In Prince Edward County, I always feel like I’m in a painting come to life.
Cheesy? Sure. But whether it’s the ethereal quality of light across the fields, the rustic shops and wineries or the sunset views over Lake Ontario, something in this bucolic little region about halfway between Toronto and Ottawa makes it easy to imagine myself daubed into a familiar pastoral landscape, one remembered from a million postcards, textbooks and magazines. It’s the same feeling, I suppose, that brings a steady flow of plaid-clad urban defectors here, looking to re-imagine themselves as one of the County’s local artisans.
Lately, though, turbines have been haunting the horizon. Last December, the Ontario government approved an application by Gilead Power Corporation to develop a “Wind Energy Park” at Ostrander Point, which would put nine turbines on the County’s south shore, not far from Sandbanks Provincial Park.
Residents balked, and a showdown ensued. Gilead pointed out the economic and environmental benefits of wind energy; locals pointed to potential effects on human health, disrupted bird migration routes and habitat loss.
Two community groups, the Alliance to Protect Prince Edward County and the Prince Edward County Field Naturalists, filed formal objections, and in July an environmental tribunal stopped the development, ruling the turbines would cause “serious and irreversible harm” to a threatened amphibian called Blanding’s turtle. Many residents cheered, and the turtle became a kind of local hero, its charming yellow-chinned face popping up on pamphlets and T-shirts.
But it wasn’t hard to see that there was more than turtle habitat integrity stoking the joy. Underneath the various educated concerns over bird and bat safety, threatened ecosystems and low-frequency noise, most wind opponents in Prince Edward County agreed on one thing: The turbines would really ruin the view.
Officially, it’s considered something of a facile position to argue on the grounds of nice scenery. This is the crucible of the dreaded NIMBY syndrome. In 2009, former Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty vowed to combat this nefarious pox on green energy, proclaiming, “It’s okay to object on the basis of safety issues and environmental standards; if you have real concerns there, put those forward.” Visual disharmony was decidedly not on Mr. McGuinty’s list of “real concerns.”
When it comes to resource development, we like to keep things rational. Metrics rule, especially the bottom line. Why worry about something abstract like beauty, when jobs are on the line? How dare we quibble over sight lines and vistas, when sustainable power is at stake? It is hard to argue with the numbers: Nine 2.5-megawatt turbines at Ostrander Point would have the potential to charge 5,600 homes a year. What place do aesthetic concerns have in a discussion about energy?
The answer may be more significant than we’re currently willing to allow. The more we disconnect from nature in our daily lives, the more the way in which we imagine it becomes important – not only as a source of beauty, but as the thing that tells us who we are.
Imagine “Canada.” What comes to mind: A maple leaf? A golden prairie? Maybe a Tom Thomson canvas, with its drooping pines or skeletal spruce. Or perhaps the tailing ponds of the northern Alberta.
Since before Confederation, our view of the land has shaped our view of ourselves. Early painters such as Paul Kane and Cornelius Krieghoff filtered their images of the country through a European lens. The Group of Seven aimed for direct contact with the wilderness. In Margaret Atwood’s Survival, in the films of Peter Mettler and Denis Côté, in the photography of Edward Burtynsky – we continue to position ourselves as people with a stake in the landscape. (This, without even beginning to address the traditions of First Nations, for many of whom arts and culture are inseparable from the land.)
All of this natural stuff in our culture has not only created a national identity but a distinctly Canadian aesthetic: the idea that nature is about beauty as much as it is an economic and material resource.
So if we start altering our landscapes with turbines – or pipelines, or natural gas flares – and there’s objection over how it looks, should we take it more seriously than we do? Is it unfair to dismiss the NIMBYs? Does beauty matter?
On Closson Road, Prince Edward wine country’s version of a main strip, one winery stands out among the rest for sheer charm. The Old Third is housed in a converted barn just off the roadside, where co-owner Jens Korberg sells Pinot Noir made in the Burgundy style. Mr. Korberg is opposed to the turbines and the infrastructure that will come with them: concrete platforms, access roads, power lines and a transformer substation. He believes the development will seriously damage the tourist economy.
“Most people come to the County because it’s a beautiful, rural area,” Mr. Korberg says. “This is one of the most popular tourist areas in Ontario right now. So why do they want to put [turbines] right here?”
The County is a big place. So just how visible will these things be? From the base to the tip of the cresting blade, the proposed GE 2.5-megawatt turbines are 134 metres high – the same height as the London Eye.
Gilead Power has a good argument for the turbines, of course.
“There are not a lot of great locations in Ontario for a wind regime,” says Mike Lord, Vice President of Project Development with Gilead. The best are all along the shores of the Great Lakes or Georgian Bay, and few have the appropriate flat landscape to make wind development feasible. Another crucial factor is that Ostrander Point is on 324 hectares of Crown Land, which the government has targeted as potential land for wind development.
This isn’t enough for Jens Korberg. “I left the city, I spent all my money to build this business,” he says. “If the tourism stops, what do I do?”
Not in the travel brochures
The tourism question is tied up in how we define beauty, and the places in which we’re apt to find it. Turbines may not fit the Romantic aesthetic that prizes lonely clouds and mountain peaks, and makes for great travel brochures.
