painted hill

Badlands produce colorful heaps and mounds called painted hills in central Oregon. Striped horizontally in soft, interbled hues of red, green, and pale gold, with punctuations of black manganese, the Oregon Painted Hills embody volcanic ash worked by plants, animals, and groundwater into ancient soils, now compacted into claystone layers. At present a region of semiarid steppe, this “geological library of antiquated earth,” in the phrase of geologist Ellen Morris Bishop, records more than thirty million years of climatic and biotic regimes ranging from subtropical swamp through temperate oak savanna. Except for brief skullcaps of bunchgrass, little vegetation can root in the dense weathered clay of the Painted Hills. Their life is in their colors, which can shift subtly before one’s eyes as the clay takes on the moisture of rain and lets it go. The Painted Desert of Arizona contains similar formations, called pintadas by early Spanish Americans, and by the Navajo, “land of the sleeping rainbow.”

John Daniel