CLAY JENKINSON: The Future In Context — Tussling With An Urban Tumbleweed Invasion

In the past three weeks, North Dakota has been invaded by millions of tumbleweeds. I do not exaggerate. I live well within the capital city of Bismarck, in a peaceful and thoroughly manicured subdivision. We’ve had a prolonged drought and unusually high winds this fall, in a land that is semi-arid in a good year, and the wind routinely blows more here than in any state but Nebraska. Suddenly, out of nowhere, tumbleweeds have mounted an assault on Bismarck and other plains towns and cities unlike anything I have seen in my lifetime. They come rolling through the streets like something in a grim Great Plains novel, like O.E. Rolvaag’s classic Giants in the Earth” or (more recently) Kent Haruf’s Plainsong.”

City Responds To Tumbleweed Emergency

The infestation is so overwhelming that the city of Bismarck has stepped up to provide free tumbleweed collection service on a few specified days. This announcement came exactly one day after my elderly neighbor Eileen paid $350 to a private contractor to carry her accumulated tumbleweeds away. They were the size of a haystack. I like to imagine the conversations that took place in City Hall as the magnitude of the infestation became clear.

A front-end loader and dump truck from the city of Bismarck provide emergency tumbleweed removal from the otherwise peaceful and well-manicured subdivision in which our correspondent lives. (Clay Jenkinson)
A front-end loader and dump truck from the city of Bismarck provide emergency tumbleweed removal from the otherwise peaceful and well-manicured subdivision in which our correspondent lives. (Clay Jenkinson)

The experts say this year’s gargantuan crop of tumbleweeds is a perfect storm of severe drought, fields with no cover crop and unusually high winds. Tumbleweeds favor disturbed landscapes. They have a hard time where the native grasses are flourishing.

One day this past week, my doorbell rang at 7:15 a.m. Unless the Prodigal Son (Luke 15) has just turned up after a decade of profligate wandering, nothing good can be at the front door at that early hour. Half-dressed, I opened the door to find my neighbor, Delnita. We have had no more than 10 short conversations in 17 years.

“Good news,” she said. “The city is sending out emergency crews to carry the tumbleweeds away this morning.”

There was a stage pause here while it dawned on me that my long-suffering neighbors had noticed the herd of about 200 large tumbleweeds that had bunched up in my vegetable garden. Why? Because my tomato cages were still up, more than two months after the harvest, and that was enough to stop their otherwise inexorable drift.

“Ah, the garden,” I said. She said, “The homeowner needs to get them to the curb. I have to drive my mother somewhere, but when I get back, I’ll be glad to help you.” I declined her help. Though she could not have been more friendly, the subtext of her offer was, “We’re not sure you would actually do this on your own initiative, so by offering to help I have given you no choice.”

DIY Tumbleweed Tussling

I put on the right gear, found some thick gloves, and ventured out to joust with a mountain of noxious weeds, like Don Quixote. There is no way to kick them to the curb like beach balls, though I toyed with that possibility. At this point in the season, they are brittle, stiff yellow-gray skeletons of plants that were green and even rather attractive five months ago. You have to grab them as close to the bottom as possible, where the stem branches out. If you grab them too high, the flimsy limbs at the top just break off. They are not heavy, but they are depressingly bulky. Some are as large as a Volkswagen Beetle. They scratch but they don’t, like thorns, break the skin. With proper patience and dexterity, you can haul between three and five at a time. It was about 200 feet to the curb. I made no less than 35 trips.

Every few minutes, I stopped to rest and think about other ways to get the job done: hooks, wheelbarrows, a very strong leaf blower … If I lived in rural North Dakota, I would have been tempted to burn them with a propane torch. In town, that would have been madness, not to mention illegal, but it would have been a big mistake in the country, too, in a drought year like this one. I had a nightmare vision of burning tumbleweeds rolling across the Great Plains like Greek fire, touching off grass fires and exploding haystacks in every direction. That’s when the knock on the door comes at 4:15 a.m. and it is not a friendly neighbor.

At one point, I thought of assailing them with my riding mower. That would dull the blades and maybe jam up the mower from time to time, and it dawned on me that if each tumbleweed has up to 250,000 seeds, and there were 200 tumbleweeds over what I assumed was the surface of my garden, that I would be dropping approximately 50 million seeds. Even during their weeklong tenure in my garden, they dropped so many seeds that I am seriously concerned about next year’s garden. I’m tempted to order a 50-gallon drum of Roundup. (This is merely a joke: I use no artificial chemicals in my garden).