But is it possible to find beauty in the wind farm’s function – a promise of clean, renewable energy? Susan Holtz is a retired Prince Edward County resident and former energy and environmental policy analyst for Nova Scotia. She acknowledges that a lot of the opposition to the turbines starts with the idea that they’re ugly. But she doesn’t agree: She admires the turbines’ form and efficiency. “I think they are a very elegant machine,” she says.
The idea that sustainable energy can be both functional and beautiful is widely shared. Wind, in particular, lends itself to aesthetic flair. Take the Windstrument, a small commercial turbine whose blades are modelled on orchid petals. Or the proposed “Solar Wind” bridge in Calabria, Italy, which would re-purpose an old viaduct into a framework of Dali-eqsue turbines and solar greenhouses.
Jennifer Baichwal spends a lot of time thinking about resource developments and how they look. She is the director of the documentary films Manufactured Landscapes and the recently released Watermark – both collaborations with Mr. Burtynsky, and both thematically rich and (subjectively) beautiful meditations on the ways we shape and value nature.
“Our films try to embrace the complexity of our incursion onto the landscape,” says Ms. Baichwal. “Instead of creating a situation where you can agree or disagree with what [you see], it draws you into a more complex dialogue about impact.” So, we get Mr. Burtynsky’s stunning, impeccably composed shots of massive Chinese construction projects, or the tanning factories of Bangladesh.
Ms. Baichwal recognizes that most people prefer a simpler scheme: black or white, ugly or pretty. “One of the things that stands out about Ed’s photographs,” she says, “is that they don’t come down hard on one side or another. A lot of people find it problematic that they’re looking at so-called beautiful images of altered landscapes.”
In framed prints and tourist campaigns – and increasingly, television commercials for energy companies – pretty pictures are preferred, especially stunning aerial photography of our A-list natural wonders. When we want to show people the beauty of Canada, it’s usually wilderness.
Telling in this respect was a recent exchange between one of the country’s most storied artists, and the mayor of the town that’s become a symbol of the oil sands. After visiting Fort McMurray, Alta., and taking stock of the activity there, Neil Young told a National Farmers Union Conference that the place “looks like Hiroshima. Fort McMurray is a wasteland.”
Fort Mac Mayor Melissa Blake bristled at the comments, and responded by saying, “When it comes to the community of Fort McMurray, you're overwhelmed frankly by the beauty of it.” (She did concede that, “Further north into the oil sands … there's mining operations that will draw your attention.”)
Mr. Young and Ms. Blake disagree because, although both are talking about “Fort McMurray,” they’re referencing two entirely different scenes.
Mr. Young was referring to the industrial vistas of the bitumen sands, which are not, by most typical standards, beautiful. Whether or not they deserve comparison to nuclear devastation, they are a large-scale industrial development that permanently changes the character of the landscape – and not something most of us would want framed for our condo wall.
When Ms. Blake referred to Fort McMurray’s overwhelming beauty, she wasn’t talking about the industrial parts. “You've got an incredible boreal environment that’s all around you,” she says. Her argument fell back on the beauty of nature – which, like it or not, is what the heavy industry of bitumen mining replaces.
A hard look at consumption
Ultimately, we may never agree on what is objectively beautiful in nature. But that does not mean aesthetics aren’t important.
Ms. Holtz tells me about a landscape architect from the Netherlands who was flabbergasted by the sight lines of Ontario’s power lines: “We never would have allowed that.”
Of course, most of the time, most of us never even register that they’re there. We can certainly adapt to infrastructure we initially find unattractive – nuclear plants, cellphone towers, highways. But, in the end, an honest energy debate has to factor in aesthetics.
The issue is not just what we see in front of us and whether or not it gives us the warm fuzzies. With so much land in Canada – so many varied cities and regions shaped and defined by the jawdroppingly different environments that surround them – we seek unifiers in shared experience, and the one we often come up with is: Up here, we look nature in the eyes.
The substance of Canada exists in our landscape and how we imagine it. There is value in how it moves us.
Still, the burr of subjectivity prickles. Can we really try to legislate awe? How can we capture in words or limit with strictures whatever it is that takes our breath away in a panoramic view of a cliff plunging into raw ocean?
We may have to find answers sooner than we think. Our demand for energy continues to grow, and our methods for harvesting it are coming closer than ever to the places most of us live – and, perhaps more importantly, play. We are increasingly forced to look, in plain daylight, at the apparatus of our consumption. In Prince Edward County, Gilead is appealing the Environmental Review Tribunal’s decision. The turbines could still go up.
Perhaps questions of aesthetics will do what those of ecology, health and even economics have failed to do: force us to ask what we truly value. What are we willing to give up for our energy? Trading a remote boreal forest for the copper wiring that powers your iPhone is easier than having a 135-metre sentry stationed on your doorstep, blocking your view of the lake. Will we finally stop thirsting if our energy gets too ugly, too up in our face?
Gilead’s turbines don’t figure into my painting of Prince Edward County – but perhaps they hint at a different sort of art. If they are built to stand on the lakefront, I hope they will read on the horizon like a rune telling the first chapter of the story of how we finally phased out fossil fuels. I hope they do not stand, instead, like the moai of Easter Island – monuments to an insatiable culture that left behind a landscape razed of its lushness and splendour.