For the second year in a row, it’s been a challenging season, and for the same reason as last year: I have a new home. I am now settled in a small town in the Palouse region of far eastern Washington. It’s been a strange and often surprising journey to get here, but we’re very happy to have arrived and anticipate staying for many years. I’m quite pleased to be relatively close to some of my favorite country in central Idaho, as well as near many places I’ve always wanted explore in northern Idaho and northeastern Oregon.
And it certainly doesn’t hurt that the Palouse region is itself a major and justly-famed destination for landscape photographers! What with all the necessities of moving and settling in, I’ve only begun to scratch the surface and I still have a lot of exploring to do. But I do have a few preliminary observations.
The Palouse is really fun to photograph.
I have to humble myself here and admit that my attitude towards this beautiful region was not always a healthy one. Like almost every American landscape photographer, I had seen many, many images of rolling hills, colorful fields and picturesque barns, and I tended to dismiss the region as cliched and overphotographed. Then I actually came here and could no longer ignore the glaringly obvious, viz. this place is really pretty and shooting it is a blast. It’s going to be an interesting challenge to dig deeper into this landscape and create original interpretations here, but playing photographically with the form, lines, colors and light is irresistibly fun.
The Palouse is connected.
For all its unique character, the Palouse lies at a nexus of many different landscapes and is in many ways a mingling of all of them. It’s a transition zone between the austere desert of the Columbia Basin to the west and the forests and rivers of the Clearwater and Bitterroot Mountains to the east. The greater Hells Canyon region and the massive and wild Salmon River drainage lie to the south and southeast. The basalt beneath its lush soils represents lava flows that stretched from Idaho to the Pacific and its taller buttes are geologic outriggers of the Rocky Mountains. The fates of local wheat fields and chinook salmon are bound together by the Snake River. I’m really looking forward to getting to know the area in the context of the entire region.
The Palouse is dramatic.
Photos from the Palouse tend to be all flowing curves and lush colors that paint a picture of a kind and gentle land. This depiction isn’t wrong, but it’s incomplete. The bucolic fertility of these windblown hills is a delicate veneer laid above and beside two of the most cataclysmic geologic landscapes in North America. Just below the soil lie almost unfathomable amounts of basalt, frozen lava that once poured from the ground as rivers of fire hundreds of miles long. The Columbia River Basalts are measured in cubic miles, tens of thousands of them, so many cubic miles that they depress the surface of the earth in central Washington. And to the west the wheatfields become increasingly broken by massive scars in the ground, as though a maniac giant struck the land repeatedly with an ax. These are the Channeled Scablands, the erosional marks of the largest floods we know of, floods that stripped the flesh off central Washington with sudden gushes of water greater than the volume of all Earth’s rivers combined. The Palouse hills feel like Tolkien’s Shire, a soft and pleasant land with a much bigger and more violent world lying just beyond its borders.
The Palouse has surprises.
It would be easy for a jaded landscape photographer to conclude that the view from Steptoe Butte and a smattering of old barns is all the Palouse really has to offer. This would be a mistake. I, for instance, was not expecting to be able to photograph autumn larches within a few miles of my new home. I also didn’t realize that there are many lovely wooded valleys tucked between the wheat-covered hills. There’s also a remarkable abundance of kestrels (I’m going to need a better long lens!). The meandering course of the Palouse river is intriguing and not often photographed, as are the more forested parts of the Palouse across the state line in Idaho, not to mention its sister farming regions south of the Snake and on Idaho’s Camas Prairie.
And with lower Hells Canyon, the Blue Mountains, the Wallowas, the Seven Devils and my beloved Salmon and Selway Rivers fairly nearby, I’ll have no trouble keeping busy.