Notes & thoughts on the tumbleweed:
In January of 2020, a strange phenomenon occurred in Washington State: waves of tumbleweeds overtook driving cars, consuming the vehicles and the disoriented drivers and passengers within them. Scenes of the event appeared on local news channels under the name Tumblegeddon. Rescue efforts took hours to dig the cars out of the 30-foot-high mound of tumbleweeds. A rescued woman explained, “normally, you can drive right through them.”
The tumbleweed is synonymous with the American West. Hollywood depictions of the western “frontier” often start with scenes of this dry, prickly weed bouncing across the desert. However common this weed has become, the species was originally invasive to the region. The parent plant to tumbleweeds, Russian Thistle, was accidentally introduced to the United States by Ukrainian immigrants in 1873 in contaminated bags of flax seeds. Russian thistle is a beautiful, robust, emerald green color. In the arid west, it is often the only green in sight, a mirage of sorts. When the parent plant dies and dries, the tumbleweed is born; carried by the wind it can spread up to 250,000 seeds per plant. The more disturbed the land, the better for seed germination. The land of the “wild west” offered this disturbance as land grabs, mining, and various other forms of terraforming took place. Tumbleweeds have now taken over the landscape, suffocating other vegetation and radically altering ecosystems.
I grew up on a farm in southern Idaho, pulling these weeds from the fields by hand. We tried to stop their spread and contamination of my family’s alfalfa seed harvest. The stems of the plant are stiff and would often cut through my skin. Sometimes, the roots of the weed were so strong that it took falling over backwards to yank them from their place.
Original polaroid, 2.5”x3”, 2021
The tumbleweed symbolizes the frontier myth. This myth, which romanticizes the European colonization of the United States from the 17th through 20th centuries. The false imagination of the Western US being a vast, uninhabited landscape helped support ideas such as manifest destiny.
The frontier myth remains influential not only within the Western US region but in American identity, values, and ideals more broadly, including in ideas of rugged individualism, ideas of freedom, and upward mobility.
The tumbleweed has taken root in the American Imagination.
As the United States continues to be both a key emitter and obstruction in work to mitigate climate change, the concepts tied to ideas of the frontier myth have global impacts.
The tumbleweed becomes an example for some of the entanglements of US culture with the climate crisis.
The conditions that allow for weather phenomena such as tumblegeddon, are climate conditions. Rising desertification and drought in the Western US, has allowed Russian Thistle to propagate exponentially, causing waves of tumbleweeds to overtake cars. While we often think of climate disasters as being linked to hurricanes and rising sea levels, the wave of tumbleweeds is also a sign of a changing climate and the inherited legacies of settler-colonial terraforming.
As desertification and land disturbance increases across the United States from anthropogenic climate change, tumbleweeds (as they are now formed from a myriad of invasive plants, not just Russian Thistle) are expected to expand their territory to inhabit most of the country.
I’m interested in the tumbleweed’s representation of the frontier myth; how they propogate in both domestic and wild spaces; their resemblence to neurons; their link to the American imagination; and their physical transformation of the land.
Tumbleweeds are often the first plants to take root in a disturbed landscape. These plants can stabalize soil for other plants to then flourish.
So I’m also interested in what we might learn from these weeds-their adaptability and ability to flourish in the face of disturbance.