Sep 25, 2007

They're At It Again

Nancy over at Just Another Love Letter tells us that she knows Fall has arrived by the change of the leaves on the trees, gold and red and yellow. Scott in Oregon knows it's Fall because his nuts are falling. (Acorns, that is.) The Nor'easters tell us that they know it's Fall because they're all driving to New Hampshire and Rhode Island to watch the colours of the trees change. Across the country, people are looking to the forests to watch Nature slip out of her green summer suit and into her lovely brown and golds and amber gown of Fall.

Well, not in the South.

In the green bayou air of Louisiana the pine trees drop a few brown needles but they stay green. The magnolia branches hang low, laden with heavy, red cones filled with exquisitely scarlet seeds, each a potential magnolia, but their leaves remain, huge dark green ovals cluttering every branch. The oaks have put on a burst of fresh light green growth to hide their loads of acorns, as if to scoff the coming of a chill in the air. Even the most venerable cypress trees seem to be ignoring the slight drop of temperature, and the pecan trees reveal their hidden loads of pecans by turning their leaves from lovely green straight to curled brown crisps without stopping to try on a russet or a golden hue. It's hard to tell by the foliage that Fall is come.

The only way to really know it's Fall is the cotton. It's time to harvest.

(That's my next-door neighbor from last week, picking while the Moon showed us Her pale face.)

The crop dusters were strafing the fields the past few weeks with their loads of white, sharp-smelling defoliant, the huge cotton pickers have been brought out of the barns and been fueled and tuned, and the evening air is filled with the coughing growl of long-disused diesel engines grumbling into surly life. The tractors are milling around like ants looking for their nest, and my memories are rolling back to my childhood as the green fields die back and reveal brown stalks and the spills of white cotton frothing out of their now black and shriveled boles.

Thinking back to those days so much seems to have changed. Long gone are the huge, mesh-sided cotton trailers that used to lumber carefully along the narrow back roads leading to the gin. They've been replaced by pneumatic presses that crush the cotton into huge, multi-ton loaves that rest on the ground, covered with orange tarps. Now they wait by the dozens for huge trucks with rollers for beds and canvas covers to scoop them up and haul them away, leaving behind dirty grey-white patches on the ground. Gone are the cotton pickers that seemed so huge when I was a kid, replaced by new machines that are two, three times the size and capacity. Gone are the days when a ten year old boy and his brother could climb up into the trailers and tromp cotton.

I can remember seeing the crop dusters scudding about, and feeling the chill in the air that meant that Mr. Mathews and his sons Joe and Cecil would be along in a week or so. I can see their old red Ford pickup pulling one of several huge, battered cotton trailers, and not far behind it would be Cecil, driving their dusty red cotton picker. They'd appear as if by miracle--I'd get on the bus one morning for school, and that afternoon two or three trailers would be sitting in the grassy turnrows, empty save for potential. The weekend would creep up with agonizing slowness, but arrive it would and Saturday morning would find me pressed to the windows, itching for a glimpse of farm equipment. I'd wander around the pasture, desperate to hear the low, steady purring of a certain elderly International Harvester cotton picker making it's slow way up the lane. My ears would be sharply pricked up to catch the soft, coughing growl as it's engine was throttled back and the metal on metal bumps and clanks that it would make as it shuddered and worked it's way under the overhanging oaks and down the turnrow to our field. Cecil would be driving, as always, and he'd never fail to wave as my brother and I tore out across the pasture like maniacs, eager not to miss a single second of the work.

Mr. Mathews was a sharecropper, perhaps the last of that breed. He didn't own land of his own, but raised and tended cotton on I don't know how many little bits and blops of land around the bayou. We supplied the land, he supplied the seed and the labor and got a fair share of the profits from the crop. My brother and I didn't care about the economics of the deal, all we knew is that when we saw that faded red Ford four wheel drive it meant cotton tromping. While Cecil carefully piloted that huge red mechanical hunchback up and down the rows we'd wait impatiently for the first few loads of cotton to be dumped in. Mr. Mathews wouldn't let us into the trailer until there were at least two loads in, enough to cover the bottom of a trailer six or eight feet deep, and somehow he'd hold us back, asking us in his slow, easy voice about how things were at school, and how each of us were doing. And he'd listen to us, his sun-browned face a mass of wrinkles and kindness, his eyes startlingly blue behind lids permanently squinted from the sun, his straw hat dappling the light across his cheeks and nose. And somehow he'd keep our attentions and our eager selves restrained just long enough.

