In the early fall, when I was perched out in Sylva Rena at Dunn’s eating a sweet bun dripping pulled pork and coleslaw, I would listen to the veteran cotton farmers talking about when the picking would get started.
When you are new to a place, many things come up at you unexpectedly, full of surprise. At first I wasn’t sure what was growing in the wide open fields under the unrelenting summer sun. Suddenly puffs of white showed up and even a New Yorker knew what was happening.
As I finished my lunch, one farmer said his son’s fields near the Yocona River weren’t near ready, another reported that his brother’s place over Taylor way was the same. Because I liked the pulled pork (and had moved up from a regular to a jumbo portion), I had opportunity to keep up with the local crop reports.
And one day as I was eating my sandwich, I heard the news from across the open room. A man wearing faded jeans and well-worn boots sitting in the back near the fish hooks said the fields were ready, the picking had started. With this update under my belt I started driving slower, looking left and right, watching the fields more closely.
Soon I saw huge machines crawling, stripping the fields and creating huge rectangular bundles. The giant blocks of picked cotton rimmed the fields, waiting for trucks to haul them away. White wisps clung to weeds along the road, wind carried limp strands to the very top of power lines.
Just about the time I began to wonder where the trucks were headed, Extension Service Agent Kyle Jeffreys wrote in his Herald column about a nighttime visit to the cotton gin in Coffeeville. It seems the operation in Taylor had closed down and Coffeeville was working around the clock to take up the slack. I sent off an email to Kyle and he agreed to run me out to have a look for myself.
On a dark night we traveled the dirt road to the cotton gin. The rough path was lined with modules from the fields, four across and tucked in close together. The long stretch of white cotton in the darkness formed a gray landscape that made me think of the moon.
But when we entered the cavernous building all was shut down, silent and disappointing. Workers leaned over disconnected engine parts, pounding now and then, talking in low tones. The lint press component was in its first year of operation, which seems to be infancy for machinery, and Kyle explained that the crew still had to get the kinks worked out.
Even though I would have preferred the excitement of sound and moving parts, I had a look around the building with its open space and high, high ceiling, its rafters dripping lint. A maze of pipes and tubes directed the cotton here and there, cutting into it with sharp blades and collecting its seeds for oil and profit.
My guide showed me the shined-up product, packaged and ready for shipment to a broker in Greenwood who would peddle it for the best market price. From there this Mississippi cotton would travel to textile mills, most likely in China, to spin Water Vallians their tee shirts and tube socks.
Just a year ago I lived near the water on Long Island, not yet thinking of moving to a new land. Yet here I am, eating pulled pork and driving the night roads to a place called Coffeeville, learning the ways of cotton.