Cotton is a plant that, pardon the pun, had woven its way into the everyday fabric of my mom’s family so effectively as to be rote. Cotton-themed paraphernalia and cotton farming accoutrement played bit parts in the tableau of almost every room of my grandparents’ house. Tastefully; this is my grandmother we’re talking about here.
In the kitchen desk, there were cotton pens in a drawer next to tiny lenses my grandfather, an entomologist, used to inspect cotton for boll weevils. Cotton-themed pillows accessorized the sofa. In the back hallway lived needlepoint panels of images of cotton in two or three stages of its life that, truly, were cool, somehow not at all tacky. Cotton-promo baseball caps hung on hooks by the door, waiting to make bald spots on the cotton-farming (indeed, cotton-picking) men who wore them. In the carport sat trucks both dusty and muddy from cotton fields; inside arms and necks reddened from time spent in them. My grandparents’ otherwise suburban lot even backed up to a neighbor’s small field, frequently buzzed by a crop duster in case we forgot that yes, this was cotton country, the Cotton Belt of Mississippi. What’ll it be today? Cotton, please, with a side of beans* and milo.
*Beans are soybeans, BTW. More on them soon.
I relished every minute of this aspect of my upbringing. I can’t imagine the deprivation children not raised in cotton culture must be completely unaware of.
Cotton-related machinery, too, dotted the farmscape in and around a group of outbuildings referred to, simply, as “The Shop” at my great-aunt and uncle’s home. I spent hours playing on –- and, in the case of the cotton picker, inside –- parked, sedentary and otherwise disused heavy equipment. The picker, the combine, the trailers… And here were not only cotton machines, but an old International Scout, a broken school bus full of hornets, and a bodock tree (Maclura pomifera) whose green brainy fruit I must’ve asked my uncle the name of a dozen times, I was so wrapped up in the look of it.
I remember standing in the middle of fields, grasping what cotton was — a plant, a hibiscus like my other grandmother grew in a pot, first in bloom and later dead, deepest brown swallowing whitest white, its jagged burs clinging to their fluffy bounty. I remember pricking fingers on those burs, having attempted to get at the fiber, and my mother explaining how this was just one reason hand-picking was so difficult, and why slave labor had been so brutal –- forced to pick for hours and days, backs bent to the sun, fingers and legs cut, scratched, scraped by burs. It is, indeed, a horrific thought.
Cotton is a member of the mallow family, Malvaceae, and let me tell you, it’s a confusing family right now, thanks to debate whether it should continue to be one family or chopped up into several. Relatives include everything from food crops like okra and lots of trees: giant Ceiba and Adansonia, the baobab; your friendly neighborhood linden (Tilia); and Chinese parasol tree (Firmiana, stay tuned for an entry on that one). Oh, right, and all manner of garden Hibiscus and mallow.
The cotton we know and love is a tropical or subtropical shrub called Gossypium hirsutum, and it and other Gossypia are native to such regions worldwide. You know cotton’s value is in that downy fiber in which its seeds are cloaked, a complex referred to as a boll, contained within the prickly bur I mentioned earlier.
As in my grandma’s decor, cotton pervades the cultural tableau of our species. It’s been cultivated since ancient times and, more recently, my fellow countrymen, I think you know what hell cotton hath wrought: slavery, brutality, secession, war… Cotton. All bound up in the boll of our shared national history with this plant. That cheap shirt from Old Navy? Not so cheap, it turns out!
Today, mercifully, much cotton production is mechanized, thanks to the machines I played in as a child, but hand-picking persists in developing nations. Equally as unfortunate, only a fraction of cotton is grown organically. Genetically modified cotton, on the other hand, has been a HUGE hit in the industry.
If you know my company, you know I’m committed to sustainability, and I’ll tell you, it’s tough to reconcile that with the price I believe we’re paying environmentally (not to mention what we’ve already paid culturally) for cotton. And it colors my happy childhood in cotton culture. Them’s fightin’ words, folks.
Suffice to say I’m doing my darndest to buy more clothing made from organic cotton. Hey, I hope you’ll do your darndest too.