Recently I was searching for books by one of my favorite authors, Kent Haruf, and found West of Last Chance by Peter Brown and Kent Haruf. Peter is an exceptional photographer and their collaboration of images and words are compelling. I urge you to check out Peter’s website www.petertbrown.com. Kent is well known for several books including Plainsong. West of Last Chance chronicles the high plains that, on a much larger scale, have similarities to ‘my’ eastern Washington. I quote from West of Last Chance, “You have to know how to look at this country. You have to slow down. It isn’t pretty, but it’s beautiful.” I wish I had said that.
It appears to me that the wheat country of eastern Washington comes in two forms – the well-known Palouse with rich soils and reliable moisture, and what I call ‘Hardscrabble’ with lesser soils and less average precipitation than Tucson, AZ. In the ‘Hardscrabble’ region rainfall (and snow) is sporadic and wheat is planted every other year in the fall to capture hoped for winter moisture or spring counting on later rains. Land holdings are large, often family corporations of several thousand acres. If the family owns 6,000 acres then only 3,000 can be planted each year. The fallow land then has one year to soak up whatever moisture is available. An interesting aside – I was told the children of these family corporations are well educated and often go off to become professionals on their own. It is not uncommon, however, that they leave these professions and return to the family farms.
When I was standing on a dirt road trying to get pictures of the harvest a pickup stopped and the driver asked me (nicely) what I was doing. I explained that I was enamored with this region and was attempting to document it, its people and their culture. He urged me to go up where all of the workers and equipment were and to just nose in and take photos wherever I wanted. I later learned that he and his brother owned and operated this land. All of the workers were friendly and many were family of the owners. They graciously stopped their work for snapshots. The icing on the cake was when they offered me a ride in a combine. Roger was my combine driver. He is an affable man filled with opinions that flowed as freely as the wheat from his huge machine. He talked very knowledgably of soil nutrients (his specialty), rainfall, snow pack, wildly fluctuating temperatures (and questionable decisions made by his employers). Lack of sun never seems to be a problem here and did not enter the conversation. Roger operated the combine with skill and dexterity adjusting for the height of the grain, slope of the terrain and other variables. The cab interior was somewhat like that of a small airplane, which he commanded like an experienced pilot. I reacted like a kid on a carnival ride.