Windmill: Essays from Four Mile Ranch by David Romtvedt–A Review

Romtvedt struck a chord with me and I found myself reading this fine book through in one sitting. Maybe it’s because I too have fallen in love with the vast expanses of the western United States. Maybe it’s because he writes lovingly about the Powder River Breaks, a region of Northeastern Wyoming and Southeastern Montana where I inadvertently launched a career in wind energy long ago. Or maybe it’s because his descriptions of working on the 19 water-pumping windmills at Four Mile Ranch resonates with my experience removing rusted windchargers on Montana’s prairie. Regardless of the reason, this vegetarian ranch hand’s description of working atop a tower in mid-summer will ring true to anyone who has serviced wind turbines in California.

When I called the publisher they were hard pressed to describe the book’s contents. It is a series of essays, they explained, linked together by Romtvedt’s work servicing windmills on a ranch near Buffalo, Wyoming. Like Henry David Thoreau used Walden Pond in his famous book, Romtvedt uses his windmills as a metaphorical anchor to address contemporary issues.

Romtvedt begins his ode on life in arid Wyoming with a bit of verse that ends:


“I release the brake and the blades spin, singing in the wind.
The water spills into the stock tank. It is pure and clear,
and so, gratefully, I cup my greasy hands and drink.”


While this book is not a technical reference on water-pumping windmills, there is a chapter describing the parts of the standard American windmill and what it’s like to work on one. Many in the industry will appreciate Romtvedt’s comment about a day when “. . . whatever was wrong, it was going wrong 250 feet down in the dark (well) so we had to pull it (the well pipe and sucker rod) all up just to look.” This leads him to “read with some suspicion” a catalog statement “that windmills are a ‘low-cost, low-maintenance, energy-efficient means of pumping water for livestock and personal use.’ In fact, I believe,” says Romtvedt, “that the windmill is more a religious artifact than it is a water retrieval system.”


The spiritual theme emerges often. Atop the ranch’s South Hay Draw windmill he observes, “It is this noisy silence that I love about the ranch and its windmills. Sometimes when I stand on the tower of a mill changing the oil in the gearbox, there’s nothing to do for a moment. I wait while the dirty oil drains out of the pan and into the bucket I hold. . . The wind riffles my hair and whistles over my ears. I stare off across the Breaks and Powder River toward Dakota and even farther east to Minnesota where the towers of Minneapolis and Saint Paul shimmer. I turn away west where the Bighorns rise, directing my view to the sky. I look up, relishing the feeling of slight vertigo, convinced that in this state I could see not only to Minnesota but all the way to God.”

Windmill: Essays from Four Mile Ranch, by David Romtvedt, Red Crane Books, April 1997, ISBN 1-878610-62-7, 256 pages, 5-1/2 by 8-1/2 inches paperback, can be ordered for US$14.95 from Red Crane Books; 2008 Rosina; #B, Santa Fe, New Mexico 87505; phone: (in the USA at 1 800 922 3392) +1 505 988 7070; fax: +1 505 989 7476;