Saturday, August 22, 2009

One windless morning

Every year, during the months of August and September, Dave and I wait for a windless morning to coincide with a day when neither of us have anything scheduled. Neither unscheduled days or windless mornings are very common.

We need the windless morning do the yearly maintenance on the wind generator. We need the unscheduled day because you can’t schedule the windless morning and maintenance on the wind generator requires our complete attention. Dave climbs the 120 foot tower and does the mechanical work. I stand at the bottom of the tower, belaying him so that if he falls, he only falls 30 feet instead of 120 feet. I also ferry supplies up to him with a 300 foot rope on a pulley system. My job is tedious; Dave’s is terrifying (at least to me. I don’t like heights). So I am glad to be the person on the ground even though I don’t get to appreciate the spectacular 360˚ view, the wind on my face, or the thrill of defying gravity.

We begin as soon as the dew has dried on the metal climbing pegs on the tower. Dave sets the brake on the generator, then buckles on a climbing harness. He straps on a fanny pack containing the tools he expects to use. He hangs chains on the harness to attach to the tower which will act as his belay points. Finally he hangs the pulley system onto the harness. Then he ties his belay rope onto the harness at chest height.

I check the knot to make sure it’s properly tied. I check the harness to see that it’s correctly buckled. Then I put on leather gloves and pick up the belay rope. The rope goes from my hands through a grisgris to Dave’s harness. The grisgris is a braking device that catches the rope in case of a fall.

“On belay?” Dave asks.
“Belay on.” I reply.

Dave puts his foot on the bottom rung of the tower and climbs. I begin letting rope through the grisgris. The sun is bright and hot and shines into my eyes as I watch Dave ascend. I move until a leg of the tower blocks the sun, only a bright halo traces the web of strut-work that supports the generator and my husband. I tip my head back as he moves up.

He pauses to clip onto the first belay point thirty feet above me. Then he climbs again, gradually decreasing in size. He pauses again, second anchor. I pause in my rope handling; I don’t want slack in the rope or his belays won’t save him from injury if he falls. Climbing again. Finally he reaches the third belay at the top of the tower. There, he straps a belt from one side of his harness around the tower and back on to the other side of the harness. The belt makes it possible for him to lean back and use both hands to work.

The first time Dave worked on the tower he had a hard time letting go after attaching the work belt. He could see that he was securely attached to the tower, but his hands were not convinced. It took considerable internal dialog before his mind was able to overcome his instincts. I might never have overcome my instincts. Imight never have overcome mine. The reason that Dave climbs the tower instead of me is that I once spent almost an hour frozen in place on the face of a mountain, unable to lift my feet or to tear my eyes away from the valley floor, 500 feet below me.

Now, ten years later, Dave looks forward to the view from the top and his feeling of accomplishment when he finishes the yearly maintenance.

“Off belay,” Dave’s voice drifts down to me.
“Belay off.” I shout back.

My next job is to raise the supply bucket to him with the tube for draining the oil from the generator. The pulley rope is just long enough to reach the ground, twice. On windy days, it drifts out of reach and I can’t raise it. So to be safe, I tie one end to the tower. Then I begin pulling. The trip up is easy, just the bucket and tube. The bucket occasionally bounces off the horizontal struts of the tower, but progresses smoothly upward. When it reaches the top, Dave hangs it from the tail behind the blades and attaches the tube to the generator. When the oil has drained into the bucket, he tosses to tube off the tower. As it falls, I watch for the round golden globules of oil that were left in the tube to fall - glittering bubbles in the sunlight.

I ease the bucket full of oil back to the ground, focused on not letting it tip when it runs into a strut. This time, the rope cuts into my gloved hands. I stand on the shrinking coil of rope to control it’s progress through the pulley. Then I send up a bucket with six bottles of fresh oil.

Once the gear box is oiled, Dave throws down the empty bottles and I lower the empty bucket to return it with grease guns. The grease guns don’t really fit in the bucket and their ungainly handles and their length ensure that I lose at least one on each trip up the tower. This time, the guns tangle in the tower struts repeatedly, dropping one or both of them to the ground. Finally Dave moves the pulley further out on the wind tail and I can finally get the grease guns to him.

Greasing the generator takes forever. When Dave moves from place to place on his perch 120 feet above the ground, he goes on and off belay and I handle the rope and watch as needed. But most of the time while he works, I sit in the sun and read. This year I decided to listen to a book on tape instead of read, but when I turned on the tape player, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to hear Dave’s voice. So I turned off my book and began to watch the world around me.

Our wind generator is at the top of a hill. All around us the ground slopes away, to the road, to the Erhard hills in the distance, to the swamps and small ponds in the state Waterfowl Production Area. Swallows swoop around me, eating on the wing. Some work just inches off the ground, others fly at Dave’s height. Their wings sharp arrows of black, their underbellies white, they stand out against white cirrus clouds drifting in the deep infinity of a summer blue sky. When not on wing, they rest on the electrical lines, 10, 20 50 swallows in a row, facing the sunlight.

Closer to home, a bumble bee and a honey bee move from one thistle blossom to the next, crawling across the brilliant pink petals. Other thistles have matured and their seeds drift languidly, gossamer umbrellas in the air. The hops Dave planted on the tower are blooming, their distinctive pinecone shaped seeds just beginning to form. Even though there is a world wide shortage of hops, Dave will have his own supply for next year’s beer.

I squat in the alfalfa, resting my back. Little orange and black lady bird beetles trace the edges of alfalfa leaves, tirelessly running from leaf to leaf, harvesting whatever smaller insects they can find. An ant scurries through the alfalfa stems, dragging the body of a much larger ant. So much activity in such a tiny world.

I try to do a species count – how many plants of what variety exist in one square meter of our hay field. Grass – 15 plants. Alfalfa – 25 plants. Thistles - one plant. Dandelions- 50 plants. Oops, the dandelions won. Not what I would have hoped for. But the sheep can eat dandelions as well as alfalfa, after all, we ate dandelion greens in salads all through the spring.

“Bucket ready.” Dave interrupted my inventory.

I scrambled to my feet, Took the rope in my hands and began lowering the bucket.

“On Belay,” he said when the bucket hit the ground. I stepped into position at the base of the tower and grabbed the climbing rope. “Belay on.” I shouted.

“Climbing.” As Dave worked his way down the tower, I gathered in the climbing rope, coiling it into a great purple tangle at my feet. Two hours after he first said “On Belay,” Dave stepped off the tower. He unbuckled his harness and we packed up all the gear. When Dave let the brake off, the blades began to spin lazily. We had finished just in time. Our windless morning was over.


  1. wonderful. thank you for so eloquantly sharing your windless morning.

  2. And I thought changing the oil in my car was feat!