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Earth Notes

Earth Notes - Lonely Tumblers


Flagstaff, AZ – Earth Notes: Lonely Tumblers

They're the American West's most enduring symbols of open lonely spaces and of the pioneer urge to wander restlessly and, like many such symbols, they're fairly new here. In fall and winter the dried-up, skeletal remains of tumbleweeds can be spotted rolling across highways and piling up along fencelines throughout the West's arid regions, reminding residents and visitors alike of the iconic images that have appeared in countless movies.

Tumbleweeds have wandered far from their homeland on the Russian steppe. They were accidentally brought to South Dakota in the 1870s, and within a decade were already considered a major scourge on the Great Plains.

Tumbleweeds spread like wildfire because in the summer each plant dries up and breaks off at its base, then rolls effortlessly in the wind, dropping up to a quarter-million seeds as it bounces along. It's been said that you can see the path a tumbleweed has taken across a freshly plowed field by the line of green shoots that appear in late winter.

For farmers and ranchers, it's small consolation that those bright green, red-striped shoots are tender and edible. They soon toughen and dry out as they approach adult size. And the mature, dried plants that accumulate in heaps pose a genuine problem, as they can push over fences and cause wildfires.

Tumbleweeds have found a new home in the American West. They're here to stay as a symbol both of open space and of how interconnected the world is.

-David Lukas