Thursday, November 12, 2009

CCC COTTON

One year ago today, I hesitatingly sent out my first post, into the ether of the Internet, with no expectations that I can think of. Each day’s little remembrances or anecdotes or recipes or family tales were just put OUT THERE, with no idea of how far-reaching this medium is. And each day, people have looked in---the names of cities have scrolled across the counter, with the familiarity of old friends and the exotic ping of new, exciting places. And several real friendships have come of this---I count my readers and followers and commenters and e-mail friends as a great blessing.

And today is also Post Number Three Hundred. So I pondered for a subject to befit my heritage and my raising and the home I lived in for so many years. And there’s no doubt, it has to be Cotton. And Janie's post this week on Southern Lagniappe, her wonderful photographs of the fields of home, so familiar and so far away, was the deciding factor---a sign, so to speak, when she offered any and all, to illustrate this story.

In the Delta where I’m from, you can turn in a complete circle, your eyes on the horizon, and you see trees. No matter what distance, from close, see-the-bark, count-the-leaves, to a dwindly wisp of greenish mist at ground level far, far in the distance---you see the woods. There’s something so comforting about that---even the placid hills and the far-reaching prairies, the majesty of mountains and waves bursting on rocky shorelines cannot match the secure feeling of being surrounded by a forest, somewhere. It’s like our own secret garden wall, immense and constant, and it is embedded in our history and our beings. And always, on the landscape---the cotton fields.



I loved looking out my front door in Mississippi---I love the process of it, from the primal scent of first turning, to the flying dust as the planters roll like growling beasts over the land, to the vista of the tiny "turtles" as the sun-seeking leaves peek out, glimpsing the sky for the first time. They have an odd way of coming up through that dense Mississippi gumbo, aiming for the sky, and the little periscope lifts up a half-dollar-sized solid flat lid of dirt; for a few days, each long row does, indeed, seem to have a horizon-reaching line of baby turtles, marching their way to the woods.

Then there's the greening, as the fields take on a tinge, then definite delineations of those long, symmetrical rows, growing higher and higher, until the blooms unfurl purple---I think of them as "hollyhocks with jobs" in their purpose and their definite usefulness. And the dainty-fringed little bishop's-hat bolls, which grow, ripen, and then burst with their fluffy hatchlings. The long vistas of green change to brown, crisping stalks and thorny hawk-talon barbs, guarding their burdens like Sleeping Beauty's hedge.






The days of drag-a-sack for $4 a hunnerd are no more---the people have gone from the old silver-glazed cypress tenant houses which dot the land, and the battered old houses stand witness to another time, but certainly not a gentler one. Cotton was higher then, in stature, if not in value---head-high-to-a-hand was a common measure, as the crop sometimes topped six feet, and as the drying came, the brambly rows were all but impenetrable. But the workers persevered, making their way through the thorny limbs day after day for scarcely the price of their grits and lard. They barely made a livin’ and it sure wasn’t living. And machines tend the crops now, from first turning to harvest.

The great beasts are unleashed once again, to blunder over the fields, trampling the scratchy stalks and sucking up the clouds of white into that immense cage, the vast poundage then compressed into modules---huge rounded bundles like convoys of blue-tarped gypsy wagons encamped in the fields. And these huge forms, in turn, go to the gin for ginning and seed removal and pressing into bales---most usually approximately 500 pounds.








The process of growing and harvesting and ginning and selling and brokering and spinning and weaving and dyeing and sewing---I've been in on quite a lot of the procedure; cotton kept our lights on, kept our fridge and freezers full, and pretty much tended to our welfare, as we tended the fields. Even the aftermaths---counting up those green tickets, with the almost-illegible scribing, adding the pounds and the amounts, calculating the wages and all the other usual paperwork---that old yellow formica kitchen table was often laden with the grimy, gin-grease tokens of the growing and the labor and the gain.





Oh, the prayers and the wishes for rain, or for the incessant rain to stop; for the mud to dry enough to get wheels in the field; for enough hours in the day to plant or tend or defoliate or pick---many a midnight "lunch" I've delivered to the sweaty, grime-covered or damp or shivering workers in the fields, out there with picker-beams lighting up the hazy, dust-billowed landscape like some great harvest scene in E T.

Driving up to a "stoppin' place" with the old woody wagon's tailgate laden with all the hot stew and biscuits or bean soup and cornbread and big urns of coffee, or an afternoon's heat modified by the arrival of a trunkful of chilly watermelons, ready for plunging thirsty mouths and hot faces into, or a big dishpanful of "strawberry shortcake"---several angelfood cakes or just-cooled cake layers, torn into bits, tossed with fresh-cut, sugared strawberries, and a couple of pints of cream whipped into a gallon of snowy fluff, all folded together into a luscious redpinkwhite-striped confection---occasionally the guys would pass right by the stack of bowls and stand around the pan with their spoons, their mugs of strong black coffee one-fingered ready in the spare hand. They came to the meal, exhausted from their since-daylight labor, looking like a
troop of just-emerged coal miners, their faces etched with grime and cotton-dust and wisps of stem and leaf---the only clean spots the goggle-covered area around their eyes.





