Lighthouse on the Prairie

Favian Mendez Rodriguez
January 24, 2022

Water has always been the great attractor. Where there is water, there is life. To those passing Nebraska along I-80, it can be easy to think there is not much out there in terms of water. They can be forgiven for thinking that not much lies beyond the sea of grass and corn.

I can only imagine what it must have been like to live during the mid-1800s, with hundreds of thousands of bison running across an ancient grass sea. While the views today are very different from then, I can still envision a time without barbed wire, a conveniently placed Casey’s, and distant radio towers. In the closing weeks of 2020, I began to think more in-depth about this time period.

You might be asking why this place and time in history intrigues me so much. I would honestly blame it on the hours I put into The Oregon Trail computer game as a kid and all the western movies, songs, and TikToks I have seen. However, toward the end of 2020, I got to work on a special camera here at Platte Basin Timelapse (PBT) that rekindled that childhood imagination.

After nearly 20 years in Nebraska, I finally got to see the Sandhills for myself. The hills are bigger than they seem from a distance. The sun’s brilliance bouncing off the grass resembles the waves in the sea. The silence struck me the most.

I don’t have much experience with ranching and living out in an open landscape. Being raised in south-eastern Nebraska didn’t help much in that. I always had a preconceived notion of what the prairie should look and feel like. In my mind, it was always me standing on the tallest hill overlooking a herd of bison whose mass went all the way to the horizon. In the distance, huge cumulonimbus clouds begin their evening downpour, the impressive lightning strikes, whose thunder is obscured by the immense herd.

I am sure most of us have thought about living in this time period, even if it was on the playground in first grade. This camera helped me recreate this image in my head. Currently, it is capturing a reminder of those times much like a sentinel, always watching and observing. This sentinel is standing by, observing a sort of beacon. A beacon still doing the same task that it and others like it were set out to fulfill many years ago. Some of them are no longer functional but much like a lighthouse, they lure one’s gaze towards it.

These beacons are one of the main reasons why the landscape is the way it is today. They literally changed the very grounds they were built on. They made it possible for European homesteaders to settle down, continuously working through rain, snow, and fierce winds as they thrived in the wind, welcomed it even. Without their due diligence, those around them could not survive and the settlement of the prairie as we know it might have not happened. Farming and townships would have collapsed. These beacons, lighthouses.. were windmills.

 

When I think of a windmill, these images are exactly what comes to mind. Most of the time, it’s clear, blue skies and grasses ever so green but occasionally I picture them under the hue of the setting sun.

There are not many things that are more iconic to the 1800s homestead than the windmill. Windmills were one of the most important instruments that allowed European homesteaders to settle the prairie. With any settlement you need water. Many of the windmills worked mechanically, responding to the power and change in the wind. The blades, also known as sails, catch the wind, keeping them in motion. Like a sailboat out on the ocean, these sails are powered by the winds through the grass sea.

Powered by the winds, the sail serves a function as well as a metaphor. Both sailboats and windmills need wind to work. Without it, they are both dead in the water. Wind has been such an important energy source that human expansion would have taken much longer to unravel had we not harnessed it. We have even discovered ways on how to capture the solar wind outputted by stars so satellites and perhaps one day, humans can sail the cosmos

Windmills are very simplistic machines and it doesn’t require much machinery to build your own. The rotary part of the windmill is connected to the gearbox by a shaft. The gear then converts rotary motion into reciprocating motion. This up and down motion begins to pump water up from the well and into a discharge tank. Fashioned together by scrap metal the homesteaders could find or had made professionally, windmills were simple, nimble, and most importantly, dependable like a good pair of denim jeans.

The pump-rod on the Gudmundsen Windmill looked like it has needed repairs and has been jerry-rigged for the time being. The lever that would normally disconnect the connecting rod and stop the sails from rotating was broken. To do maintenance on the upper components, one must use a ladder and manually disconnect it.