I went into the house to get warm. No more than 20 minutes later an army of trucks roared into the neighborhood — dump trucks, loaders, pickups and SUVs with orange lights on the roof. It took them maybe 10 minutes to pack up my contribution and move on to about a dozen more within sight of my house. If I had missed that narrow window of opportunity, I would have had to find some way to deal with that mountain of tumbleweeds myself and there was no innocent way to do it.

This is the first time tumbleweeds have become an urban epidemic in my lifetime, and I doubt the city of Bismarck has a budget line item for “Tumbleweed Removal and Disposal.” Given the population of approximately 75,000, I’m guessing that this emergency operation cost the city tens of thousands of dollars. On the first day of collection, the city hauled away 103 big truckloads.

A Tumbleweed By Any Other Name

From an evolutionary point of view, the tumbleweed, more formally known as Russian Thistle (Salsola tragus) is one of the supreme achievements in creation. It will grow almost anywhere. It outcompetes nearly every other plant, including other weeds, for nutrients and moisture. At the end of its life, it gets brittle and then snaps off its root structure just above the ground. Then it begins to, well, tumble in the wind.

A mature tumbleweed is round or nearly so. If there were no tree or fence between the Canadian border and Laredo, Texas, that weed (assuming its structure could hold up) might roll right on down the vast sweep of America’s Central Plains. Every time it rolls, it sheds hundreds or thousands of its seeds, which are designed to shake or break off the long brittle tendrils as they strike an object or just roll over the ground. An apple seed has to be ingested by a mammal or bird if it wants to travel more than a few feet from the base of its trunk. It has no internal transportation system. A cottonwood seed flies downwind on a one-use parachute. Wherever it strikes the ground it tries to grow, but cottonwood seeds fail at a ratio of millions to one. But a tumbleweed can lay a seedbed across whole Texas counties.

The tumbleweed is also one of nature’s most aptly named plants. If you think about it, the name perfectly describes the plant in the fewest possible words. It’s a weed — ergo we don’t like having it around — and it tumbles. The names of other Great Plains weeds — Downy BromeKnapweedKochia and Leafy Spurge, for example — don’t tell you much about them, and nothing of their behavior. But tumbleweed….

Seeds Of The Problem: Origins Stories In Conflict

You would not think that a plant so humble as the tumbleweed would have a disputed origin story in America, but it does. Here’s where everyone agrees. They are not indigenous to North America. They have their origin on the Eurasian steppes near the Ural Mountains. Somehow — accidentally — they found their way to the steppes of the New World around 1870, thanks to the U.S. Homestead Act. In fact, their point of origin in the U.S. is by consensus allowed to be the village of Scotland, S.D., in Bon Homme County. Population 659. The official Scotland, S.D., website occupies less than a single page. If there is a commemorative tumbleweed sign on an abandoned bank building near the old grain elevator, the website does not mention it.

Tumbleweeds favor disturbed landscapes and often fill voids left in built environments that have been abandoned. (Flickr/ jimsawthat)
Tumbleweeds favor disturbed landscapes and often fill voids left in built environments that have been abandoned. (Flickr/ jimsawthat)

Here’s where the disagreement comes in. Most believe that a few seeds of Russian Thistle were carried inadvertently from Ukraine to South Dakota in a flour sack filled with flax seeds. The year is usually put at 1873. The seeds found a way to sprout 5,225 miles from their home turf, (which shows that they will, indeed, grow anywhere) and within 15 years they had carpeted the entire intermountain region of the United States and much of California, too. Their success in the New World has been astounding. The immigrant farmers who did this deed have not been identified, but they have had an enormous impact on the Great Plains, most of it bad, a little of it positive.

The rival story is that a few tumbleweed seeds found their way to South Dakota on imported sheep about the same time. This seems implausible for a range of reasons. A few of the flax advocates say the seeds came in a shipment of flax, not an immigrant family’s personal effects. We may never know.

After finding only a brief and disappointing paragraph in Richard Manning’s otherwise excellent book, Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics, and Promise of the American Prairie, I turned instead to Google. In addition to the information I needed, I found two fun facts about tumbleweeds. 1. They were the first plant to grow back at the Nevada Test Site after detonations of atomic devices. 2. Their reproductive life begins only after their death. The dead plant rolls across the prairie making possible the reproduction of the species. This differentiates them from oaks and humans, for example, who mate in their prime.

“Cares of the past are behind. Nowhere to go, but I’ll find Just where the trail will wind. Drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds.”

