On Horse Heaven Hills

A long, spectacular rank of towering, grey wind turbines lines the northeast-facing slope of the Horse Heaven Hills, as they march south-easterly below the town of Kennewick, Washington.

A long, spectacular rank of towering, grey wind turbines lines the northeast-facing slope of the Horse Heaven Hills, as they march south-easterly below the town of Kennewick, Washington.

On the day I was there, a pounding spring wind (typical of the season, my guide informed me) was pouring in from the north, tumbling the sage brush, and filling the surrounding air with fine, brown, powdery dust. The huge blades of the Siemens turbines were churning methodically, their giant heads visibly turning and cocking into the wind flow.

Benton County, Washington, home to the “Tri-Cities” of Richland, Pasco, and Kennewick at the confluence of the Yakima, Snake, and Columbia Rivers, is a region of green, irrigated valleys and brown, treeless desert hills.

On the day of my visit, last week, there was still wild grass flourishing greenly on the slopes, and a cloudy though rainless sky overhead; as the summer progresses, however, the Tri-Cities area is subject to intense sunlight and temperatures well above 38 degrees Celsius. The wild vegetation dehydrates and dies, while the grapes and irrigated orchard fruits in the farmlands burgeon.

The Tri-Cities area specializes in three congruent but not much co-ordinated industries – nuclear power, military research and development, and wine-and-fruit agriculture – which combine to make it one of the wealthiest and fastest-growing areas in the USA, and an exception to the pervasive national economic hard times.

It was, indirectly, the military research part of the economy that brought me to the region, though for peaceful purposes.

I was looking over an experimental Stirling engine for the Yukon Research Centre, where I keep my day job – a research project the YRC is carrying out in partnership with Northwestel, to see if this old, but currently self-reinventing approach to external-combustion technology might not provide significant energy consumption and cash outflow savings for the telco’s numerous remote transmission stations.

(I won’t venture an explanation, here, of what a Stirling engine is and does. If you are interested, a good primer on the subject can be found at http://www.howstuffworks.com/stirling-engine.htm.)

Before that, all I had really known about the Tri-Cities was that they were home to the Try-City Americans of the Western Hockey League.

And all I had known about Kennewick, the home base of the company making the Stirling engine prototype for us, was that it was the location of the discovery of the controversial remains of the “Kennewick Man”—a dead man of unquestionable antiquity, ranging from 6,000 to 9,500 years ago, and, even more famously, of questionable North American Indian ancestry (possibly Caucasian, possibly Asian, possibly none of the above).

In the course of our town tour, though, I learned a fair bit more about the ins and outs of the region, and also a little more about the potential and the limitations of the technological lifestyle.

Our guide, a salesman for the company, was local-born to the area, and displayed the usual ambivalent infatuation with place of that goes with being a lifelong local.

He complained about the spring wind, the summer heat and dust, and the fact that almost all the precipitation occurs in the form of snow in the winter.

On the other hand, he was proud to boast about the quality of life available in the area, if you got yourself a good job as a nuclear technician, a US Defence Department-funded researcher tech or a wine grower.

Which is not to say the area is without its economic and social faults and inequalities, or that our guide made any attempt to disguise or avoid them.

He made a point, in fact, of driving us through the rundown old town centre – a place of weathered slatboard houses and cracked-plaster-sided little shops, many of them with shop signs in Spanish

That part of town has been taken over by the migrant Latino workers, legal and illegal, whom the locals are quick to blame for the local crime rate, but who are a needed and ubiquitous fixture in the lower-paying service industry jobs in this wealthy economy.

As we stood on the slopes of the Horse Heaven Hills, looking down into the dust-tined sunset in the valley below, and at the wind turbines going stoically about their business in the inclement wind, it came home to me anew how technology, though it can solve local problems and promote some local fiscal prosperity, really cannot do much about the really meaningful problems we all face in life – social transformations, environmental losses, time and changes in general.

The Horse Heaven Hills, for instance, got their name from the days when their dry, rolling fields were home to wide-ranging herds of feral horses, for whom the environment was ideal.

By the 1960s, though, they had become a nuisance to the expanding residential and agricultural needs of the communities, so they were rounded up and adopted out, and finally, rendered extinct.

Now the Siemens wind turbines inhabit those ridges – amazing, impressive creations, to be sure, and important, one hopes, for the economic hopes and ecological sustainability of the Tri-City community in the years to come; but they are a pretty dreary and impersonal replacement for the wild horses that used around on the Horse Heaven Hills – and that is a loss no technology can compensate for, or ever undo.

Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.

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