Wednesday, October 24, 2007

High Cotton (copy)

In the morning, I hear it while ironing clothes. It is in the background while I take a shower. It gets louder when I take out the trash. It is still droning while I brush my teeth for bed at night. And with windows open, it lulls me to sleep as I try to read. At this time of the year, our little town is filled with a busy hum or ever-present mechanical sound, the cotton gin.


I will forever associate the sound with the autumnal season. It is my background music while raking leaves, picking pecans, and planting pansies. It comforts me as much as the cotton sweatshirt and blue jeans I wear as I perform these duties. It is chapter eight, “The Gin,” in Gerard Helferich’s new book High Cotton: Four Seasons in the Mississippi Delta.

For most of today’s Americans the word cotton evokes comfort. The latest cotton advertisement flaunts runway models leaving the high-fashion stage for the front door, implying cotton is quality couture and everyday wear. Even before this ad, we strutted around proudly in, “The Fabric of Our Lives.”

How odd to discover this fluffy fiber needs a promotional campaign. Of course it is to fight against softer and cheaper manmade fabrics; regrettably, the plant had an image problem prior to synthetics. The association with back-breaking labor in ungodly heat and humidity for meager wages or bare-existence trade is how field workers from 1840s to 1970s felt. Three decades ago, cotton may have been king, but only for those already in the upper echelon of its business.

Through Helferich’s reporting, readers follow a modern day cotton farmer for a full year. His subject, Zack Killebrew, farms 1,700 acres outside the small town of Tchula, in the rich Mississippi Delta soil. One-thousand acres are for cotton the rest set aside for soybeans and corn. Some of Killebrew’s cotton acreage is prime two-inch-deep Delta soil known locally as ice-cream.

Helferich leads us through the first days of breaking the soil to the last hours on the loom. As if on a cotton tour, we step into Killebrew’s pick-up for the long day, where Helferich relates the history of each process we happen to arrive at. For instance, during the weeks of picking cotton Hurricane Katrina rolls through and Helferich sidesteps to tell us about the Great Flood of 1927. On this tour readers can expect side excursions to encompass slavery, sharecropping, pesticides, and the Civil Rights Movement as it pertains to Mississippi cotton.

It is a fascinating year filled with bright blue cotton seeds and white, arm-resting pick-up trucks. Lucky for me, I also have the pleasure of living in Mississippi during a time when cotton is more a democracy than a tyrant king.

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