— Sons of the Pioneers, 1934

Tumblin’ Tumblin’ Tumblin’

Even though they are not native to America, tumbleweeds arrived just in time to become one of the handful of universally understood icons of the cowboy era, which began around 1870, along with barbed wire (1875), sod houses and windmills (1890s). In cowboy poems, songs, westerns, paintings, posters, television series and Hollywood films, tumbleweeds rolling down the dusty street of Dodge or Tombstone signify windswept, empty and desolate places where most traffic moved on two-track trails and no town had the slightest pavement.
The tumbleweed evokes lonesomeness, a godforsaken landscape, the profound impermanence of anything on the frontier out beyond the last toehold of settled civilization. More recently tumbleweeds have symbolized the fate of Western boom towns after the roughnecks have drifted off. Or the general outmigration from rural America to our cities.

In 1934, the Sons of the Pioneers recorded the song “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.” You’ve heard it, whether you know it or not. One year later, Gene Autry released his own recording of the tune. You can listen to Autry’s excellent cover, with its scratchy, slightly distant imperfections, at iTunes or a range of other providers. When I was a young newspaper photographer, back in the darkroom era, I sold a black-and-white photograph of a big tumbleweed in the middle of the street to a couple leaving the Great Plains for a moister life somewhere East. They wanted to remember.

If you can imagine it, tumbleweeds are actually sold as decorative items throughout the United States, and you can order seeds online. I know a man from northwestern Kansas who not only has a private wrench museum, but who will shellac or otherwise gussy up a tumbleweed for you if that is your aesthetic.

I’ve lived in my current home for almost two decades. In that entire time, I have never had more than half a dozen tumbleweeds per year find their way to my yard. When they do, I just ignore them because the next big wind is sure to carry them away. This year’s infestation is the worst I have ever seen in my life, including the years in which I lived out on the Great American Desert in northwestern Kansas, where you would often see them lined up along the east-west fences in the late fall, sometimes for several miles. Out there (out thar), in fact, ranchers often lift up one or more strands of their barbed wire in the fall so the tumbleweeds can tumble right on through.


Good Governance or Good Grief

City of Bismarck crew makes progress against tumbleweed infestation on Clay's street. (Clay Jenkinson)
City of Bismarck crew makes progress against tumbleweed infestation on Clay’s street. (Clay Jenkinson)

I am grateful to the city of Bismarck for stepping up to handle this plague. These past couple of weeks have shown not only the responsiveness of a well-run city government but also its emergency response time. This is good government at its best, and it is why by large percentages citizens tend to trust their local government more than the state or national government.

This has been an unsettling period in U.S. history. We’ve had a near-miss on a presidential coup d’état, a pandemic that just refuses to go away, a severely disturbed economy and social disruption, the recent 17-year return of cicadas, unprecedented wildfires in the American West, a prolonged drought and now the Invasion of the tmbleweeds. What’s next? Frogs and locusts? As the dry wind rattles through my house on these wild fall nights, I sometimes think I can hear the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse riding in on the western horizon.

You can hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, The Thomas Jefferson Hour,” and the new Governing podcast, Listening to America.” Clay’s new book, “The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota,” is available through AmazonBarnes and Noble and your local independent book seller.

Clay welcomes — actively solicits even — your comments and critiques of his essays, interviews and reviews. You can reach him directly by writing cjenkinson@governing.com or tweeting @ClayJenkinson.

One thought on “CLAY JENKINSON: The Future In Context — Tussling With An Urban Tumbleweed Invasion”

  • Lillian Bachmeier December 5, 2021 at 1:16 pm

    You made my day! This article was great! It takes me back to my youth when I nestled up to the radio to hear Gene Autry come on every week. Playing ‘cowboy and Indians’ on the prairie, we vied for the position of being Roy or Gene. To think, at age 88, I can view them in person through Youtubes.

    When the tumbleweed rolled across the prairie in the late 30’s and early 40’s, we were so poor that it was our job to carefully gather these for use as a rug. Place and smashed down in front of the door outside, it cleaned (somewhat) the much accumulated dirt and grime on our shoes.

    Also, want to tell you that my grandson, Lewis, was very appreciative of your autograph. Thanks for being so kind. To refresh your memory, you signed this for me at the Sarah and your symposium at the Bismarck Library.

    Lewis asked if I told him that his grandfather knew you. Robert Lewis was ahead of the humanities department at UND as well as director of the Charles Dickens Foundation. He was a wonderful man and a socialist.

    I don’t know if you have time to read the Tribune. We heard that they have been bought out. My son looked it up and a hedge fund bought it. We surmize their idea is to make money and resell it. I feel this is a huge loss. Although the Tribune’s owners seem to endorse Republicans, their daily paper is quite neutral.

    They allow letters such as mine. Thanks again.


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