Recollecting life on the edge of the prairie

Portraits of queer life and landscape in rural Washington.

I’m looking at the grain elevator across the street from our rental house in Palouse, Washington, realizing that I don’t have any idea how a grain elevator works. I imagine the grain levitating up the shaft and through some portal. Lately, an illusive (and elusive) element has been threading itself through my rural life: I know that the grain doesn’t fall up the elevator, but I can’t get the image out of my mind.


I see this in June’s recent images. Fran is hunched, holding herself framing her own body sitting on the ground, which in turn frames scraggly plant matter at her feet, dissolving overhead into vegetive din that gives the sense of a secret garden, of place but not of a place. June has an uncanny ability to translate the rurality that we call home into a dialect that feels lived in, and yet secret, private: “If you know, you know,” as it were. Portraiture, in the right hands, lets people appear as they are, not as they ought to be, or what outside forces deem them to be; they appear as they are with the photograph/photographer conflated into one being, acting as a facilitator for recognition of a particular light that threads itself through a subject’s own light — a secret given and received and told, with the subject’s permission, to the onlooker. 

Josie off Rose Creek Road.
June T Sanders/High Country News


I’M STUCK ON THE WORD “RECOLLECTION” right now. Memory is too static. Etymologically, recollection feels more honest about loss, “a gathering together again,” from French récollection, or originally from Medieval Latin recollectionem, “to take up again, regain.” When you are recollecting, a filament reaches into what you might become. I see an image in my head — linens on a line fluttering against dusty hills, the light dappling my eye … recollecting my eye. The light is the event, and everything that intercedes is human intervention into the event. 

Etymologically, recollection feels more honest about loss, “a gathering together again.”
Left, Mill Street grain elevator. Right, tires off Whitman Street.
June T Sanders/High Country News

This summer, I’ve been busy recollecting, dredging what’s been lost and intervening in the event of my life. I had surgery at the end of July: MTF top surgery, aka bilateral breast augmentation. Two globes of silicone tighten the muscles in my chest. I spent weeks wrapped in ace bandages, playing video games in the air conditioning. Fiona, my love, took care of me, Marcia dropped off an enchilada, June and Taylor brought salad, Bridgette came and sat on the couch, bullshitting. I felt like a node in something like a community, more so in post-op vulnerability than ever before.  

Fran in the backyard.
June T Sanders/High Country News

Right before surgery, my friends organized a party at the local pool. The manager accidentally double-booked our gay pool party reservation with a 13-year-old girl’s birthday party. At first, we were wary. Everyone was in their freakiest swimwear ready for a private chlorine-fueled gay bash, but despite our reservations, we ended up effortlessly sharing the space. We sang happy birthday as the birthday girl cannonballed off the diving board, and they cheered us on as we did a diving board runway competition with categories like “most feral.” It was cute! I don’t know what else to say. Somehow, we’re making this thing work, we’re staying alive, imbibing in a bright possible spot, even though we sit like an island in the ambient knowledge that there are men in town with guns, beards and search histories. 

Bridge and Laurie in the arboretum.
June T Sanders/High Country News

Left, Sarah with folded hands. Right, view from North River Road.
June T Sanders/High Country News

The month before, in the town where my surgeon’s office is, 31 members of the white supremacist group Patriot Front packed into a U-Haul truck headed for a local pride event, “intending to riot,” making national news. Historically, this is just another blip in North Idaho’s sordid history of white supremacy and hate. But in our current climate, it feels like an intimately local example of a nationwide wave of anti-trans violence. I’m dizzy from holding all these depictions in my head: the trans body on the street, the trans body in the Idaho Legislature, the trans body on some guy’s phone. This aerosolized danger makes its way into the air, onto the wind, into the spiritual nether that floats between the different worlds that exist here. I think of June’s photos as the inverse of this negative affect. Maybe not “trans joy,” that’s too simple, too emphatic. There’s something sneakier happening here, something subtler: Trans images that let dignity resonate recollected, told slant with a deep feeling of the miraculous. 

Main Street Bridge from the railroad tracks.
June T Sanders/High Country News

Elijah behind the gazebo.
June T Sanders/High Country News

A secret given and received and told, with the subject’s permission, to the onlooker. 

Taylor stands on a butte, her gaze directed toward the rolling hills that are our region’s signature. The horizon is softly vignetted, dissolving into a field of pure tone, while the hills of wheat, lentil and canola crops are made strange by black-and-white and the vantage, slanting irregularly compared to one’s usual view down on the roads below. It is a landscape deeply marked by human activity but here it feels alien, endless, one figure centered rising above, out of it, recollecting a place in it. This was once natural prairie before agriculture laid out crops like a patchwork tablecloth, before land-grant universities, endless rows of student housing, Walmarts, Calvinist churches, the yearly flooding of smoke from nearby wildfires, and an atmosphere of capital which animates all ferrying of goods/ideas/people in and out of the region. In my time of need, June’s work offers me a kind of accord. Our being here is complicated, and depictions of being here must complicate. These images fulfill that imperative by giving secrets, showing bodies at odds with place, harmonious with place, peeking at stacks of tires, in the gay backwoods soft embrace of a friend, by manifesting a gaze that penetrates softly, barely, through a portal in the wheat. Like a body that gives itself to the diving board, to air, to water, where reflection and self meet, and finally to the raving arms of friends, bouncing softly buoyant: Here, we’re caught.   —Abigail Hansel


Taylor at Steptoe Butte.
June T Sanders/High Country News

June T Sanders is an artist and educator living in Palouse, Washington. She is an assistant professor with the Digital Technology and Culture Department at Washington State University and the recipient of the 2020 Blue Sky Curatorial Prize. She has also taught at Lightwork and the New York State Summer School of the Arts. Her images reflect a world yet to be.

Abigail Hansel is a poet and essayist from Idaho. Her work has appeared most recently in Northwest Review and SPORAZINE. She currently lives in Palouse, Washington, with her girlfriend and two cats.

We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.


Help us create more stories like this.This project was supported by a 2022 High Country News Western Communities photo essay grant and by contributors to High Country News.


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