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Of windmills and babies

Don_Quijote_and_Sancho_PanzaThe other day, we were driving through the early summer evening. The sun stood low in the sky, to my right extended an expanse of ripe oats, and to my left stood a field of windmills. Not the kind of picturesque windmills that dot the Dutch landscape, nor the type of windmill that Don Quijote decided to do battle with. No, these were the modern day windmills that supposedly generate ecological energy as their huge blades turn in the wind. I am all for alternative sources of energy, but on this particular evening the blades weren’t turning – there was no wind. Instead, six sculptured pillars tapered upwards, silhouetted against the light sky. ¬†On one windmill, the blades did turn – but so slowly the energy output must have been negative – and it was like watching a slow-motion dance, graceful and elegant.

It also made me think of one of my favourite ever books, The Lost Language of Cranes by David Leavitt. In the book, there’s a sad little passage where welfare workers – or it may have been police, I don’t have the book at hand to double-check – enter a flat in which they find a child. The child is sitting in a cot, staring at the window. It barely registers the entry of the welfare people, instead it raises it hands and smiles, mimicking the movements of the building cranes outside the window. It transpires the child is starved for contact, it has been fed and kept clean, but no one has talked to it, sung to it, had any sort of human contact with it. So the child has created context by bonding with the cranes, the constant in its life.


In real life, I don’t think that child would have survived. We need social contact, as a species we depend on it. It’s like that old story about the caliph in Damascus who decided to do an experiment. This was a scientificallyinclined (and, in view of his experiment, a rather cold-hearted) man, who was interested in trying to understand why some infants died young and some didn’t. Maybe infant mortality was a major issue at the time in Damascus – or maybe the caliph was bored.

Anyway, the caliph had twenty odd infants brought to the palace where they were installed in a common nursery. The staff was instructed to feed them, change them, keep them clen, but never, ever to touch them or talk to them. One by one the infants died, new infants were brought in to fill their place, and they died too. Except for the baby who lived in the crib closest to the door. For some reason that child thrived, and no matter how he racked his brain, the caliph couldn’t understand why one child lived while all others died.

After spending days turning this little conundrum round, the caliph concluded that in the day-to-day, the surviving child was treated exactly the same as all the others, so therefore, the caliph reasoned, something had to happen at night. One evening, the caliph stayed behind in the nursery, hiding himself in an adequate corner. An hour or so later, the door creaked open and an old cleaning woman entered. For the coming hour she wiped floors, dusted windowsills, polished the oil lamps and in general made sure the nursery was spick and span. In his corner the caliph fidgeted, bored to tears by having to watch someone do something so mundane as sweep a floor. Once she was done, she made for the door, but before she exited, she stooped over the nearby crib and picked up the child. With the cooing infant in her arms, she sank down on a stool, and for the coming minutes she sang to him, holding him to her heart. And so that child survived while all the others died.

I’m not sure what conclusions the caliph drew from his experiment. I do hope he gave up on doing new ones.


A child without spiritual nurturing dies – or grows up stunted. Not that the windmills care – or the cranes. They dip and turn, they wheel and lift. Their movements have no communicative purpose, they don’t live or breathe, they are man-made, inanimate creations. A child, however, is a miracle. And every child deserves to have someone hold it and love it, kiss it and care for it. Sadly, not all children get the start they deserve. Maybe some are reduced to standing by their window, arms raised as they try, futilely, to communicate with the windmill that stands on a nearby field, blades moving slowly in the weak evening breeze. I hope not.

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