• January 2, 2014

Pictures We Love: Invasion of the Tumbleweeds

Alexa Keefe

National Geographic’s Proof blog invited the photography and design teams of National Geographic magazine to look back through the hundreds of photographs from the over 75 stories published in 2013 and select one photo that spoke to their heart, intrigued them, inspired awe, made them smile—in short, to choose their favorite photo from this past year. Over the next several days we’ll bring you a round-up of the breathtaking, the touching, the extraordinary, the imperfect, and the beautiful.

Skeletons of Russian thistle, better known as tumbleweed, pile up in a yard in Lancaster, California.
The Weed That Won the West, December 2013
Photograph by Diane Cook and Len Jenshel
Todd James, Senior Photo Editor

My love for this photograph by Len and Diane is more layered than a Viennese pastry. The scene is so sunny and yet so ominous. Tumbleweeds have invaded suburbia! Where are the kids? Something has gone terribly wrong at the end of this cul-de-sac. A Russian tumbleweed invasion! If you were writing a chapter for a photography text about implied narrative, including this photograph would be a must.

But my layer cake of appreciation for this photograph goes much deeper. I first saw Len and Diane’s photographs of the American West more than 20 years ago. They were my introduction to a new generation of color landscape photographers that included Joel Sternfeld, Stephen Shore, Joel Meyerowitz, and Richard Misrach. These photographers were using big cameras to capture big landscapes and reshaping how we think about photography today. Len and Diane’s work shared that sensibility but also offered a subtle wink, wink at times.

Their sensibility seemed perfectly suited to this science story with a twist. The tumbleweed, a symbol of the American West, turns out to be an invasive species from the Russian steppes.

Of course I knew Len and Diane loved the western landscape but I had no idea about their tumbleweed obsession, which they trace to a 1964 episode of The Outer Limits. In the show, a couple is stranded in the desert and stalked by a bunch of tumbleweeds.

Len and Diane’s photograph of the lonely red wagon surrounded by tumbleweeds sets the scene for this story perfectly. It is also perfect expression of their lifetime body of work with a wink and a nod to their favorite episode of The Outer Limits.

I waited 20 years for this photograph, and it is well worth it.

A crew removes tumbleweeds the size of compact cars from a slope in East Los Angeles. Bone dry and filled with air pockets, dead weeds can be ignited by a discarded cigarette—a hazard worsened by persistent drought.
The Weed That Won the West, December 2013
Photograph by Diane Cook and Len Jenshel
Mary McPeak, Photography Research Editor

Having worked with Diane and Len on several stories, the tumbleweeds story is a favorite of mine. The photograph of the two masked workers in California holding a compact car-size tumbleweed above their heads catches your eye and makes you smile. The men seem to be surrounded by dangerous tumbleweeds almost inching toward them. It also illustrates what an invasive problem the weeds have become.

View these photographs and more in our interactive Year in Review.

There are 11 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. godwin ashong ..A.k.a ” scare crow”.
    April 9, 2014

    i love photography alot…but i dnt have a good camare ..but..
    i have a couple of photos of nature i want to share with the world….

  2. Kenneth Harrington
    February 1, 2014

    We have them all around in Odessa, Tx.

  3. Michael Gannon
    January 8, 2014

    In Chandler, AZ every year we build a giant Christmas tree out of tumbleweeds. Makes a terrific sight, painted white and decorated with colored lights.

  4. vin weathermon
    January 7, 2014

    I lived in Lancaster, and these would blow in from the desert and pile up against the house. Even here in Irvine, a car-sized tumbleweed might be rolling along in the industrial complex parking lot. I didn’t recall where I saw that “attack of the killer tumbleweeds” theme until this post; a good find indeed.

  5. Theodore Salafia
    January 5, 2014

    Tumbleweeds are sure invaders. Very good photos

  6. Louise
    January 5, 2014

    Love it!

  7. Cynthia Baca
    January 5, 2014

    Are you this wasnt taken in Albuquerque, NM?

  8. Balig Ford
    January 3, 2014

    Very beautiful

  9. Lorie Michel
    January 2, 2014

    Love these pictures! I have seen tumbleweeds that big here in N.M. too

  10. Alejandra Del Rello
    January 2, 2014

    Where in CA did this occur?

  11. cesar
    January 2, 2014

    we use to play with this tumbleweeds, when we were yung, we dragged this spine-balls through a large field and then we ran and the thumbleweeds chase us whit a rush of wind and some times some of my firends trip over and the tumbleweeds pass over them leaving them all full of spines , funny!!!

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