Tumbleweeds, Plagues, and Freedom

January 16, 2018


Every Christmas, I make my way from the twinkle-light lit avenues of Chicago back to rural northeast New Mexico to spend time with my family on the cattle ranch where I grew up, outside of a tiny little agricultural community two hours from the nearest airport. I have written about our “country” lives before, but every time I come home, it seems there is a new lesson to learn. 

The morning after Christmas, I hopped in the pickup with my dad to take ranch census. We made our way from pasture to pasture, checking and feeding a divided herd of very pregnant and very hungry heifers. At the sound of the “feed wagon,” they quickly and awkwardly waddled to us, some with fresh, wobbly baby calves underfoot. Dad scattered feed onto the hardened, barren ground and we counted the furry bodies to check against the “one missing.” The ground is especially barren this year, as we have just emerged from one of the worst droughts in northeast New Mexico since the Dust Bowl Days.

Which brings me to the tumbleweeds.

Down every barb-wired fence line are millions (literally) of tumbleweeds, stuck between the wire rows and drifting over the south side like a post-blizzard snow fence of prickly, inconvenient, round plant skeletons. They run a 40-foot swath from the fence out into the pasture and fill every trail on the hills down which the cattle walk to get to water. They blow in and around the prairie homes, filling up the front porches from floor to ceiling, blocking entry and exit. We spent two hours that morning clearing the tumbleweeds off of my brother’s porch and burning them, fully aware that another windy afternoon would render our work futile. The weeds along the fence could be burned, too, but that would also burn the fences. If nothing is done, though, the first big snowstorm will cover the tumbleweeds and provide an easy way out for all the cattle in the pasture, who could simply walk over the readymade snow-and-tumbleweed ramps.

Dad says that the tumbleweeds are unmanageable this year because so many ranchers had to sell all of their cattle during the drought. It seems that the green weeds that eventually turn into tumbleweeds are very appetizing to cattle and are usually gobbled up when they are young and tender. But no cattle means no grazing. The weeds grow unchecked, die, dry out, break off, and tumble away…creating yet another ranch plague.

I sat in the pickup with Dad that morning, silent and overwhelmed by the scope of this seemingly innocuous problem. Tumbleweeds? Aren’t they just the occasional signifier of an imminent outlaw shootout on old westerns? Apparently not. Mom and Dad can hardly complete the daily work of the ranch for having to deal with this nuisance. And yet, so it goes. Last year, it was the grasshoppers eating what little bit of the grass was left. Before that, the locoweed was rampant, like a narcotic that affected the efficiency of the cattle and forced ranchers to render entire pastures unusable, and before that it was the threat of a special species of quickly reproducing cactus that, once pulled from the ground, would regenerate a whole new plant for every arm that dropped on the ground on the way to disposal.

Ranch life is full of plagues. Every season brings an unexpected blow from Mother Nature. All Thursday morning, I silently agonized over “solutions” while clearing a path through the tumbleweeds for my brother’s family to get to their front door. When we got back into the pickup to head home, I threw my hands up. “What are you going to do, Dad? How do we fix this? You are always dealing with something you can’t fix. You and Mom can’t get ahead!” The country radio station played softly in the background as my dad looked over at me with that wise and quiet smile that I instantly knew would warrant a blog post. “You just do what you can. The Good Lord always provides a way, Rozann.” I thought about how I hadn’t seen a grasshopper that morning and how ranch was re-stocked with heifers because the long-awaited rains had finally come during the fall. He was right.

And yet the tumbleweeds still needed to be cleared from the porch.

It struck me, yet again, that this lifestyle makes tangible the daily-ness and struggle of life. Yet, it also displays the beauty found within the outpouring of grace, the recognition of our utter inability to “fix” our life—to eradicate its problems—but to do what we can anyway. It is both a terrible difficulty and a tremendous grace to be constantly overwhelmed with uncontrollable forces that threaten to either ruin us…or sanctify us. Often times, we busy ourselves with overarching solutions. We construct blueprints and formulate strategies for how we will institute a way forward, a way out. We scramble to bolster our skills in self-sufficiency to insulate ourselves from the struggle, or discouraged, we throw up our hands and give up, taking the first comfortable escape.

There is nothing wrong with researching ways to eradicate manifestations of suffering, especially as it affects our neighbor. But plagues often prove that the real battle is within; it’s an issue of the interior life. The humble hand that reaches for the tools to do that day’s work out of sheer, uncertain faithfulness brings about the greater holiness, making way for the freedom to be joyful—to recognize and appreciate the demand of obedience and ordinary fidelity, which miraculously transforms into the most beautiful form of love.

To be clear, tumbleweeds stink. I hate them. In fact, plagues are just the worst. But in the face of the most enormous disasters, “the Good Lord always provides a way,” and often times, that way is within. Those same plagues might be what you need to get out of your own little “Egypt.” How you receive them could lead you to freedom.