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An urbanist abroad in the Palouse

Palouse barns Credit: Chuck Wolfe

My Facebook page usually caters to a distinctly urbanist clientele. But the most “liked” photos on the page last week were far from urban, with subjects dramatically divorced from city life.

Almost every person who clicked “like” is a transit, bike or urban density proponent, leaving me to wonder why my photographs attracted such sudden admiration for life on the farm.

I took four days off to photograph the Palouse, a beautiful region of southeastern Washington near the Idaho border, with 14 others. The trip was organized and led by online photo personality Steve Huff and Seattle Leica enthusiast Dr. Ashwin Rao.

I staged the best photos far from Richard Florida’s creative class, amid the rural character that to some is a world forgotten. There, the relationship between land use and transportation displays differently, and clouds, roads, houses and colors show more art than science, especially at the end of a Palouse Spring.

But envision an agricultural landscape, and look back at the farm-to-market forces from which many cities grew. Take a harder look, and see the reasons forests and farms have been elemental to growth management legislation, emulating the naturally evolved agricultural region that has always surrounded the City of Rome.

On the trip, I suppressed my urban interests in favor of banter about lens choice and camera type, and I doubt my traveling companions knew why I kept asking questions of our Moscow, Idaho-based guide, Ryan McGinty.

Me: “Why are there lone trees?”

Ryan: “They say there was once a barn next to each one.”

I thought of shade trees in cities, past and present, and remembered again that rural and urban share a common sun. Nothing like a wide green canopy to keep a barn cool in the heat of a Palouse summer.

I have spent time in the Palouse before, documenting storefronts and streets for my recent book, Urbanism Without Effort. Like those trips, I had a mission in mind last week: to share the remnants of homesteads and small towns past, and buildings and settlement forms that motivate nostalgic reinvention. Small markets, the local bar, the library, the school. No longer needed in their former context, they rise again in reinvented urban settings.

I’m reminded of something I saw online recently, a National Geographic tool for curriculum development. The accompanying “Love it or Leave It Organizer” worksheet has students assess the relative advantages and disadvantages of urban vs. rural living, using a range of fundamental factors such as the availability of food, housing, jobs, health and natural beauty.

Students can list the pros of rural and urban living in the ”I’d LOVE to live in an urban [rural] community because…” column. Beaneath it, as if inspired by the likes of the scenes displayed here, the worksheet goes contrarian, with the simple phrase, “On second thought…”

In the photos presented here, those second thoughts speak with color and tribute to a lifestyle still full of urban precursors, framed by a landscape so basic and poetic that it retains a special place in the Facebook urbanists’ world.

All images taken and composed by the author in Washington State and Idaho. 

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