shape of the windmill in the distance, bare vanes marking the land as inescapably Dutch.
But hang on, here. Hold the chocolate box.
When you get right down to it, windmills are not intrinsically scenic. Oh, we treasure them now, transplanting them carefully to nature reserves and tourist parks. But they’re really industrial equipment, power-generating and water-moving engines, as inherently romantic as an oil derrick or an electricity pylon.
Indeed, it was not much further on my commute that I came upon the most beautiful pylon standing in the pale morning sun. Its clean, simple lines balanced the last lushness of the autumn vegetation. The grand swoop of its gently humming wires framed the clear blue sky above me, and the pure echo of its form below was a testament to the stillness and clarity of the water beside it. At its feet the placid cattle grazed…
You’re not buying this one, are you?
But really, what’s the difference between the windmill and the pylon, apart from a few centuries and some unevenly distributed obsolescence? They’re both part of the infrastructure of the land, the hardware on which the operating system of Dutch society runs.
Indeed, in a few centuries we may be collecting old mismatched electric pylons from all over the country and setting them up in little parks. Enthusiasts will clean them and care for them, climbing to the tops in almost-correct period harnesses. Perhaps they’ll string dead wires among them so that school parties can picture the old days of the electric grid. Gaggles of tourists will take group shots around their bases before heading off in search of ice cream.
But even now, there’s a decent case to be made for learning to appreciate the inevitable artifacts of our technology.
After all, what people loathe, they neglect. I think about the changing themes of art since the WPA’s celebratory murals of the early twentieth century, and wonder if America’s crumbling infrastructure is not as much the product of a lack of love as it is the straitened state of public finances.
Another reason to cherish these things is that they’re here to stay. That pylon is part of a line that brings power from Amsterdam to the next major city to the north. It’s not going anywhere. So we who live near it can either look on it with loathing or find some beauty in its lines.
This is something that the Dutch seem to be very good at. I’ve cycled past lovely homes that look across a river to a junkyard. Our own very pleasant suburban house has a retail park behind it. In general, the ways that towns here mix residential, commercial, and light industrial facilities bespeaks—at the very least—a tolerance of infrastructure in the Netherlands.
This is not to say that tolerance is uncritical. The wires in that picture are high-voltage ones, carrying as much power as the law allows through residential areas. There’s been pressure to increase the voltage of the line north yet higher, but that would mean removing people from the homes underneath them. It’s caused a lot of debate in our village. One can appreciate the clean shape of the pylon against the October skies without approving of every use to which it might be put.
When I look at our future (leaving aside the possibility of the collapse of civilization), I see more technological intervention rather than less. Given that, I hope we can learn to turn our ceaseless thirst for beauty, that common drive that gives us cave paintings, sculpture, and ruin porn alike, toward our infrastructure and the tools we use to maintain it.
I think we’d be happier if we could.