Palouse in Autumn

August 12, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

Wood Grained Fields I'd seen many photographs of eastern Washington's Palouse region before knowing where it was.  Rolling hills covered with terrain following furrows, lit from the side by rising or setting sunlight - scenes from here have graced calendars, post cards, screen savers and even movies.  I'd even heard the name - Palouse - but just assumed it was in Europe or some distant Asian landscape.  Once I was enlightened on the location it became one of my destinations for a trip west.

The usual photographs of the Palouse show it in spring, verdant hills covered with multicolored crops in bloom, a velvet landscape of illuminated hilltops and shadowed valleys.  I'm an autumn person - browns, reds and yellows are my preferred palette.  Being in Montana one fall I took the time to visit the Palouse to see what that season would offer.

Harvest season, that's what.  The cut fields show off the rows where crops once stood, following the curvature of the hills like a relief map.  It's as if someone laid a topological atlas on the ground and you could see the rises and falls in three dimensions.  Wait for the right light and it jumps out at you.

There are only a couple of places you can get high above the farmland, ancient buttes left by volcanic activity thousands of years ago whose cores are resistant to the erosive force of rain and wind.  These are gathering places for photographers, much like the California beaches are havens for sunset watchers.  Pick a spot, pick your lens, compose, set exposure, and wait for the light to paint your image.

Sometimes, even standing there, it's hard to not believe it's all a painting, the creation of an artist working at the junction of realism and impressionism.  Broad strokes interleaved with fine details, with the occasional man-made structure to provide perspective.  Notice the barn on the left casting a shadow onto the field?  It would house two of those great big tractors you see in corn, wheat or soybean fields on the Plains.  I placed it there, along with its shadow, to give a sense of size for the surrounding fields.

I love the way the late afternoon sun highlights the crest of each hill, drawing a bright line right at the top as a way to distinguish it from the valley behind.  I love how the fields are variegated, even where the same crop was growing, showing the differences in soil types across the hills.  I call this image Wood Grain Fields because it reminds me of the items you see at art fairs, the product of the woodworkers who laminate different woods and the cut, carve and polish them into fascinating shapes.  An example of man's mimicry of nature.


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