Finally Cecil would bring the picker up alongside the wagon for that second emptying, and we'd wait wide-eyed and trembling while the hopper lifted, slowly, agonizingly slowly. The top would, after a few weeks of waiting begin to hinge open, and the bin would tip over and out and down would pour an avalanch,e not of snow but of cotton. Mixed in were tiny bits of twig and leaves, and it was flavoured with that high, sharp, CLEAN smell of freshly stretched and plucked fibers and the rich, sugary tang of burnt diesel fuel, all over the musty background fug of hot machine. The half-ton mass of cotton would tumble out in one huge lump it seemed, and make the whole trailer sway and rock on it's axles with creaks and groans over the muffled thump of the crop falling against steel, but all we had eyes for was the piled-high cotton, fluffy and thick and warm.

The first year we were old enough to be out with them Mr. Mathews would help my brother and I up to the seemingly sky-high first rung, but once my hands were on that cool rusted steel we needed no more help. I'd swarm up like a monkey and leap from the top, fearless; a pocket-sized, flightless Superman crashing arms-wide and full length into those huge mounds. We'd leap, we'd play. We'd jog and hop and leap in ever-decreasing circles, and we were tireless. We were helping, Mr. Mathews explained, helping to compress the cotton in the trailer so that each wagon would be as full as possible, so that we were making the most of each each trip to the gin. Except he didn't say it that way. He said we were "tromping the cotton," and tromping helped him, and it was fun to boot, so we tromped.

We leaped and we landed on a mattress so soft you'd wonder if you would ever stop falling. We stood carefully to one side as the picker hove alongside and dumped it's load, still hot from the machinery it rode above, and the moment the huge lid was closed on the hopper and Cecil smiled we knew it was time, and we go leaping into the fresh piles, laughing and yelling and trying to swim through the pillowy mounds. No one worried that we might fall out of the trailer as it got full, no one worried that we might fall and hit the steel mesh sides or one of the several hollow iron supports that crossed the body of each wagon. We watched out for ourselves, and we had a blast.

We'd tromp until late evening, until it got so dim that Cecil had to turn his beast out of the rows and park it under the old pecan tree that stood square in the middle of the field. It'd sit there, ticking and steaming as it cooled off in the evening's chill and we'd walk around it like we always did, ooohing and aaahing at this mechanical marvel. We'd touch it's huge tires, read each peeling warning sticker with serious attention, and we'd get our nerves up, step into the huge steel spreaders in front and carefully touch the hundreds of pulling spikes mounted on their steel spindles that hid in it's gaping maw, like mice gingerly testing the sleeping lion's teeth.

While Cecil did maintenance here and there and Mr. Mathews handed him tools and such we'd watch, absorbing it all. And all too soon Joe would come driving back from the gin, carrying an empty trailer behind. He unhook it, and his brother and their dad would meander back to the truck, wave goodbye and drive off home to their suppers and their families, and we'd run back to our house, eyes filled with sights and ears packed with sounds, cheeks red with exertion as the moon rose high.

Those times and those two little boys are gone, though, moved on as all things move on. Now when I drive past I look at the bored men sitting in high seats on their pneumatic machines, watching the silver piston work it's slow, mindless way back and forth across cotton that only they can see, hidden as it is by huge yellow steel walls. I think about the disused cotton trailers that quietly rust and collapse in forgotten corners of fields by the hundreds, sitting under long-forgotten barns, they themselves collapsing quietly, weighed down by the years.

But most of all, I think about all those little boys missing such a wonderous opportunity. I think about them, watching from behind windows and fences, watching with wide eyes as the huge pickers growl and wend their ways across thousands of acres of opportunity for play, each moment slipping by to be lost forever.


Bob said...

gawd. you remind me of peanut harvesting on my grandpa's farm. when we were real young, we'd ride on the tractor with him. when we were older, we got to drive the tractor (pulling the peanut combine) while he went to get the trailer to dump the peanuts. once you started, you didn't stop until you were done, so I vividly remember driving a tractor at night, completely dark except for the two light beams converging on the peanut row right in front of the tractor. every so often I drove the truck pulling the full peanut trailer into town to the gin.

my cousin complains that so many chemicals are used to raise cotton that wild dove and quail are practically gone from where he lives. bird hunting has to be done on managed preserves now. it's hard to believe, my childhood memories of my grandpa are frequently of him hunting, getting to go with him occasionally, walking the harvested fields waiting for the dogs to scare up a covey.

man - I'm getting old, bitchin' about how things aren't like they used to be.

Irrelephant said...

Bob, we ARE getting old. *s* And things WERE better back then. *lol* As for the birds here, it's hard to say. I still have six or seven ringneck and mourning dove who eat at my feeders, but I'm sure the constant poisoning and fertilizing and chemical contaminants have taken their toll.

Me, I'm just happy I have my memories.

Jean said...


...good on ya for writing down the memories for all of us.