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If our tumbleweed snowman could talk

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

Horns honked, apparently in approval, as James Moya stood atop a ladder Tuesday along Interstate 40 adding metal eyes and a carrot nose – actually an axe handle painted orange – to Albuquerque’s 2014 Tumbleweed Snowman.

Perched alongside the freeway every year since 1995, this year’s snowman is 13 feet tall, 14 if you count the welded steel cap atop his head, and one of the largest ever.

A crew from AMAFCA, including from second to left, Christopher Cordova, James Moya, John Nix and Brandon Trujillo are photographed by Kevin Troutman, left,  after installing the annual tumbleweed snowman off of westbound Interstate 40, west of Carlisle, Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2014, in Albuquerque, N.M. The 14-foot snowman is made of three tumbleweeds found in  the South Valley last week. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

A crew from AMAFCA, including from second to left, Christopher Cordova, James Moya, John Nix and Brandon Trujillo are photographed by Kevin Troutman, left, after installing the annual tumbleweed snowman off of westbound Interstate 40, west of Carlisle, Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2014, in Albuquerque, N.M. The 14-foot snowman is made of three tumbleweeds found in the South Valley last week. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

“He is big,” said Chris Cordova, the Albuquerque Metropolitan Arroyo Flood Control Authority truck driver who harvested the three enormous tumbleweeds used to make the iconic desert display.

What started as a lark by flood control authority staff, a nod to the region’s aridity, has become an increasingly elaborate tradition. Moya, a welder for the agency, has in recent years built an increasingly elaborate steel superstructure to hold the snowman together, complete with an adjustable center pole to lower his hat as the tumbleweeds shrink in the winter weather.

When the nearby freeway interchange was rebuilt in the early 2000s, construction crews added a small platform on the dirt embankment behind their new crash barrier, providing a better platform for the structure needed to support the increasingly large snowmen.

Albuquerque’s celebration of the tumbleweed in our snowman embraces, whether we know it or not, a classic story of American immigrant success.

Flood control authority workers keep their eyes open all year for the best tumbleweeds growing along the agency’s network of channels. Known formally to biologists by its Latin name “Salsola tragus,” the tumbleweed is more quintessentially American than is often realized, brought to North America inadvertently in seed packages in the 19th century. It proved uniquely suited to the place, and quickly made itself at home, spreading along rail lines across the continent, said University of New Mexico biologist Tim Lowrey.

The Tumbleweed Snowman makes its way to its perch on I-40. (John Fleck/Albuquerque Journal)

The Tumbleweed Snowman makes its way to its perch on I-40. (John Fleck/Albuquerque Journal)

Tumbleweed origin stories differ, but only slightly. German-Russian Mennonite farmers are believed to have inadvertently brought the seeds of our modern tumbleweed, also known as Russian thistle, mixed in with flax or wheat seed packets they brought when fleeing the Russian czar in the 1870s.

The wheat, a hard red winter wheat, turned out to be well adapted to the harsher climates of the western Great Plains and changed farming there forever, according to journalist Timothy Egan’s “The Worst Hard Time,” a history of the Dust Bowl and Midwestern farming. The tumbleweed, meanwhile, tagged along for the ride, moving easily with the humans as they remade the continent.

Its most common means of spreading was to hitch rides on the expanding railway system, Lowrey said, and it made itself at home in the arid West, especially in areas that are heavily grazed. “They like the aridity and they like disturbance,” he said. “The overgrazing in the West has been perfect for them to spread.”

James Moya adds the 2014 Albuquerque Tumbleweed Snowman's left eye as Interstate 40 drivers honk approvingly. (John Fleck/Albuquerque Journal)

James Moya adds the 2014 Albuquerque Tumbleweed Snowman’s left eye as Interstate 40 drivers honk approvingly. (John Fleck/Albuquerque Journal)

The round shape allows the dead plants to roll, distributing seeds and offspring in the process. A single plant can have more than 200,000 seeds, according to Lowrey.

In Albuquerque, the margins of the flood control system provide ideal habitat, with a supply of water providing the needed boost for the big ones Moya and his colleagues need for a good snowman. This year’s best score, some 8 feet in diameter, grew alongside the big diversion channel that carries flood water past Mountain View Elementary School in the South Valley.

They didn’t come easy, making a dash – as windblown tumbleweeds are wont to do – at the last minute, Cordova said: “One of them took off rolling down the channel.”

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