The Palouse farming region in eastern Washington, near Moscow, Idaho is a beautiful patchwork of fertile farmland planted with spring and winter wheat, mustard seed, canola and garbanzo. The hills and creeks play a role in forming the unique designs found in the photographs of this rich farmland.
The Tuscany of the West
These hills are the result of blowing sand and ash from volcanoes many millions of years ago. These fertile and non-irrigated lands are like no other I’ve encountered in all my travels. Tuscany farmland comes close. Indeed, this area is called the Tuscany of the West.
I’ve traveled to the Palouse region twice recently. I enjoyed it so much the first time, a second trip was scheduled a month later. So I’ll have two blogs from this area.
A Drive to Steptoe Butte
The main photo spot in the Palouse is the drive up the circular road climbing to the top of Steptoe Butte. Here you will be greeted by many other photographers. When you are a tourist visiting popular areas for the first time, you must see the highlights, no matter how popular and crowded they may be. So up the winding road we go to get an elevated view of the surrounding farmland. From there we search for geometric patterns and hope for a landscape photograph uniquely your own.
Not being a farmer I cannot tell you why these crops are planted with such undulating lines. It appears the golden crop, likely winter wheat, is planted on the higher ground. I’m told the harvesting combines used here need to be self leveling, to keep the cab upright while being driven on these slopes. The photo at the very beginning of this blog was also taken from Steptoe Butte. It is one of the more iconic scenes from this region.
In the large printed version of this photo the writing on the grain elevator can be clearly read, Whitman County Growers.
A car drove along the dirt road, stirring up some dust. It was driving fast, so I’m assuming it was not a group of wandering photographers. Rather, it is likely someone commuting to work, or at least working the farm. Hope he takes time to appreciate the unique view he gets daily.
Driving Around the Palouse
From the nearby town of Colfax, Washington, a photographer in the summer months needs to set the alarm for about 4:00 a.m., as I recall. This allows for a quick coffee and the drive to Steptoe Butte for sunrise. A serious photographer generally wishes to be in place 45 to 60 minutes prior to sunrise. Surprisingly, some of the best photos are long exposures taken in near dark conditions. So when sunrise is over, what is a photographer to do? Well, we drive around the area aimlessly, looking for beautiful scenes. I was not disappointed.
For the photo above, I set my tripod 10 feet off of the paved road and waited about 40 minutes. You can see there are many clouds which were moving rapidly, allowing sun to peak through occasionally. My goal was to get the closest hill in the shade and the back hill in the sun. The darkened first hill has exactly the same crop as the bright gold middle section. Without the shade from the clouds you may not have been able to tell there was a separate hill. The shade helped define the layers. I call this painting with light.
I hope you can see why the tree at the very top of this blog is referred to as the broccoli tree. The above photo was taken near the broccoli tree. Fellow photographers traveling with me got some very beautiful photos with the sun rising behind it. I also took plenty of broccoli tree photos, but knew I likely could not capture a better photo than my skilled friends. Instead I concentrated on this ever changing scene as the sun rose.
In my photography I’m most happy when my photographs have so few objects in them they can be easily counted. Three is a good number, sky, clouds and crops.
The cafes, hotels and even the farmers are very welcoming to the tourists which invade this farmland daily. This farmer had several nicely painted signs informing us rookies this was mustard seed.
Do you think there is a formula used to calculate the damage done by tractor tires driving on the crop. Isn’t the crop damaged by these tracks? In Italy it was clear at times farmers rode through the crop spraying for pests. Here I’m not so sure. Maybe it is just proof farmers, like cowboys, can ride off into the sunset. I’ll need to return and take this photo at sunset.
The Haunted House of the Palouse
Photographers never know which photo will yield the best results. So while visiting the famous haunted house of the Palouse I clicked away as the moon rose, clicked as the sun set and I hoped for color to fill the sky. In total, I took 348 photos of this old home. Thank goodness for digital cameras.
The owners of this old scenic family home are too often pestered by unruly trespassing photographers and wild drinking college students. They trample the crops and steal from inside their old family home. If you happen to know where this house is and visit, please announce your presence to the owners and respect their land and farm.
Looks a bit like a scene from a Halloween movie. That is why the local college students will have a party, then dare each other to go inside this old house.
During my second trip to this house, some clouds developed early in the evening which gave me hope there would be a colorful sunset, but it just did not happen.
After packing up late in the evening, I got the idea it may be fun to take some long exposures of the moonrise. This photo was taken after we had initially called it quits for the night, well after 10:00 p.m. This photo was exposed for over 60 seconds. That is why the moon is blown out and looks more like the sun.
More photos of the Palouse will follow next week…