The Palouse is solitary, rising, falling, ripples on a wind-blown pond, deep green beyond imagining in spring, golden in late summer, a place of quiet and freedom and endless possibility. This is what creation must have looked like when new and pristine, before the laws of thermodynamics took hold.
|A westbound grainer is approaching the summit of Providence Hill in southeastern Washington where the BNSF mainline from Spokane to Pasco climbs out of one of the hundreds of coulees and crosses one of the hundreds of plateaus created during the Ice Age Floods. Over perhaps a million years, perhaps even longer, ending as recently as 12,000 years ago, what is now southeastern Washington was scoured by repeated cataclysmic floods, ice dams freezing, thawing, freezing, thawing again, and the water behind them surging toward the Pacific, stripping topsoil, stripping down to basalt in places, fracturing, cutting clean like precious stone, in other places depositing silt that blew like sand after the water receded, covering the ground with new soil, in places, over and over and over. |
For at least the past two million years, earth's climate has imitated the early computer game Pong, bouncing back and forth between cold and hot, hot and cold. During cold cycles, ice sheets would advance like infantry, moving steadily south in the northern hemisphere, further south and further south, eventually to begin a gradual retreat as the climate warmed. These oscillations occurred about every 100,000 years, within which there were several mini-oscillations, as the ice moved first south, then north, then south again, eventually retreating northward until the next cycle of cold.
A century ago, Milutin Milankovitch suggested that changes in the Earth’s position relative to the Sun trigger the beginning and end of glaciation periods. These changes involve cyclical (1) variations in the earth's elliptical orbit about the sun, (2) changes in the degree of tilt of the earth's axis and (3) wobbling of the earth as it spins. Milankovitch combined the cycles to create a mathematical model calculating that Ice Ages occur approximately every 41,000 years. Subsequent research confirmed this prediction between one and three million years ago. About 800,000 years ago, the cycle lengthened to 100,000 years, matching the Earth's orbital variations caused by the gravitational wells of Jupiter and Saturn.
These glacial cycles, and the floods that went with them, scoured the landscape of southeastern Washington in many places down to the basalt deposited during the Miocene, when lava repeatedly flowed like maple syrup from fissures in the earth's crust, piling higher and higher with each eruption, in some cases reaching depths of 15,000 feet. (For a full discussion of the Columbia River Basalt Floods, see https://www.waltersrail.com/2021/12/bnsf-trinidad-hill.html.) Today, this land is composed of dry canyons with steep walls cut into the lava, plus patches of lava lying on the surface of the plateau, called Scablands. The southeastern part, where Trinidad Hill is located, contains the silt that created the rolling hills of the Palouse -- deep fertile soil that supports most of Washington's wheat farming.
|Eastbound grain. This image clearly shows the height of the plateau above Lind Coulee. Westbound trains climb almost to the top, then slide through a narrow passage carved by overflowing flood waters.|
|Eastbound autos have just passed the summit.|
|More exposed basalt.|
This is Providence Hill in the Washington Palouse. The hills and sky stretch endlessly, beckoning, but not like a siren, rather like a mother calling her children. There is no past, no future, just the eternal now. If you think otherwise, you have not visited this place, have not seen its hills nor listened to its silence. As Milton put it: "Solitude is sometimes best society."
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