Blowin’ in the Wind

Blowin’ in the Wind

They are an icon of the American West, and a beautiful annoyance.

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.”

Patrick Pulis, of Pueblo West, Colorado, cleans up an abandoned building lot that is now being converted into a marijuana-growing operation.
A house, possibly abandoned, buried in tumbleweeds in Eads, Colorado.
Roadside in Hudson, Colorado.
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.”
Bertha Medina removes tumbleweeds from her barn in Hanover, Colorado.
Advertisement

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.

Alice Glover poses for a portrait in her home in Eads, Colorado, where tumbleweeds had reached approximately four feet high in the yard.
Patty Neher removing tumbleweeds from her yard and Jeep in Hanover, Colorado.
Maribeth Gallion, Madeline Jorden, and Julia Corlett at a tumbleweed cleanup at Chico Basin Ranch, Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Tumbleweed Trails, a record by the Sons of the Pioneers. Curiously, the album does not include the group’s “Tumbling Tumbleweed” (embedded below), arguably the most famous piece of tumbleweed-related music.
The Tumblelog is fireplace fuel made from Arizona tumbleweeds. The Tumblelog was a consumer product, never taken into full production, invented in the late 1970s/early 1980s at the University of Arizona.
Jesse Jenkins with a decorated tumbleweed during the Haigler Annual Fall Tumbleweed Festival in Haigler, Nebraska.
A house and cars buried in tumbleweeds in Eads, Colorado.

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.”

A controlled burn during a cleanup at Chico Basin Ranch in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Josh Reiswig, a firefighter and assistant engine captain, doing tumbleweed mitigation in Vogel Canyon, La Junta, Colorado.
Municipal document storage, Pueblo West, Colorado.
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.
The TT-4_mini is a spherical tensegrity robot prototype at UC Berkeley in California. "Tensegrity" is a portmanteau, combining "tensile" and "integrity”: the structure is similar in shape and movement to a tumbleweed.
Various processed forms of tumbleweed owned by Dr. Martin Karpiscak at the University of Arizona.
Surrounded by tumbleweeds in Chandler, Arizona.
Washed green tumbleweeds in the kitchen of Hank Bruce and Tami Jill Folk in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. Bruce harvested the plants for tumbleweed soup, one of several edible foods made from tumbleweed.
Maintenance workers construct the city's annual tumbleweed Christmas tree in Chandler, Arizona, a tradition that began more than 60 years ago.
Jim Ver Meer, the “Tumbleweed Wrangler," of La Junta, Colorado, has constructed a machine, and a business, to mow down tumbleweeds at a rapid and affordable rate. His contraption is one of several designs in use.
Share this story