Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Tumbleweed Connection

Here in New Mexico there’s an old joke that gets aired out every spring, and it goes like this:

Do ya know why it’s so windy in New Mexico?
Because Texas sucks and Arizona blows!

This pretty well sums up the blustery New Mexico spring experience. After two wind-whipped springs on the mesa, I thought we’d weathered the worst. I was wrong. On December 19 of 2012, we were visited by the worst windstorm so far, a brutal blast from the west with a sustained velocity of 50 mph and gusts approaching 60 mph. The next day we found a large, heavy wooden wellhead cover—one that hadn’t budged a centimeter during previous gales—on our eastern fence line, reduced to a pile of kindling.

Unfortunately, on the morning of the windstorm I had to go into work, which involved being lashed mercilessly by the wind as I fought my way from the house to the car, drove to our front gate, and fought my way from the car to the gate. There I discovered a barricade of tumbleweeds, three deep and as high as the gate, plastered against the other side by the wind. They were packed so densely around the lock, I couldn’t reach it.

Donning my gloves, I reached over the top of the gate and carefully began extricating tumbleweeds one at a time from the prickly mass. As I pulled them over the top rail and let go, I had to snap my head back as they shot eastward like cannonballs and kept going. Blow sand pelted my bare skin, stinging like a swarm of mosquitoes.

Once cleared and unlocked, the gate squealed in protest as I tried to swing it against the wind, gradually forcing it open by leveraging all my weight and strength. As I drove through, I glanced in the rearview mirror. My hair, pulled back into a neat, smooth ponytail when I’d left the house, looked like it had been styled with an eggbeater and decorated with a wreath of thorny twigs.

The western fence line, after the windstorm

Tumbleweeds are ubiquitous in the wide open spaces of the West. The mature, dried upper part of Salsola kali (commonly called Russian thistle) typically snaps off from its root ball, and the wind does the rest. As it tumbles, the plant scatters a prodigious number of seeds. Native to the steppes of Russia, this invasive species came to the U.S. in the late 1800s, mixed in with flax seed brought over by Russian immigrants.

In my peripatetic youth, I bounced and rolled as much as any tumbleweed, rootless, covering a lot of terrain as I searched for that place that felt like Home with a capital H. Now, in middle age, I am a body at rest. I wish to live lightly in this austere, fragile landscape; to acquire intimate knowledge of my desert-dwelling animal kin; to be sustained by this place as well as they are. I begin to let go of some of the tiresome trappings of human society. It pleases me to feel them lose importance and drop away. And it pleases me to watch the tumbleweeds roll by.

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