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Palouse Hills

Palouse Hills
Palouse Hills

The Palouse area of eastern Washington and north central Idaho elicits mixed feelings in me. As an admirer of topographic form, the rolling hills are a delight to discover and explore. At this time of year, combinations of earthy browns and greens (with splashes of verdant green from newly-emerged seedlings) dominate the landscape under dusty blue skies. In June, the earthier tones make way for the multiple shades of green of different crops under clear blue skies. Harvest gold, of course, follows in the autumn. It is the most beautiful cultivated landscape I've ever observed in person.

The structure of the landscape is the result of wind-blown silt (loess), deposited during the ice ages. Similar to riparian silt deposits, it is very fertile soil and conducive to intensive farming.

It is difficult for me, however, to suppress imagining what the landscape would have looked like two hundred years ago, when the hills were a far-reaching prairie covered with Pseudoroegneria spicata (bluebunch wheatgrass) and Festuca idahoensis (Idaho fescue). The area, however, suffered the same fate of most North American prairie. Only remnant patches of original prairie remain where some rare (and endangered) endemics can be found, like Calochortus nitidus (broadfruit mariposa lily) and Driloleirus americanus, the giant Palouse earthworm (thought to have been extinct by the 1980s, most recently seen in 2005).

Wikipedia's entry on the Palouse region provides some area history and the environmental changes brought about by agriculture.

The Palouse Prairie Foundationpromotes preservation and restoration of native Palouse Prairie ecosystems in Latah and Whitman Counties (in Idaho and Washington), through public awareness, education, literature resource, encouraging responsible local seed production, and acting as a leader or consultant in Palouse Prairie restoration efforts.”.


It's all about overpopulation (even in Canada!)
Funny how that's never discussed anymore as it was when I was a young person in the 60's.

A field of flax in full bloom, is much prettier.

It's a shame that more of the Palouse wasn't saved from the conversion to agriculture. The patches that are left are really quite beautiful at this time of year when the all the wildflowers bloom. Steptoe Butte (about 15 miles north of Colfax on hwy. 195) is a good place to see a relatively intact native ecosystem and also get the best possible view of the landscape (outside a plane).

I'll disagree with you on this one, Bev. This is such prime farmland that it was almost entirely under the plow over a hundred years ago (I'll agree, though, that the farming of marginally productive land elsewhere is a result of such).

Eric - shall we debate pretty vs. beautiful? I think there's a difference, myself. I know what you're saying though. I grew up on the Canadian prairies and witnessed the “blue lakes in the distance” effect of flax in bloom on hot summer days.

I spent some time on Steptoe Butte (will share some of those photos this weekend), and it does have a nice assemblage of plants. I suspect, though, that a slightly different community of plants existed in the hills even directly adjacent to it – deeper soils with more capacity to hold water than the shallow soils of the rocky butte.

I should also add that I agree with Cody that it is a shame that more of it wasn't preserved. I'm not at all saying that the current agriculture industry in the area needs to shudder its doors – in fact, I was quite pleased to see commercial signs in the area advertising locally-grown products (grown under similar regimes, locally-produced food is less environmentally expensive than something shipped in, of course).

When I was a student without a car at WSU I borrowed a bicycle and pedaled to Kamiak Butte, visible north of Pullman. There I found quite a marvel of native plants, even some calypso orchids in the tiny conifer forest on the upper north side. (And a wood tick found me, but I immediately got rid of it). As elsewhere in the intermountain region, once you get enough elevation to catch a few clouds a completely different forest ecosystem can and often does occur.

Have never been to Steptoe Butte, looks markedly less well vegetated in pictures.

Daniel -- you have managed to shoot a couple of incredible photos of a place I've tried shooting several times without much success. What you captured is what I was always trying to capture: the sensual forms of the rolling Palouse -- accented by cultivated lines that follow the earth's natural contours (though not always) This time of year - spring, earth-still-evident, emerging seedlings like a pale dusting of green powder on the geometry of the hills. Oh, I love it so much!!! I'm so glad to see these photos and hope you don't mind me "borrowing" one for my desktop screensaver. It is utterly beautiful, and I agree with you wholeheartedly that it is the most beautiful cultivated landscape I have ever seen (in person. Some of the rice paddies in Asia or parts of Tuscany would rival the Idaho/Eastern Washington Palouse, but I have never been to those places)

We used to attend the Lionel Hampton Jazz festival at ISU every year -- late winter, early spring. The rolling palouse hills would take my breath away every time. I just didn't have a good camera back then and it's been a few years since I have been there.

