Giants or Windmills? They Might Be Both


Wind turbines in Western Iowa

These days, it seems as though a giant has been handing out pinwheels along I-80.

If you’re coming east from Omaha, as I do every week, you see the first ones peek up over the top of a hillside near Avoca. Then they drop out of sight again, not to reappear for several miles. Great white windmills are spinning across western Iowa. They’re especially thick on the ground before and after exit 75, in the vicinity of Adair and Walnut: a forest of pinwheels by day, winking red eyes by night. I’ve read that Mid-American Energy has over 100 wind turbines in Pottawattamie County alone. You can count most of them from the highway.

In 2008 and 2009, when the wind turbines began to multiply, I was in the car on my weekly commute across Iowa listening to everyone’s favorite 16th-century novel, Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes—all 39 hours and 41 minutes of it on 35 CDs, ingeniously read by actor George Guidall. Guidall makes the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance and his faithful squire Sancho so utterly real you expect to find them arguing in the backseat. At the beginning of Chapter 8 (disc 2, track 11), they’re arguing about windmills:


“. . . look there, friend Sancho Panza, where thirty or more monstrous giants present themselves, all of whom I mean to engage in battle and slay, and with whose spoils we shall begin to make our fortunes; for this is righteous warfare, and it is God’s good service to sweep so evil a breed from off the face of the earth.”

“What giants?” said Sancho Panza.

“Those thou seest there,” answered his master, “with the long arms, and some have them nearly two leagues long.”

“Look, your worship,” said Sancho, “what we see there are not giants but windmills, and what seem to be their arms are the sails that turned by the wind make the millstone go.”

“It is easy to see,” replied Don Quixote, “that thou art not used to this business of adventures; those are giants; and if thou art afraid, away with thee out of this and betake thyself to prayer while I engage them in fierce and unequal combat.”


As we all know, the peerless Don Quixote, ignoring the protests and pleas of his squire, rides off on his bony steed to charge the nearest windmill. He gets his lance caught in one of the sails that Sancho warned him about and ends up somersaulting across the plain with his horse. The “undreamt-of adventure of the windmills” is probably Don Quixote’s most famous moment, unless you count the part where he sings “The Impossible Dream.” But that’s not in the novel.

I owe my intimate acquaintance with Don Quixote—deliciously abbreviated DQ on my course syllabus—to seven years of teaching “World Literature I: The Beginnings to 1650” to groups of mostly reluctant college freshmen. I try to conduct the course—which bears a certain resemblance in pace and scope to Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part I—like a Great Books club. Our chief goal is to read (as opposed to watching the video) and enjoy (as in, Enjoy!) a list of works that includes the usual—Shakespeare, The Odyssey, Dante’s Inferno—but also the not so usual, among them, in no particular order: The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon (a 10th-century Japanese work that is nothing like the movie), The Chinese Book of Songs, the poems of Sappho, and The Conquest of Mexico (from the Aztecs’ point of view), which we read alongside the letters of Cortez and excerpts from the diary of Christopher Columbus, including this line, my personal favorite, written Tuesday, 23 October 1492: “I want to leave today for the island of Cuba, which I believe to be Japan.”

This is the benefit of a career in education, something it has in common with a life of writing: teachers, like writers, keep learning things. We see connections everywhere. If I hadn’t been re-reading Dante’s Inferno, I might have overlooked the link to a story on the Newsy website revealing that archaeologists have recently confirmed the location of the gate to Hell. (It’s in southwestern Turkey.) At last, we have a definitive answer to the question most frequently asked about Dante and his guide Virgil, namely: “Where in hell are they?”

And what could be better than imagining Don Quixote’s “fierce and unequal combat” with those windmills as I drive across Iowa watching wind turbines acquire their giant white arms?

While they were under construction, sharing the horizon with a variety of tall cranes used to lift them into place, I admit I didn’t like them much. I worried about birds—real cranes, for example, flying into the blades, never reaching their springtime rendezvous on the Platte River in the middle of Nebraska. Standing still, the windmills looked ominous to me—a phalanx of three-armed, one-legged aliens marching across the countryside. War of the Worlds, they made me think.

But spinning! They’re something else again. All of a sudden, you’ve got a giant pinwheel—and not just one, a row of them, several rows, a crowd of them marching north and south over rolling hills to either horizon. As old Phoenix Jackson says about the pinwheel she’s bringing to her grandson in my favorite Eudora Welty story, it’s hard “to believe there is such a thing in the world.”

I know they hum, and they pose threats to wildlife, particularly the kind that flies.  Like every human activity, from planting crops to driving across Iowa, the proliferation of great white wind turbines changes the environment in more ways than we know.

Still, seeing those windmills fills me with hope. If the Iowa landscape can sprout that many giant pinwheels, then it seems to me that all kinds of unlikely things could happen. We could be convinced to cut down on the number of cars in our driveways. We could be talked into walking. We could get in the habit of turning off the lights when we leave a room. Perhaps even I could learn to take the reusable bags into the store with me instead of remembering at the checkout that I’ve left them in the car or on the doorknob in the kitchen. In short, it seems to me that anything could happen, even the most undreamt-of adventure, the most impossible dreams.

Mary Helen Stefaniak is author of the award-winning novel The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia. She lives in Iowa City and teaches at Creighton University in Omaha.