5:5:13 Russian Tumbleweed

A few weeks ago, watching a Ken Burns PBS documentary about the Great Dust Bowl of the 1930s, the name "Russian tumbleweed" leapt out at me. After sections of the Great Plains lost valued topsoil to merciless wind, many ranchers resorted to feeding their cattle the only vegetation around: Russian tumbleweed. Moreover, the landscape came to be pictured as dry, uprooted tumbleweeds rolling across an empty landscape.

The documentary showed the Great Dust Bowl was a man-made environmental disaster, underway for decades. The Homestead Act in the 1800s brought many farmers to grow wheat in parts of the Great Plains--centered in the Oklahoma Panhandle--never suited to the crop. So after the native grassland was plowed under and planted in wheat, the thin topsoil was quick to exhaust. Droughts came and the whole ecology of a vast region of the Great Plains--Colorado, Kansas, Texas, New Mexico and aforementioned Oklahoma--spiralled down.

Left to thrive in this barren landscape were "tumbling, tumbling tumbleweeds."

[Russian tumbleweed]

Tumbleweeds, in our collective cultural consciousness, seem essential to all Western, cowboy, and past the Continental Divide.

But why are they called "Russian tumbleweeds?"

Well, the Russian tumbleweeds (a thistle, Salsola tragus) are really Russian. Siberian to be precise. They are an invasive plant species accidentally introduced into the Dakotas in the mid-1800s. They thrive where the native ecology has been compromised and the topsoil exhausted. The aftermath of the Great Dust Bowl.

You see, the Russian tumbleweed is not really a romantic visual icon of the Old West. It is something worse.

Not what ecologists call a "leading indicator species" (like the canary in the mine), the tumbleweed is a "trailing indicator species." Confirmation the environment is out of whack, the land pushed past sustainability, and only a wasted natural resource left. So Russian tumbleweeds are really testament to the manmade environmental disaster where buffalo once roamed.

That brings up the question of other trailing indicator species we might have around us. Flora and fauna possibly among the last to go extinct, surviving under all conditions. Some quick suggestions:

I've heard among fish, one species survives in the chemical-laden outflow of the Mississippi River in Louisiana: the simple goldfish.

Can one doubt a dystopian world won't be inherited by garbage-happy cockroaches? Or Norway rats? Or scavengers like raccoons, seagulls, and crows?


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The Cat at Light's End

Read Charlie Dickinson's story collection, The Cat at Light's End, as an ebook in these downloadable formats:

.mobi (Kindle)
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.pdf (for PCs)



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