Alongside windmills, barbed wire or better known to Native Americans as “devil’s rope,” soon managed to contain the uncontainable. The boundless ocean of grass was no more. Barbed wire greatly changed the landscape into what it is today. The killing of millions of bison and the introduction of cattle further increased the change. Before this selective grazing, the Sandhills were much more sandy with blowouts and only small patches of grasses. The removal and massacre of many Native American tribes ended hundreds of years of their stewardship of the land. Over time, grasses and small shrubs began to take root and even small ponds started to form. The area around the windmills resembled small oases, like those of the Sahara desert.

Nebraska is home to the Ogallala Aquifer, the largest of its kind in North America. Nearly two-thirds of the volume of water is under our state. Once the European homesteaders learned to tap into that source with windmills, they could irrigate dozens of acres of crops and manage hundreds of cattle.

The pump feeds water into the stock tank in a rhythmic manner. Following the melody of the sails as they capture the wind. This picture, taken by Mike Forsberg, is of a water pump belonging to another windmill located in the Sandhills.

Despite all these new applications of technological advances, the prairie remained an unforgiving place to settle in the mid-1800s. Even with the rewards of the Homestead Act of 1862 promised, only around half of the homesteaders managed to successfully prove their lands. Interestingly, Nebraska had the most acres distributed of any state – 45% of its acres were allocated under the Homestead Act (National Park Service, 2021). Later in 1904, the Kinkaid Act was passed that promised higher hopes than it ever did profits, with a nearly 60% failure rate (Nebraska Public Media, 2021). The constant threat of weather, drought, and disease contributed to many homesteaders abandoning the homestead life and moving back to the city, leaving behind the windmills.

The archives of the Gudmundsen Windmill are extensive and will occasionally capture spectacular displays of weather. The dark, ominous image with the lighting coming down from the clouds was taken right before the camera was struck, cracking the lens (Right).

After going through all these images from the timelapse camera, I think I have a little bit more of an understanding as to why Native Americans called the prairie home. I like to think it was having a sense of freedom and openness one felt when looking out across the vast landscape. It’s what had influenced so many authors and poets. Native Americans have this belief that no one truly owns the land and that the world is for all to participate in but also leave something for the next generation. For how could anyone ever own land that reached beyond the horizon?

However, many Native Americans had to abandon their homes once the U.S government set up invisible borders and barbed wire was placed down. Someone was trying to lay claim to the land beyond the horizon. And after many decades, the landscape changed. The bison were all but extinct and the sandy dunes have been claimed by grass. Some Native Americans had stayed and others have returned in recent years. Many are trying to reclaim what was lost and restore the ecosystem to its natural state.

They are sharing their stories of what was and what can be. Not in our lifetime but maybe for the next generation, we can help restore the prairie to its true self so future generations can witness a true, unrestrained prairie – one that expands beyond the gaze, seemingly boundless to any border.

I now want to share how this particular camera has influenced me. Our camera has been watching this particular windmill at Gudmundsen Sandhills Laboratory since 2011 and has collected tens of thousands of images and still counting.

This Aeromotor windmill has been there since the original stock tank was laid down almost 20 years ago. Situated in a shallow valley between grass-covered sandhills, the windmill and stock tank are in a perfect place for cattle and other critters to congregate to replenish their system with water.

After all this time, that windmill is still standing, providing much-needed water for almost 200 cow-calf pairs at a time. The pasture runs on a rotational grazing system so the exact number of cattle varies. Since 2011, PBT has documented almost every moment of this windmill, collecting over 70,000 images. Now both the windmill and our camera share their fair deal of struggle together. They have stood a decade of inclement weather, lightning strikes, strong winds, and the occasional curious cow that gets too close.

Rusted out and beaten up, the old stock tank was taken out in the summer of 2021. Despite the new one only being installed for a few months, it has already been home to aquatic plants and some turtles.

