The saga of Thorfinn the Tumbleweed

Memories and musings on “living” weeds

Photo: Chanel Wheeler / Wikimedia Commons Tumbleweeds still know how to have fun.

Photo: Chanel Wheeler / Wikimedia Commons
Tumbleweeds still know how to have fun.

Larrie Wanberg
Features Editor

A story in National Geographic Magazine’s December 2013 issue, titled “The Weed that Won the West,” was a historical review of tumbleweeds, which prompted my recall of Russian thistles’ role in my daily life growing up in a Norwegian community.

In my childhood, tumbleweeds were seen primarily as a threat for adults but often fascinating as a young child growing up in a small prairie town during the “dirty thirties.”

These round thorny creatures were a source of play, fright, and fascination.

They would appear from the ground—in garden plots even—as sprouts that seemed to shoot upwards as green “scare-a-crows” that stole moisture from the soil, spread out as they dried, and become “alive” as they broke free and rolled across the land.

As a child, many living things were referred to as “tumbleweeds”—listening on the radio to western star Gene Autry singing “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” hearing stories about transients who “rode the rails,” and watching the earliest movies about cowboys roaming across the prairies. In some Native American traditions, “tumbleweeds” were storytellers who ventured from place to place, sharing stories with whomever they met.

Today, “Tumbleweeds” are titles for film festivals, newspapers, kids’ summer camps, art exhibits, blogs for travelers, bands, and a host of activities that build the metaphor of mobility and keeping “on the move.”

As a five-year-old in a small western town five blocks wide, tumbleweeds were seen as a threat. The thorns of a tumbleweed could draw blood if you tried to handle it or deter it from its path when wind-driven.

Yet, as a child, anything from nature that moved was seen as “alive,”—the swaying of a tree in the wind, the shadows of clouds in the moonlight, and even tumbleweeds that moved mysteriously.

On the open prairie, sometimes droves of tumbleweeds would march like an army, shifting directions, slowing down or speeding up as if directed by an invisible source.

Once while driving with my father in a Model A Ford, we came upon a prairie fire with a line of men fighting it. A passing train had started a field of fire that ignited tumbleweeds. Sparks from a coal-fed steam locomotive would belch smoke and sometimes sparks that would fly high in the air and drop in a dry field of thistles and dry grass.

To me, the tumbleweeds aflame were like demon fireballs seeking dry grass for fodder.

A fire line of farmers and town folks with gunnysacks and pails of water, supported by the “pumper” fire truck from the town, were wetting the ground to retard its advance until the tumbleweeds burned themselves out.

A few farmers with pitchforks would stab a flaming weed that was attempting to jump the fire line to hold it at bay until it was doused by water or burned out.

The scene was scary and exhilarating, and I wanted to join in the defense, but was restricted to the car in a safe place, while my father helped to fill water pails from the fire truck until the fire was extinguished.

At other times, tumbleweeds were the source of play and fun.

In a small rural town in the 1930s there was not much to do, and kids needed to improvise games with what was available. Tumbleweeds could be integral to games. I remember times when a game could be developed from a small round tumbleweed that became a “polo ball” driven by flat board in the hands of kids on imaginary horses, or an overgrown “puck” in a kind of hockey game on a hot summer day.

There were festival times too in a neighborhood. Residents would collect dry tumbleweeds and stack them on a vacant lot on a still evening and set them afire after dark as families gathered around. Kids with long sticks could toast marshmallows from the embers that remained.

It was a simple social event, but it had a functional purpose too, whereby neighbors burned off tumbleweeds that had lodged against homes, garages, and outbuildings to avoid a potential fire hazard.

Today, it is rare to see a tumbleweed on the prairie, as the landscape has been manicured by tillage, irrigation, and spraying.

Even in the smallest towns, children these days have well-organized healthy play activities, sometimes to the point of crowding out imaginative play.

For me as a great-grandfather, the tumbleweed becomes a character in bedtime stories about the “Journey of Thorfinn the Tumbleweed” and his adventures in the “Ol’ West.” (The story theme is a take-off on “Thorfinn the Mighty” from the Sagas—the Viking Earl of Orkney who ruled much of Scotland under homage to Norway’s King Olaf during the 11th Century. Thorfinn’s son Erlend—my grandson’s name—later became an Earl.)

My urban great grandchildren are at an age when anything that can move and has a name becomes “alive.” Their imagination is open to most anything that can be envisioned as play, fright, and fascination.

Bedtime stories can develop a storybook relationship across generations through storytelling.

This article originally appeared in the April 24, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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Larrie Wanberg

Larrie Wanberg, 1920–2021, contributed features to The Norwegian American for many years, drawing on eight decades of life experience highlighted by three career recognitions: as a researcher through a Fulbright Scholarship to Norway in 1957; as a health care provider in behavioral science through a 27-year military career and awarded upon retirement in 1981 the highest non-combat medal, the Legion of Merit medal; as an educator, through a 50-year career in college education, culminating in the 2010 Public Scholar award at the UND Center for Community Engagement. Wanberg passed away in May, 2021.