Nestled along the backbone of the Washington/Idaho border, the Palouse is the heart of the Northwest’s breadbasket. These rolling fields of grain become my home when I arrive as a transplant, a young teenager unfamiliar with wheat, tractors and agriculture.
Walking through the seasons I climb winter’s frozen furrows, wisps of wheat thin and green bent under grainy snow, waiting for the warm breath of spring. Wheat shafts shoot up tall and strong as cool rains give way to summer’s heat. Fat golden heads bob under a blazing sun, gobbled down by plump deer and pocket gophers, shelter to trotting coyotes and badger dens. Gentle winds caress the voluptuous hillsides, creating undulating patterns of bending wheat which move like the muscles of a belly dancer.
I stand atop a high hill, sheltered beneath a screen of black locusts planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps. At my feet the Palouse rolls into infinity, a rumpled carpet of variegated color. Fall harvest is under way; tractors rumble across the fields like squat green beetles with insatiable appetites, plumes of dust rooster-tailing in their wake. Our veneer of fertile soil was shepherded here by ancient winds and swept into steep-sided dunes. From my vantage point those dunes ripple away in parallel, like salty foam-flecked waves stacked before a sea breeze.
Beyond the horizon the Snake River cuts a deep canyon; barns across the Palouse fly banners in bold print: “Save our Dams!” People say those environmentalists want to take away our dams. Yet where are the fish, the salmon of yesteryear so thick you could walk across their backs from one side of the Snake to the other? Gone the same way as the native prairie grass, the native people, supplanted to make way for what today defines the Palouse: agriculture.
The seasons move like a tessellating patchwork of verdant green, dusty taupe, harvest gold. My steps now homeward bound, I hear a grain truck throw on its jake brake to fly screaming down the grade. It hauls grain to the Snake for the ever-hungry barges, bearing away the riches of the Palouse.