Sunday, December 1, 2013

National Geographic Comes to Lancaster

Tumbleweed Tech and Other Place-Based Assumptions

National Geographic has come to the Antelope Valley and what do you think is on their minds? I'll give you a hint --- it's not an article about Joshua trees (or camel trekking).

Yes, once again, the Antelope Valley is shown in a bad light. It seems like we're always being featured for something negative --- skinhead gangs, exurbia and decay, feral dogs.

Here is Tom Wolfe, going at us in the book (and later movie), The Right Stuff. He is talking about test pilots and hardship postings. He says that Edwards Air Force Base "was up in the high elevations of the Mojave Desert. It looked like some fossil landscape that had long since been left behind by the rest of terrestrial evolution. It was full of huge dry lake beds, the biggest being Rogers Lake. Other than sagebrush the only vegetation was Joshua trees, twisted freaks of the plant world that looked like a cross between a cactus and a Japanese bonsai. They had a dark petrified green color and horribly crippled branches. At dusk the Joshua trees stood out in silhouette on the fossil wasteland like some arthritic nightmare."

He goes on like that for a while, then, speaking of winter rainfall, says that "the dry lakes would fill up with a few inches of water, and some sort of putrid prehistoric shrimp would work their way up from out of the ooze, and seagulls would come flying in a hundred miles or more from the ocean, over the mountains, to gobble up these squirming little throwbacks. A person had to see it to believe it: flocks of seagulls wheeling around in the air out in the middle of the high desert in the dead of winter and grazing on antediluvian crustaceans in the primordial ooze."

He's having fun, of course, and doesn't really care that our gulls come from Mono Lake and other inland seas. His tone is fairly universal. Our best representation in visual art is David Hockney's Pearblossom Highway, now owned by the Getty, and that's a piece that laughs at us more than with us. It's just the trend. So, for National Geographic, what have we done wrong this time?

This time it's our tumbleweeds. That's their topic and Lancaster makes the opening spread. Here it is.

Few of us will be surprised to be picked out for more disgrace. I've heard AVC called "tumbleweed tech," which I assume is intended to mean that we are yokels who think Los Angeles is a dangerous and foreign Other, and who don't hold with thissy-here notions of equality and world-is-round nonsense.

Yet on one hand, to be called a tumbleweed might be a kind of honor, really. This is one tough, smart, nearly-universal plant. In the US it's found in Hawaii and all the states except Alaska and Florida. Here is a basic summary from Wikipedia: 

"A tumbleweed is the above-ground part of any of a number of plants that, once mature and dry, disengage from the root and tumble away in the wind. Usually, the tumbleweed is the entire plant apart from the roots, but in a few species it is a flower cluster. The tumbleweed habit is most common in steppe and desert climates."

And, the article goes on to say,
"The tumbleweed is a diaspore, aiding in dispersal of propagules (seeds or spores). It does this by scattering the propagules either as it tumbles, or after it has come to rest in a wet location. In the latter case, the tumbleweed opens mechanically as it absorbs water; apart from its propagules, the tumbleweed is dead."

In his book The Calfornia Deserts, Bruce Pavlik describes how easily such plants spread. "Carried in sacks of grain, lodged in hoofs, and discharged [in poop], nonnative seeds found patches of plowed or otherwise broken soil that allowed establishment. Some were capable of dispersing on their own, such as the tumbleweed (Salsola tragus), whose seed-laden adults tumbled into every corner of the region with such speed that they become mistaken icons of the Old West."

National Geographic points out that they don't lawn well-watered lawns, using this image to compare Heaven to Hell.

If you're a resident of the Antelope Valley, you've probably hit some with your car during a windstorm. As members of the local ecological community, they are not very good neighbors, it is true. Wikipedia again:

"Tumbleweeds have a significant effect on wind soil erosion in open regions, particularly on dry-land agricultural operations where the outside application of additional moisture is impossible. One study showed that a single Russian Thistle can remove up to 44 gallons of water from the soil while competing with a wheat crop."

