Chera Hammons: Poet and Writer

"…a slow shutter on ambulation…"

Tumbleweed Warning

Yesterday in the Texas Panhandle, we experienced sustained winds of around 40 miles per hour and gusts of up to 70 miles per hour. While this is windier than our standard windy day, it is not unusual for us to have wind like this. The meteorologists warn us, their concern apparent, to use caution and to check on our pets and the elderly (because the wind really does buffet small animals mercilessly and blow people over– I’ve seen it happen). We simply groan, tie down our possessions, and go about our days.

It is inevitable that while we are away from our homes, we’ll lose shingles, our fences will blow down, the hay will blow away right under the horses’ noses. Driving to work, if you must go on an east-west line, the wind pummels your car, skidding it sideways. You can’t use cruise control. If you must go south, it is easy to speed. If you go north, you will have to push the gas pedal to the floor to get up to 60, and you will be able to watch the needle on your gas gauge drop. It’s like driving into a wall of water. You will notice briefly that every driver has the same focused, tight-lipped expression you can feel on your own face. In certain places, gray dirt will blow around your car, and it will be like driving through the densest fog you’ve ever seen. You must watch for hazards. The birds can’t control their flight, and will hurtle in front of you without warning, or remain stationary in the air, flapping their wings furiously. The huge flag at Gander Mountain will rip in half, and its stripes will drape across the bridge at I-40. Road signs and mailboxes will topple in your path throughout the day. Metal pieces of barns will fly across the road. And then, there are the tumbleweeds.

The tumbleweeds, or Russian thistles, seeds of which apparently came to our area hidden in a cold-hardy variety of wheat seeds, are fascinating plants. When they are on the move, they seem more like animals than vegetation, skipping along with real intention until a fence catches them. Once I stood at a gas station and watched tumbleweed after tumbleweed get pulverized by cars on the frontage road, and it was indescribably satisfying to see the round globes explode into tiny golden twigs. Of course, anyone who lives here knows the annoying sound of tumbleweeds dragging under a car, caught in the undercarriage, and the fun of having to dig the prickly, unfriendly things out of places they have wedged. I have seen tumbleweeds blow suddenly against my horses in the pasture; the horses jump and run away, bucking, then look back with great offense. Tumbleweeds are downright bothersome plants. But during the Dust Bowl, they provided some small bit of nourishment to livestock, and some families even canned them and tried to eat them themselves (if you live in the Panhandles and haven’t read The Worst Hard Time, you should. Some of the details of life here during that era are simply mind boggling).

The research I have done about the Dust Bowl in order to write my YA novel has been engrossing, and it has given me an entirely new way to think about where I live. It is a decade that was touched on briefly in my school history classes, but it molded our area and its people forever. Reading about it, I recognize home– the ruthless droughts and near-constant wind, the people who refuse to give up, and to a lesser extent now, the sandstorms– and it feels sometimes like all we have learned to do is hold our dirt down better. The settlers who caused the problem by turning up too much of the grassland too fast– they did what nearly anyone in their situation would have done. Ask yourself what you would have done, given free acreage and a mandate to grow wheat, and then imagine having to grow more and more to make the living you had made the years before as the price plummeted. They didn’t know better then, and there were so many misconceptions floating around, like the incredible “rain follows the plow” theory, or the idea that the aquifers were limitless (in fact, many people still treat our aquifers that way). The ruin of the land seems to be the direct result of human nature. It seems a miracle anyone survived the Dust Bowl. I hope that we know better now; we have by now ought to have learned to be better stewards of the places that sustain us. I never fully appreciated before the tenuousness of our lives in this area. It is an area that was long called uninhabitable for farmers and the people relying on their produce. We mustn’t take that for granted. The story of the Dust Bowl is, if nothing else, a warning.

But back to the tumbleweeds. Look out for them. Yesterday when I was walking to my car, a student was walking 10 or 15 feet behind and a little to the side of me. She was on her phone. Without warning a tumbleweed shot by me going about 50 miles per hour, and I stopped short and nearly tripped. It missed me by a scant inch. I turned to warn the student, but it was too late. She tried to jump over it and yelled something like, “Oh my god! I have to go!” into her phone. She ended up making it to her car without further incident, and I suspect she learned a valuable lesson that everyone here has to learn eventually– Watch out for tumbleweeds!– they must go where the wind carries them, and they won’t watch out for you.

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