Cotton has been a mainstay of my family since I can't remember when. It's a magical, none-like-it plant---the green stems blossoming their flowers, which turn into tight green-fringed fists; the Summer's heat and rain call forth the growth and the splitting and the burst of down-soft fiber, older than memory and more comfortable to wear than the finest silk. The miracle of seed and growth is one of the great wonders of the world, and I'm especially thankful for those fat furry seeds which go into the dirt like dead stones, rise up with blooms sweet as roses, then butterfly-burst into the miracle that is Cotton.







Dyed-in-the-Cotton Delta girl, that's me.


12 comments:

Southern Lady said...

This has got to be one of your best, Rachel, and I am honored that you chose my pictures to be a part of it.

Congratulations on reaching a double milestone, my friend. With your God-given way with words, you have enriched, blessed, and touched countless hearts stretching from "the Land of Cotton" to Western Australia.

I look forward to celebrating your next milestone with you ... and every magical and inspiring word in between.

Keetha said...

Here, here!

From Delta girl to another (my dad is an ag pilot - I love cotton!) - bravo! Great post!

Beth at Aunties said...

I am so unfamilar with the cotton plants, fields and way of life of the Cotton farm. I enjoyed your post very much.:) We finally saw a cotton field last fall, while in the country side in Virginia. We were on the way to a pumpkin patch with our granddaughters and I was so excited! Another beautiful post.
Happy anniversary ~♥

Alice said...

Congratulations, dear Rachel, on your 300th post....and all in just one year!!!

I've never seen a cotton field.....they do grow cotton in Australia but it's way up north.....so it was so interesting to read about it and see the great photos.

We've been very busy lately and I have quite a few postings to catch up on, yours and others, but I'll get around to them - especially as we're in for some hot weather, which is far too early in the season for our liking.

Jeanne said...

Hello Racheld, I am so happy for you to have reached your 300th post. Congratulations. I wish I had know you long before now. I feel I have missed way too many beautifully written posts. Your cotton post is so interesting to me. Like Beth I have not been in a place where cotton was grown. Just last week we passed many cotton fields coming back to NC from Florida. We saw most of it on our way to Waycross,Ga to pick up our puppy. Some had already been picked and it was fun to see wispy pieces of cotton all along the highway. Cotton has a mysterious sense of history and you can't stop looking at it. It was a source of conversation for my husband and I. We saw one of those huge wire pieces of equipment that we passed on the road. It had evidence of cotton up against the wire even though it was empty. We were kind of fascinated by the whole cotton event taking place. Now you can understand why I loved your cotton post so much.

Thank you for a wonderful piece of our countries cotton history. The fact that you lived it, is even better in the telling.

Hugs, Jeanne

Anonymous said...

Beautiful - I am from the land of cotton - no not the Delta - dry West Texas where we have land lots of land under starry skies. Fields surrounded by cattle, cactus, pumpjacks where rattlesnakes slither beneath for shade in the summer and coyotes chase jackrabbits through the stalks in the drought times. We bow on bended knee praying for every rain drop. Those beautiful stalks rise to the sky when nourished by the heaven sent moisture. Our family farm has both irrigated and dry land. The mechanized pickers are running way into the night now. It is so interesting to see the different landscapes and weather patterns producing the same fabric of our lives. Flat land and big skies reveal thousands upon thousands of acres of gold tinged bolls as the sun fades in the west.

Goodnight ~ Janie

Klary Koopmans said...

happy anniversary Rachel! Your blog is a gem. Love from Amsterdam...

Indy Cookie said...

Happy Anniversary with hugs from Mr Concweet!!
No cotton fields in the South of my youth (too many mountains) and certainly none here in Indiana. Your lovely post makes me feel as though I really missed something wonderful!

Kouign Aman said...

Congratulations on both milestones! Its been lovely sharing your year. :cheers:

Cape Coop said...

I adore you, Rachel!

racheld said...

Y'all are all just the SWEETEST things!!!

This year has been one of meeting lovely new friends, and of ever more wonderful correspondence with several old ones. I am blessed.

Kim Shook said...

Congratulations, Rachel. We are so lucky that you decided to start Lawn Tea! I loved this post. I have always been mesmerized by cotton fields and just this past month when I was on my way to New Bern to visit Momma and Ted, I stopped on the side of the road to photograph this vast field of cotton with a almost-tumble-down little gray house sitting in the middle. I was a field away, so I didn't get those gorgeous close ups that Southern Lady did. But then I come and find this lovely message! What a lovely gift for us!