There are few things that bring people closer together than a shared There are few things that bring people closer together than a shared struggle. The ability to rely on one another. Just the act of being there is comforting. Their presence alone gives one the strength to continue. This was always at the forefront of the Native Americans, pioneers, and homesteaders. If starvation or drought did not get to you, surely isolation did. But staying strong as a tribe, a family, and neighbors kept them going. What is a story if you have no one to share it with? This camera has become the sentinel for the windmill, both relying on each other’s presence.struggle. The ability to rely on one another. Just the act of being there is comforting. Their presence alone gives one the strength to continue. This was always at the forefront of the Native Americans, pioneers, and homesteaders. If starvation or drought did not get to you, surely isolation did. But staying strong as a tribe, a family, and neighbors kept them going. What is a story if you have no one to share it with? This camera has become the sentinel for the windmill, both relying on each other’s presence.

Talk about point of view! The camera has front-row seats to all the happenings and craziness of the Gudmundsen Windmill. Over the years, the mount and supports have been improved to better withstand the weather and curious cows. About 400 yards away on top of a hill stands a cell tower that uploads the images of the day into our archive. Solar panels and cellular service are crucial at PBT as they allow our cameras to operate for extended periods of time in hard-to-reach places (Right).

I spent the majority of quarantine watching each passing frame of this camera. I saw how it weathered storms, the battering winds, the scorching sun, and the frigid winters but continued to endure. 2020 may have been a tough year for many but it served as a time of reflection for me. I learned many things from the Gudmundsen windmill. It has shown me that beauty is in everything. That each day is never the same. There are new faces to encounter, sounds to decode, things in life to experience, and stories to share.

These short-form timelapses give a quick look at the most interesting things that happen at each camera location. You will see years pass in a matter of seconds.

When we were at the windmill, all you could hear was the wind moving the sails and when it stopped, pure silence, it was surreal. The silence is what I would expect time itself to sound like, however absurd that statement is. Each moment I looked off into one direction must have only lasted a few seconds but felt endless.

The last night there, we did night photography of the windmill. It was one of the clearest nights I have ever seen. You could see the haze of the Milky Way and the occasional shooting star. My camera was able to capture the stunning display of the Milky Way cresting over the hill and into frame. Now imagine what sort of stories people told under those stars 200 years ago.

Personally, this was my highlight of the trip. I am big about astronomy and astrophotography and we had the perfect night sky to capture this image. Even without edits, the images were already amazing. Like the night sky itself, the Gudmundsen Windmill looked timeless, with no beginning and no end. It just is.

If there is one emotion I can pull from my experience watching this camera and being out there, it would be solace. In days of uneasiness and worry, we can always come back to what we find familiar. On those hot, summer days, the cattle, the turtles, the deer, the coyotes, and the birds knew where to look for water. I like to think it provided them that feeling of solace. A place to rest for a while. This windmill has stayed true to its duty by providing a safe haven for those that wished to take a break and the camera acting as a sentinel, documenting every day of what would have never been seen without it.

But technology is changing the landscape once again. Windmills are being replaced by solar-powered water pumps and batteries. These new devices can calculate the exact water needed for the day and require less maintenance. Windmill installs have dropped by nearly half in the last decade alone. What then will happen to these icons of the prairie? Will they be left abandoned as many were decades ago, to be used as ornaments in the background? Regardless of their fate, windmills have forever left their legacy.

Windmills provided the much-needed compound of life that is water. This tiny particle that combines to form rain droplets, that accumulates into lakes, that flow into rivers, that eventually reach the seas to create the oceans that give this world its blue, gem-like glow. This tiny particle that can somehow bring all of these stories together.

Water IS life and it is so important that we share our stories on why we have to protect it. Water is the one factor that can not be left out of the equation. Without it, the systems that we built our society around can not hold. Just like how the ocean is made of trillions of individual particles, we all play a role in this world. We have to be the sentinels for water. Just like windmills, we need water to function, to have a purpose in life. After all, don’t we want our stories to be worth sharing?

This is the Lighthouse on the Prairie.

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PBT team photo. Summer 2023

About PBT

We are a group of storytellers using timelapse photography and multimedia storytelling to explore watersheds. PBT has been in motion since 2011.

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