I hadn’t been on my bike in about three weeks, what with inclement weather and weekend commitments. The weather this weekend was absolutely ideal: cool and dry, but neither cold nor windy. The sky was clear and blue, but the air quality was certainly variable. On Saturday, there were areas where the defoliant was so heavy in the air that it made you a trifle ill. Then you might ride a spell and think you were in the mountains, the air smelled so good and clean. In other areas, water still standing from the rains of two weeks ago gave off a smell reminiscent of the pier where I went crabbing in Rehoboth Beach when I was eleven years old.
Today, we rode south and the air was uniformly fine. There was a wide variety in the state of the cotton harvest, though. Some fields were still leafy, others snowy white and ready to pick after defoliation. Still others were filled with naked stalks after picking and many fields had already had their stalks shredded and disked under (to remove boll weevil habitat).
Wads of stray cotton drifted across the road like tumbling tumbleweeds or giant wooly worms. Modules (giant blocks of compacted cotton) lined the roads and gave off a faintly unpleasant smell at times. Adams Gin in Leachville, Arkansas was a hive of activity, surrounded by modules like a herd of giant white buffalo. The Beech Corner Gin near Senath, Missouri sits abandoned, vine-covered, a relic of obsolete technology.
One of my earliest memories is picking cotton with Mrs. Baker’s kindergarten class. Heaven knows how long we were in the field with our paper sacks, not long certainly. Long enough for me to realize that cotton-picking was hard work. When time was called, we went to the scales to weigh our work. Cotton-pickers were paid three cents per pound, and we were all paid our three cents, though I doubt we’d picked a pound, any of us. As they weighed my little sack, I looked behind me and saw a tall black man, waiting to weigh his pick-sack (a huge cotton bag around eight long; it looked a mile long to me then). I clearly remember being mortified that this man had to wait for his livelihood while our platoon of brats had their play-time.
In the early fifties, a cartoon appeared showing humanoid robots picking cotton by metallic hand (this pre-dated the mechanical cotton picker by some years). Two Southern Gentlemen sit on the porch, sipping juleps and gazing at the robots. The punchline is: "Know what Ah miss? Ah miss that soft, sweet sangin…That’s what Ah miss." I’m still mortified.