By Karl Terry: Local columnist
As I drove to Clovis from Portales early Friday morning the prairie was on the move around me.
The sand was blowing alright, but more impressively it was the first really good tumbleweed day of the season.
Speeding down the highway in a small car it appeared that herds of strange animals were scampering across the road in front of me through the gritty eastern New Mexico morning air. This continued until I rounded the curves and began to head north. A group of tumbleweed “Riders on the Storm” met my Toyota six abreast across the two lanes. With nowhere to go I mowed two of the outriders down without a thought.
A few seconds later the biggest tumbleweed I’ve seen in my life — a strapping 6-footer looms in my lane. With traffic coming up behind me there’s nothing to do but to take it head-on. It wacked my grill, hood and windshield with a resounding crack and shattered. I was relieved to see the windshield still intact but a good portion of the battered tumbler was still attached to my grill and more of it was entangled in my right windshield wiper. Ten miles later the last of the weed dropped off as I made the turn into a parking space.
One of the earliest songs I remember from my childhood was “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” the Sons of the Pioneers version my grandmother used to play for us on the record player. No doubt it was that song, written in the middle of the 20th century, that associated the tumbleweed with everything Western.
In truth the Russian thistle, which is the classic round tumbleweed, was a European import and first appeared in North Dakota about 1877 with immigrant farmers bearing flax seed. Chances are the earliest American cowboys didn’t even encounter tumbleweeds. It spread quickly across the plains though, helped out by the United States Department of Agriculture at one point with the thinking the plant might make good feed for stock in times of drought. Some animals will eat it, but not readily.
Since the days of barbed wire, tumbleweeds have been the bain of area farmers and ranchers. They can stack up pretty deep on a fenceline over a windy winter.
The late Dora-area columnist for the Portales News-Tribune once described she and her husband’s efforts with a pitchfork tossing the tumblers over their fenceline to the neighbor’s place as “liberating them to run to the next fenceline.” She said that of course the neighbor upwind of them was doing the same thing so it was an exercise in futility.
Years ago it became fashionable to use a tumbleweed as a Christmas tree. I’ll admit here that early in my 26 years of marriage my wife convinced me to round one up and paint it white so she could decorate it in a Southwestern motif. What a mess!
I’ve heard of at least two individuals who actually made a buck off of tumbleweeds. A few years ago when eastern New Mexico was overrun by the thorny bushes an enterprising gentleman with a tumbleweed eating machine was hired by Roosevelt County to rid fencelines on county roads of the pests.
A lady in southwest Kansas also started a Web site as a family gag advertising her tumbleweed farm and mail-order tumbleweeds. The site showed her fictional family operation harvesting tumbleweeds and showed furrows of young tumbleweeds growing in her field in the spring.
The joke was on her as the orders reportedly began pouring in and she claims to have been making $40,000 a year mailing out weeds to Hollywood and Japan.
Over the years I’ve seen many a field that looked like it was planted to tumbleweeds and I probably even joked about what a bumper crop of tumbleweeds it was. It just took the Internet to find the market.
Karl Terry writes for Freedom New Mexico. Contact him at: