Photography in eastern Washington is especially popular in the spring when a patchwork of wheat fields turns various shades of green and yellow, while fallow fields remain brown. Watercourses, lone trees or small clumps of trees, and farmhouses dot the landscape and break up the grid patterns of the fields. Over all of this the undulating topography gives rise to highlights and shadows, especially when the sun is low on the horizon. This is a great time for photography, and Steptoe Butte is justifiably famous for the perspective it provides over the Palouse, perhaps the best-known area for growing wheat in Washington State.
As spring turns to summer, the colors become a more uniform gold, and in August the harvest begins. Fleets of combines and trucks roll over the hills, squadrons of raptors circle overhead looking for an easy meal of displaced mice and voles, and the grain is removed in a matter of weeks.
So what does a photographer do when the waves of grain are reduced to stubble? This was my first season of harvest, and although I initially despaired over the change brought about by the harvest, I quickly found another subject to photograph in the fields: the spoils. Combines and truck had scoured every inch of the planted landscape, and they left trails. Patterns in the stubble. Sometimes these patterns were chaotic and not very appealing, but in other areas I found simple to semi-abstract patterns that had appeal to me as something to photograph. Sometimes clouds in the sky complimented the patterns on the ground, and those were special days to be out with a camera. Late August and early September became a season to look for patterns across the harvested landscape.
Departure The zig-zag of several tracks gave me a vision of a race up the hillside to be the first to launch off into the unknown. The appearance of a single cloud that filled the blue space really made this photo for me. [Yes, this is a pre-harvest photo, but I liked it so much I wanted to include it here.]
Bat Clouds. High cirrus clouds form a bat-like appearance over a bright, harvested hillside. The brightness is due, I believe, to the shiny cuticle that remains on the outside of each segment of wheat stubble. At some angles to the sun, portions of the field can appear to be white, and I don’t find this to be very appealing; I usually try to add a tint of yellow back into those areas.
Cirrus and Furrows Wispy cirrus clouds contrast with a heavily furrowed hillside. All of these had to be photographed from an established roadway to respect private property rights. There is always a concern of fires being started in the dry stubble (as well as in the wheat fields just prior to harvest) by hot exhaust pipes, sparks, or other human sources, so I did not trespass on any portions of a field.
Contrarian The long diagonal of a truck that negotiated a hillside leaves a track that goes against the grain, which in my mind was contrarian in nature — hence, the title. Part of the fun of finding these patterns is identifying emotions, actions, or other human attributes in the patterns, much as we lie on a hillside and see shapes of animals, buildings, and such in the clouds drifting overhead.
Brave vs Timid One truck went on while another turned around (perhaps to empty a combine back up the hill). This conjured up a picture of a “brave” truck continuing on while a “timid” truck turned back.
I was amazed at how quickly these hillsides lose these features. Some hillsides are disced to return the stubble to the earth, others are simply beaten flat by a process that I don’t understand, and still other hillsides take on new growth because the weather at this time of year is still warm and rains occasionally sweep the landscape. The search for patterns in the remains of the harvest, like the harvest itself, has to be done relatively quickly. However, before too long the fields will be planted (more patterns) and new plants will begin to emerge (still more patterns), and the process never stops. A photographer has a good part of eastern Washington (and many other states as well) to be looking for these abstracts and patterns in fields that are planted and harvested.