If you were reared in the country during the previous century, there are smells you never forget, nor even want to. One is the smell of cotton on a on a bottom-land farm, better still, the smell of cotton while they let you play in a trailer full of the stuff.
We don’t see much of it in the Delta anymore. Rice, soybeans, and now corn dominate. But there is something about a field of white cotton bolls opening in a vast field. Sit still and you can even conger up the smell of “cotton poison” on a summer evening. That’s one we will never experience in reality again. It was deemed too dangerous.
They still picked the stuff by hand when I was young. Whole families would turn out to “catch the truck” headed for the fields. Nowadays machines do the picking and other machines compress the stuff into large modules for transporting to the gins. There aren’t many of those left either.
The cotton trailers have largely disappeared. No children lie on them waiting for the cotton to be transported. Few people in the future will know that smell of the white fibers under your body. Too bad.
Cotton was king back then. It was a frustrating crop that had to be planted, cultivated, chopped, and then picked while praying for enough rain to nourish it and fighting boll weevils all the way. It wasn’t a job for the weak in body or spirit. But, as the old folks would say, “It sorta took ahold of you.”
All sorts of things were named after cotton back in the day, from railroad lines to baseball leagues to coffee shops and greasy spoons that dotted the Delta like fly specks.
If furnished livelihood for generations of families, albeit a tenuous one for most. If you couldn’t afford your own farm, you could sharecrop. That’s how my parents started their married life. Or if you couldn’t sharecrop, you could still catch the truck and chop or pick the stuff by the day and by the pound. For the owners of the fields, it was a fickle mistress as they never knew the rewards their labor would bring until the price was set at harvest time. As an old man told me once, “You’d have to be a damn fool to raise cotton for a living,” then adding, “but I wish I could do it just one more time.”
I couldn’t resist stopping and looking when I came across a rare field of cotton on the Highway of Dreams the other day. I lingered and took a photograph. Maybe next time I’ll walk out and sniff a white boll one more time although I don’t really have to. I can smell it anytime I want.
“Oh, I started out young. They handed me a cotton sack when I was about 8 years old. Give me a little small one, tell me to fill it up. I never did like the farm but I was out there with my grandmother, didn't want to get away from around her too far.” - Muddy Waters