Blowin’ in the Wind
The first year I lived in rural Texas, I cheered whenever I saw a tumbleweed. Unlike roadrunner birds, which are not nearly as leggy or purple as Warner Brothers had led me to believe, these awkward twiggy bundles looked exactly as they did in Saturday morning cartoons. On windy spring days I would almost crash my car trying to capture a video as they bounced across the highway. It is no surprise that these otherworldly plants, which arrived in the US in the 19th century as a brittle form of the Russian thistle, are nicknamed “wind witches.”
It is no surprise that these otherworldly plants, which arrived in the US in the 19th century as a brittle form of the Russian thistle, are nicknamed “wind witches.”
Several years ago, Colorado-based photographer Theo Stroomer heard about a small town on the Colorado plains that had been inundated with tumbleweeds. Though they’re rarely covered outside local press, tumbleweed storms actually happen with some regularity. They occur when wind and weather systems conspire such that the spiny clumps tumble in by the hundreds of thousands, or sometimes millions, engulfing stores and houses and cars in the process.
For the past six years, Stroomer has tracked these storms across the Midwest and Great Plains. The storms are a hassle and a danger—although, as far as Stroomer knows, no one has ever died in one. They’re also increasingly common: the tumbleweedification of the American West is accelerating because of climate change and is further intensified by human activity.
First brought to the United States in the 1870s, the tumbleweed grew famous in popular culture as a solitary nomad. That role is changing. Throughout the year, millions of tumbleweeds bury roads, houses, and sometimes entire communities in the western United States.
In these photographs, Stroomer undermines the trope of the tumbleweed as a lonely traveler moving innocently through an empty, picturesque West. He also discovered that he’s mildly allergic to his subject: “If I’m running through a pile of them up to my waist, I get pretty sneezy,” he told me. Even so, he has developed a grudging respect for the tumbleweed. “I wouldn’t say I like them, but there is a certain fondness that comes from seeing all the ways they’ve entered into the culture. They’re a problem—but they’re an interesting problem.”
The tumbleweed grew famous in popular culture as a solitary nomad. Now millions of tumbleweeds bury roads, houses, and sometimes entire communities in the western United States.