Friday, October 15, 2010

Folklife Fridays: Pickin' Cotton

I was about ten years old when we first heard of a cotton picker---a big red machine that would pick cotton for you. We laughed at the idea. We could not imagine a time when we would not pick cotton. We didn't know how big the world was.
It was only a few years later that the machines completely replaced hand labor, which we viewed as a blessing too good to be true; surely something would go wrong and we would have to pick cotton again.

Because this cotton picking era ended before I was an adult, I didn't really understand the hardships of cotton farming that my parents and their parents endured. They worked from spring to late fall to produce a crop that might or might not be sold for enough to pay the bills and have a little extra. I would like to say that the good years were enough to keep them going, but it wasn't that at all. Cotton farming was all they knew; what they kept doing because there was nothing else to do. Good years just made their lives better for a while.

Farmers today defoliate the plants with chemicals, then wait until every cotton boll is open before they start the harvest. Back in the day, a cotton field sometimes had several pickings. Cash starved farmers picked the first fluffy fibers as soon as possible. This usually occurred in early September, just before the fair came to town.

Children like me were not worried about the price of cotton at the gins, or whether enough rain fell during the growing season, or too much rain fell during the harvest. We worried about making us some money to spend at the fair. We willingly went to the cotton patch on Saturday to earn all we could; if we wanted to go to the fair, we had to work for it.

I remember how the sharp edges of the open bolls could scratch our arms and legs and cause us to bleed around our cuticles, how our young backs and shoulders would start to ache before lunch time finally came. At the end of the day, we sat on our full cotton sacks and waited for the "weighing up" when we would learn if we would be able to ride scary rides all day long at the fair. Some of the older ones made enough to stuff themselves with cotton candy and caramel apples, too.

Our culture can change so quickly. Picking cotton is as foreign to my grandchildren as a laptop would have been to me when I was ten. Change may be good, sometimes bad, but always certain.

Even now, when driving through the cotton farming section of our county, the smell is familiar. I can almost feel the strain to my lower back.

And he will love thee, and bless thee, and multiply thee: he will also bless the fruit of thy womb, and the fruit of thy land, thy corn, and thy wine, and thine oil, the increase of thy kine, and the flocks of thy sheep, in the land which he sware unto thy fathers to give thee. Deuteronomy 7:13