Friday, November 25, 2016

From My Nature Journal: Running with the Bison

Well, ok, they weren’t really bison, just tumbleweeds…

Remember those old movies where a horseman would be galloping alongside a herd of wide-eyed bison as they stampeded across the plains, dust flying amidst thundering hooves? I had my closest experience ever to that interesting feeling today…

On our way to Chicago to visit family for the Thanksgiving holiday, we happened to leave the day following an early and burly winter storm yesterday, a fierce and old-fashioned nor’easter; its blizzard conditions packed some ferocious winds in excess of fifty miles per hour. But the snow had given way by today to a crystal blue Colorado sky, and the roads were clear and dry. We’ve driven that angled stretch of Interstate 76 between Denver and the Nebraska state line many times, always marveling at the piles of tumbleweeds stacked up against the barbwire fences on the east side of the highway. In fact, on the days we’d made a predawn departure, they had often provided quite the curious scene as a colorful morning sky dawned beyond them.

But here’s the thing: yesterday’s storm had moved all the tumbleweeds to the west side of the highway, and, as so typically happens, yesterday’s gale force winds from the east were matched almost completely today by their corresponding counterforce from the west -- all that unstable air had to somehow get back to the place it had occupied the day before! So as we traveled east and northeast along the interstate, hundreds and hundreds, nay, thousands of tumbleweeds had to do the same, all of them being blown back to the east side of the road. The first time we came upon a bunch of them moving east or northeast with our car, I commented to Gail that I felt like we were in one of those old movie scenes surrounded by a stampede! We, of course, traveled ‘with’ the ‘herd,’ inevitably running over many as they exploded in the wind around our car. But what a sight the vehicles were on the opposite side – many of them, cars and trucks alike, completely covered across their grills with growing tumbleweed layers. It made them look like a bunch of thickly bearded goblins running down the road.

Tumbleweeds have always fascinated me. (Apparently they’ve also fascinated my sister Denise – she once asked if we’d bring her one in Chicago, a request we were glad to oblige. But it sure took up a lot of room in the back seat and we still find an occasional poker sticking out of the cloth. Also, I’m not sure what my beloved brother-in-law had to say about it…) As we hike, we see them as small as basketballs and as large as Volkswagen Beetles. The pair shown below to the left were a couple of random ones we saw as we walked along a Las Cruces, New Mexico trail beside the Rio Grande.

In spite of their ubiquity in cheesy western films (picture one now rolling lazily across the dusty ghost-town street), the most common species in the interior west today is actually not even native but invasive. It’s called Russian Thistle, and is reputed to have come over in a shipment of flax seed from Eastern Europe to North Dakota in the 1870’s. Who knew? But there are lots of different kinds, and they vary widely in size and structure. Wikipedia says, “A tumbleweed is a structural part of the above-ground anatomy of a number of species of plants, a diaspore that, once it is mature and dry, detaches from its roots or stem, and tumbles away in the wind... Tumbleweed species occur most commonly in steppe and arid ecologies, where frequent wind and the open environment permit rolling without prohibitive obstruction.”

Beyond their physical fascination, I haven’t taken them particularly seriously over the years except when I try to aim my car at them as they cross a highway. You get points for that, you know, even if it makes your wife nervous. But farmers and agronomists have learned through hard experience to treat them much more seriously. Not only do they crowd out native foliage, but in drier regions they also starve both native plants and dryland crops of much needed moisture, each tumbleweed plant using up to forty gallons or more of water during a growing season. They also can negatively impact soil erosion, and produce fire hazards as they stack up in massive piles against buildings or vehicles. By and large, they are bad dudes.

But back to the ‘diaspore’ thing from the Wikipedia article. Though it’s just one word in the explanatory paragraph, this is the part that has always fascinated me most. Tumbleweeds are made to roll, not to provide forlorn and lonely ambience for old westerns, but in order to disburse their seed. Plants have different methods for seed dispersal – they can explode them, fly them, hitchhike them on animals or humans, or just drop them – but I think tumbleweeds are the only ones where the whole plant becomes the mechanism to deliver its seed wherever the wind rolls it. As it rolls and breaks down, seeds fall, or small pieces of the plant break off with seed attached, finding potential welcome in a harmonious place. They leave a mark of their presence wheresoe’er they roam.

I want to leave seeds of life,
hope and faith wherever I go.
How about you?

Noxiousness aside, of course, I guess in a different way I want to be like that, too. I want to leave seeds of life, hope and faith wherever I go. How about you?

Now thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and reveals through us the sweet aroma of his knowledge in every place… a sweet aroma from life to life.  
(2 Corinthians 2:14-16)
~~ RGM, from a 2014 entry in my nature journal,
adapted for my blog on November 25, 2016

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