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Friday, May 3, 2013

Windmills of my mind

Like a clock whose hands are sweeping
Past the minutes on its face
And the world is like an apple
Whirling silently in space
Like the circles that you find
In the windmills of your mind
   At High School studying French, I was very much taken with Alphonse Daudet's Lettres de Mon Moulin (Letters of/from My Windmill).* He lived for some time in a windmill like the one shown below, and wrote these charming essays. For him, it must have been like those writers who decide to live in a lighthouse, only, in his case, much more comfortable, and far less lonely.
Daudet's windmill

   This might seem to be developing into a lazily philosophical story, given the lyrics chosen from Windmills of Your Mind. It's not. It's about real windmills – not the sort Daudet may have lived in, but those you see from the road if you're driving in any rural area of Australia.
   These days, many of those like that above are hulks, no longer operating because electric pumps have taken over. Perhaps the minimal maintenance needed for the farm windmill, which means climbing up a ladder to about ten metres from the ground, may explain it. The convenience of a petrol or electric pump and the expense of replacement parts is also a consideration.
   It's a pity, because windmills like the two old Southern Cross ones on our farm gave us faithful service at no cost, day and night, for all the years of our childhood. To me, they had a mystique and a personality, but what they really were was a triumph of simple, practical engineering and beautiful design.
   There's water under the ground. Near the creeklands, you dig a well, and it fills with crystal-clear water to the height of the water-table below ground.
   You could get that water with a bucket and rope, and then take it to where you need it, but that's tedious and laborious.
   If you have a windmill over the well, everything changes. As the wind turns the blades, water gets sucked up a thin pipe, and a valve forces it out into another pipe to wherever you need it. That's pretty much it.
   It takes only a gentle breeze to pump a small amount at a time along that pipe. Small it may be, but over 24 hours it adds up, and can fill a thousand gallon tank on a windy night.
A windmill at stop position
   Unlike those giant wind turbines, the farm windmill can always face into the wind. It has a sail (or tail), and the particular genius of the design is that it turns the face into the breeze, no matter which direction it comes from.
   It's like the windmill has intelligence; a life and mind of its own. Once I remember vividly the mill for the vegetable garden in the path of a big willy-willy (whirlwind). As the wind swirled about and changed direction, the windmill kept turning to face it, round and round all compass points, as if defending itself from an attacker. It was quite a sight. The blades spun like those of a prop-driven aircraft.
   Being able to pump water day and night is just one attraction. The other is its ability to pump that water very long distances through a pipe, even up a high hill. Water is virtually incompressible, and the operation of the valve means that it has nowhere to go but along that pipe. Up that hill. Into the tank high beside the house, or the diary, just a half litre at a time.
   You cannot imagine the pleasure the sound of that gentle splashing gave us as clean spring water flowed into the tank, particularly in dry or drought weather. The only better sound was rain on our galvanised iron roof.
   But how do you stop a windmill when the tank is overflowing and you're getting a shallow pool around its base?
   Again, the answer is delightfully simple. The sail is hinged, with a spring mechanism, so to stop it you just pull a lever to turn it at a right angle to the wind, and the blades have no breeze to face. It can be locked into position at that angle until it's needed again. The very first illustration shows it facing the wind, ready for action. This one is at rest.
   Bloody brilliant, hey? I reckon it is.
Windmill with sail locked at stop position
   As a small child, I used to climb the ladder welded into the frame and get right up to the little platform where the cowling protected the drive. The spokes on to which the blades are bolted are very long to a little boy – the face was much bigger in diameter than I was tall. I'd stand on the platform and watch as it creaked and groaned and sighed softly, as if it were talking to me. I'd see things in my mind.
   I guess it may have told me that it sensed the movement of the clouds, the animals which came to the large trough filled by the pure water it had pumped, the creatures of the night which visited and the birds that perched on it when it was at rest on still, frosty nights. The tiny, pulsing lamps of the fireflies. Perhaps it felt the presence of the spirits of the Aboriginal people who hunted and fished along the creek two hundred or a thousand years before. The stamping feet stirring corroboree dust to the booming command of the didgeridoo. 

   Maybe even a bunyip or two, vaguely outlined by the flickering glow of the dancing min-min colours above the billabong. And of the gold miners who came to plunder the soil under where it stood, turning the creek into a slurry of mud and murder.

   Something told me about these ghosts and spirits from the past – the past of the land ten metres below me, and my own little existence. 

    But time sweeps the shadows away –
Like a clock whose hands are sweeping
Past the minutes on its face....
Like the circles that you find
In the windmills of your mind.
*If you enjoy reading French, then it's available either online or as a free download.
**There's a great blog posting on assembling one of these windmills. You'll see that when I described a windmill as "simple" technology, it's not quite that easy to erect.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this evocative piece, Denis. I love windmills - their (mostly) gentle motion, and their slow and patient creak-creak-shudder-creaking. There is something timeless and comforting about them.

    As the great artesian basin is being sucked dry of its pure, ancient, irreplaceable and precious water, I can't help but feel that if all the windmills of Australia's hinterland could be reinstated, and fossil-fuel powered pumps outlawed, then that great resource below us could be used gently, sustainably - not rapaciously and be preserved for future generations. We are such a greedy generation!

    PS It is difficult, isn't it, to illustrate clearly how the "working" windmill looks compared to the "disengaged" one. The thing that is most striking about the difference is the complete and utter silence of the latter.

    Love from your ageing, ex-jillaroo friend.


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