I was going to disagree with Bev, too -- until you piped in with exactly what I was going to say: that this area was being cultivated so long ago because of it's ultra-fertile soils that overpopulation is a non-issue in this case. And I'd also debate Eric about what's prettier/more beautiful. One can always find beauty, no matter what, even in a bombed out vacant lot. One cannot always find something "pretty." though. Which is better? Anyone's guess. ;-)

thanks for an awesome posting today, Daniel. Does my heart good to see something "human-made" in nature, that is also so exquisitely beautiful!

Thanks Maureen. Interesting that you and I think of the same places when considering other cultivated landscapes that might match or exceed the Palouse (but like you, I haven't visited them).

I have to admit to being curious as to what the area would look like with a dusting of snow. Some of the backroads one can use to get these intimate landscapes, though, are closed then (permit-access only).

And in response to Ron - yes, Steptoe Butte has little in the way of forest cover, unlike Kamiak. Speaking of elevation and forest cover, the nearby Mary Minerva McCroskey State Park is a good example. Interesting place - on one side of the road (the shady side), I found a Calypso bulbosa and violets, while on the sunny side, I found Calochortus elegans and fritillaries.

Daniel, your remark on the way we both thought of the same "cultivated landscapes" in relation to the Palouse reminds me of something my father said when he brought our whole family to Vancouver from Virginia (we immigrated to Canada when I was in highschool -- my dad, mom and 7 siblings) ... Dad saw the world the way an artist does, though he was not an artist by profession. When we rolled into Vancouver, then through the park and across Lion's Gate Bridge to North Van -- I think we drove up to the top of Capilano Road and were looking back (south) to the city -- he said he believed the cities of Vancouver, North and West Van must be one of the rare improvements "Man" has made on Nature. The twinkling lights, various forms of buildings short and tall, the bridges, parks, harbor structures ... in his mind, all of that was vastly more interesting and appealing than the dense forested slopes would have been in pre-human days.

Of course, there are as many points of view and aesthetic tastes as there are people on this planet. And though I believe he was right about Vancouver, I don't think that same idea is applicable to all cities.

The same could be said for rural landscapes, cultivated landscapes ... some are jewels that sparkle amidst the surrounding "natural" lands ... others have somehow made what was there less attractive. The Palouse of Idaho and eastern Washington are, imo, examples of the former.

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What is fascinating about this entry is that all the plants mentioned lovingly in the write up are inapparent while the undulating landforms are devoid of life. A true abstract of magic realism.
I disagree about Vancouver as it is the most hideous degraded landscape of the planet with the eyesore disease called human urbanisation crawling up Grouse Mtn eating the mountain like a flesh eating disease. The morons who build there whine about landslides, hey you havent figured this out which any self respecting australopithecine would know that you build villages in valleys not on slopes?
The only saving grace of Vancouver is Stanley Park absurdly right next to that abomination that forest of high rises in downtown. Vancouver was liveable when it was 300,000 now nearing 3 M it is not only unliveable polluted ugly with impossible traffic but unrecognisable. 50 years ago I was drawing already just massive Douglas fir stumps across the srteet at Wesbrook Crescent now nothing remains but pavement.
No human encroachment is not nice. It is ugly and definitely not artistic.
Can you imagine all of Vancouver like Stanley park?

Some day you will have to visit the loess hills of western Iowa,US. First preserved by the farmers - now by the state. most of them didn't need to be restored. I missed the spring blooms growing old is not where it's at.

It all goes down to that tired but true statement that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I never get tired of looking at nature whether it is human made or not. One of the most beautiful places in the world for me is Whiskeytown lake in Northern California and it is totally humanmade. Another totally beautiful place is the praire in Spring in Kansas. It is all spiritual to me.

Here is a shot of Calochortus nitidus, from Mary Gerritsen:


Not sure where she took the photo, unfortunately.

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