Archive for February, 2013

Springtime begins on the Palouse

28 February 2013
Palouse sunset

Palouse sunset (18 Jan).

Introduction to the Palouse

The Palouse is a region in southwest Washington that slops into Idaho and Oregon.

It is characterized by soil dunes, apparently formed in the last Ice Age by winds blowing from the south and west. It was once covered by a rich grassland – forest habitat. It was the home of the Nez Perce tribe, and their relatives, before White Man arrived. The Nez Perce bred a spotted horse known today as the Appaloosa.

After White Man arrived, the land was mostly used for pasture until developers decided that it would be good for wheat farming. Nearly the whole region was converted to farming by the end of the 1800s. Less than 1% (by one estimate) of the original Palouse grassland habitat remains today, although there are some attempts in the towns to offer safe havens for native plants and animals. Today the region is known as the largest lentil-growing region in the United States. It exports about 80% of its crop to foreign countries, as most Americans don’t know what lentils are. The region is also known for its two land grant universities, the University of Washington (in Pullman, WA) and the University of Idaho (in Moscow, ID).

Oddly, UW developed a strong electronics engineering program. It attracted many bright engineers, such as my nephew Andy, and before him, a guy named Edmund Schweitzer III. Edmund developed an electronic product for the electric power industry that was digitally-controlled, and created a company to build it. Today, Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories (SEL) employs over 4,000 people, and I am one of them.

The Coming of Spring

For the first time in many weeks, it didn’t freeze over last night on the Palouse. At least, not in Pullman.

This morning when I walked to work (about 6am) snow was falling from the sky, but it was melting on the ground. And this afternoon when I walked back home, a gentle rain was falling.

While walking though the parking lot of the SEL manufacturing building, I spotted a flock of over 100 birds fly towards me and land in two trees. They were flying like starlings, in a way that reminds one of wind-blown smoke. Their flight had a kind of grace to it; a kind of pride. I walked up to the trees where they were perched and watched them for a while. They weren’t starlings; they were cardinals. I had never seen cardinals in such a large flock. Suddenly, as if on command, they all fluttered up and off their perches, and away.

These are the sights of the Palouse. A pair of big hawks seem to live in (or near) a nearby cell phone tower, and the stream that flows down into the South Fork of the Palouse River is populated by showy magpies, an ancient gift – it is thought – from Asia.

The cardinals were probably just passing through. I have also seen geese fly over this area. But this is pretty far north for cardinals. Their movement north seems related to the increased human population in their old favorite southern habitats.