Going home again

Issue 2022, vol. 76

Review of Wind Farm: Landscape with Stories and Towers by Jeff Gundy (Dos Madres Press, 2021)

Wind Farm, Jeff Gundy’s 13th full-length book, is his first return to memoir since 2003’s Scattering Point: The World in a Mennonite Eye. Wind Farm includes 35 short essays with a photograph at the beginning of each one, some of which are old family snapshots and some of which are recent ones of the windmills on Gundy’s family’s farm. Most of the chapters are personal essays in first person, though some are more speculative and told in third.

The book employs the recent upsurge of wind farming in the United States as a framing device to help its broader subject – the extraordinary changes to U.S. rural life over the past half century –cohere. Although large-scale wind farming is new, the wind “is the only thing that changes without growth or decay, the only thing that comes and goes as it will” (9), so it provides a sense of constancy. The early part of the book focuses on the technical aspects of wind farming. Gundy describes how wind turbines are lonely “the way farmers have always been lonesome” (2), so in this way they fit into the landscape. He gives some fascinating information about how the windmills are run remotely from “Houston” (33), and briefly discusses why they are politically controversial: mostly because of fossil fuel propaganda and concerns about how they kill birds, though this threat is much smaller than is often assumed (20-23).

The book then mostly turns away from wind farming toward Gundy’s reflections on his relationship with the rural Illinois landscape of his childhood and, to a lesser extent, the rural Ohio landscape of his professional life. Place is always important in Gundy’s work, and his discussions of it here are Wind Farm’s most engaging passages. He talks about his youthful belief that “one day I could escape” the farm if he saves his money and reads enough (11). Science fiction and 1960s folk and rock music offer him visions of the broader world he might encounter. Just as the other Mennonites of his generation in his town go “[o]ff to college, off to the cities” (101), Gundy leaves the farm for college, graduate school, and a teaching career. He doesn’t quite “escape” the farm, though, in part because his parents put some of it in his name and in part because, of course, we can never fully rid ourselves of our childhood’s effects on us.

Nostalgia is a tricky thing, and Gundy does a deft job wrestling with it without verging into sentimentality. For instance, he describes the numerous changes the family farm has undergone since he left home throughout the book, and he wonders what will happen to the farm once his brother stops working it (19). It seems that Gundy himself is unsure how he should feel about these changes. He knows that “[t]he wind farmer,” Gundy’s alter ego throughout the book, “is not going to save the land, or its people, or himself,” and cannot even bring himself to feel the proper amount of “rage and grief” that such changes might warrant. On the one hand, he “wishes he could write a large, important, terrifying book” saying something about the changes’ broader societal implications, but on the other, just imagining this book “bores” him (34-35). Gundy’s willingness to admit his ambiguous feelings is one of Wind Farm’s strengths. We live in bizarre and disturbing times, so it would be inappropriate to claim definitive answers.

Wind Farm’s other especially significant elements are two intertwining threads regarding Gundy’s positionality as a white man. He acknowledges that, growing up, his family, town and church “were whiter than white” (7). He returns to this lack of diversity in his childhood throughout the book (e.g., 107). His interrogation of his whiteness (and, more broadly, “ethnic Mennonite” whiteness) is sincere and is something I would like to see more of in Mennonite discourse.

Similarly, Gundy acknowledges that Mennonites everywhere in North America “live on stolen land” (50), and describes how his ancestors benefited from this theft (60). He is careful to include some of the history of Indigenous Peoples on the land in question (e.g., 112, 114-16), though, as he says, this history is incomplete because it has been recorded by whites (91). These passages are an important intervention in the current long-overdue discussion about Mennonite settler colonialism. White Mennonite readers should feel uncomfortable when they read these passages, and should think about restorative ways of rectifying this violence.

I’ve been reading Gundy for more than 20 years, and his work continues to be thought-provoking and enjoyable, even as he returns again and again to the same subjects, because of his constant willingness to reconsider these subjects from new perspectives along his journey as a lifelong learner. He refuses complacency. His work has been and continues to be an essential part of Mennonite literature in particular and Mennonite studies more broadly. I hope and believe that there are more books to come from him, but in the meantime, I am glad we have Wind Farm as a record of some of the experiences that have formed him and his work.