Maybe that is what these ones are doing --- stopping by the aqueduct for a final drink. They need that last gallon or two.

It's bad news in many ways. Our final Wikipedia paragraph is this one:

"The amount of water removed from fallow land more subject to erosion would be even higher. In addition to the moisture consumed by the plant, significant damage to the protective soil crust is caused by the tumbleweeds' motion. The damage to the soil surface then provides exposure for subsequent wind damage and topsoil loss."

We see them daily, so much so that I wonder how many people even can name a tumbleweed for what it is, while it's still growing? I took this photo a block from my house.

As a guess, the leaning pine tree on the far right background is the non-native Italian stone pine. The grass is all cheat grass, a worse plague on the Western ecoscape even than tumbleweeds.

National Geographic traces tumbleweeds' arrival to the late 19th century via rye seeds first planted in South Dakota. Once they were here and got the first generation settled, there was no getting rid of them. (I think the Native Americans say that about the white people.)

As Pavlik says, we think of it as essentially "Western." The Writing Center's head, Diane Flores-Kagan, reminded me that the movie The Big Lebowski opens with a marvelous tumbleweed sequence. I like this movie a lot, though am annoyed when students compare me to The Dude. Am I really so dissolute as all that? I like to think of myself more as Michael Douglas, the English professor in the movie Wonder Boys. He starts dissolute but pulls it together at the end, gets the girl, and even finishes his book. His students publish their books too, and everybody lives happily ever after.

Look at the card from this DVD version of Lebowski, and see how many of these characters you can still name.

Of course, if you've seen Lebowski even once, you know that it has a catch-phrase: "the Dude abides." So for the movie, the tumbleweed fits as an image and metaphor. Come what may --- earthquakes or urban renewal, Round-Up or weedwhacker --- the tumbleweed just keeps tumblin' along. As my poetry teacher Charles Wright once said, "Sonnets, cockroackes, and coyotes will always be with us."

To that list, add the tumbleweed.


The AVC blog does not represent the views of the California Native Plant Society, the Board or District if Antelope Valley College, or the directors known collectively as the Coen Brothers. Blog shepherd, Charles Hood, can be reached at


  1. Thank you for sharing! Out of all the things they could highlight in the magazine, I'm glad it was the tumbleweeds.

  2. While I don't like that we are viewed in such a negative light (this is news to me, I've never heard anyone say anything bad about the Antelope Valley besides the wind or the heat) I agree with them, for the most part. I like tumbleweeds, I like watching them go racing across the desert and it can be fun to watch them explode when you hit them with your car. But, being in the only house on my street that has a fence in our front yard, if any happen to be wandering by we have a vortex sort of wind current going that puts them in the corner by my front door. They can be annoying, but I'm used to them, as is anyone who has lived out here for a good amount of time. So, Nat Geo bug off.

  3. I love Nat Geo but this is sad..for me. This place is so beautiful and changing constantly. I've only learned this through my own observations. They could have done a piece on the hawks or the addicts or how this city (Lancaster) is changing and growing rapidly....but no.....tumble weeds seriously...why?? I would have been more satisfied if they did an article on the elusive dancing woman of Avenue K. Haha!

    1. Ha yeah, there's a few crazy people out and about that dance or talk to the air. There's a lady I've seen randomly around that pushes an empty stroller around, and a woman by the Devil's Punch Bowl that walks along the road and yells at everything. There are so many worse-better things for them to do an article on, I really don't know why they would choose the tumbleweeds.

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  5. ok, so as the title suggests, how do i get rid of the crows that are bombarding my garden ?

    We have had a bird feeder for months now and are used to seeing lots of smaller, nicer birds :)

    Now over the last 3 weeks there are flocks of crows hanging around, and we are not the only ones, the neighbours are also getting them in their gardens and they are causing untold mess as they rip open the bin bags and spread it all over the pavements and roads :mad:

    I have never seen so many crows before in one place, it's almost like a scene from The Birds !!

    So unless i stand in my garden with an air rifle and shoot at these bloody things, how can we scare them away ?