Every child has a Radley house, a place that makes them walk a little faster, that makes a tingling sensation creep up the back when twigs drop and leaves rattle, a Boo around the corner teaching them that the world doesn’t always work the way they think it should or will.
Old Rain stalked my smaller steps; some said he was a freakish child abandoned by a troupe of carnies, others said he was a baby Bigfoot come south. When he wasn’t brooding in a boarded-up house in Pittsboro, he haunted the woods and hollows feeding the creeks and streams that feed the Skuna River. I don’t know why we called him Old Rain, but what else is the Skuna or any other river for that matter except rain that’s found its way from hills to the bottoms, rain over-wintered in pools of owl-haunted sloughs and steeped in the character of the land itself, that has in the ways of God Almighty distilled and aged, as strong as bourbon, an engine of the earth itself.
Most monsters are lost under the baggage of adulthood, and I tucked away my fears of Old Rain when I found that there are more frightening things than scattered noises on lonely pathways. Now I believe he was a vestige of the deep virgin forests of north Mississippi, a faunus of the little river bottoms and low wooded hills that my Choctaw ancestors knew and loved. They would call him a bopoli, one of the little people who threw sticks, cones and stones to make noise around us in the woods.
Now Old Rain in memory and mind has become my partner in places I cherish: bright spring hills, close summer woods and frosty winter fields. Hold your monsters close, and make of them your magic.
These words passed among the neighbors each time it happened, and they all nodded knowingly, having long ago concluded that Clara Curtis had indeed slipped over the edge into that comfortable sort of crazy that was perfectly harmless and acceptable.
It was simple enough, after all; they had all known people who had grown up in the Depression, when every penny, every scrap of cloth, every button or buckle was precious, and the food, well people would have shelves upon shelves of home-canned vegetables, pickles, even meats, and smokehouses were filled with hams and salted sides of beef. So it was only natural that Clara, who was born in Mississippi the very year Calvin Coolidge was elected president, would harbor the bitter memories of her early years and retain the habits of her childhood for a lifetime. Why, those freezers were just full of frozen food—chops and steaks, bags of blanched limas, green peas and corn, stocks and soups—most of which, they said, were fed to the occasional homeless men who having heard of her soft touch would end up first at her front door, then on her back porch eating a hearty meal, usually with plenty of her homemade yeast refrigerator rolls, which were a highly-regarded addition to the pot luck suppers at St. John’s Methodist Church, where she was a devout attendee and tither. Her neighbors would see them stretched out in a post-prandial snooze on the white wicker settee on her back porch in the warm afternoons, but they were always gone by the morning.
Then there were the dogs. She couldn’t abide cats, Ms. Clara, but she loved dogs, all kinds of dogs, and if she found a stray she would take it home for caring. Those she fed from the heavy sacks of dry dog food she had Kenny the check-out man at the local grocery deliver to her house. Though home deliveries were long a thing of the past for most Clara Curtis, being of such an advanced age and of considerable means was an exception to this rule, and nobody begrudged her the privilege. She was, after all, Mrs. Harvey Curtis, that same Harvey Curtis who was one of the founding fathers of a local oil exploration group that happened upon a rich field in a nearby rural county, resulting in a considerable fortune which the childless Widow Curtis held with formidable tenacity in the palms of her tiny immaculately-groomed hands.
And the flowers, let’s not forget the flowers. Clara’s house, an unpretentious two-storied brick affair with three awkward gables, stood in a space surrounded by a ring of trees that provided shade by degrees according to their nature, but around the building itself circled a ring of light that in the spring brought daffodils of every shape, size and color as well as what one local horticulturalist called “the most magnificent collection of heirloom azaleas in the state”. In the summer her marigolds and zinnias blazed golden and scarlet beneath a sweltering sun and in the fall castor beans towered in burgundy clumps over the thickening, multi-colored cockscomb. The coda of every year was a pirouette of the beautiful old delicate mums that shared her name.
How many freezers did she have? Oh, at least three, some argued four and one or two knowledgeable observers just nodded sagely and whispered “five”. There really was no telling, since the house was old and after all did have a huge basement that was sure to be cluttered with God-knows-what else. But this was bound to be her last one, they nodded. After all, she was what? Eighty? And sure, she got around just fine, called a cab when she needed to go anywhere, and she’d had a string of regular drivers from the company over the years, the current one a wiry, sullen young man with a shaved head and tattoos who watched over her like a hawk and helped her in and out of the cab. “I’m sure she tips him very well”, they’d say with more knowing nods. Her alone in that house without a soul in the world, but all the money! That church itself would have folded a long time ago if it hadn’t been for her. Mr. Curtis had that (much younger) half-brother, of course (a drunk, a wastrel, but handsome as Satan they said) who would probably lay claim to some money, but they knowing Clara and her tight fist knew he wouldn’t get a penny.
Still she was getting on, and in the lingering heat of a long summer she died. Her driver was the one who alerted the authorities, who had to break through a window to enter the house. They found Clara downstairs in the basement with a dead puppy in her lap surrounded by not three, but five freezers.; written on the first were Cleatra, Rose, Milo and a dozen others; on the second Ophelia, Casper and Rue in the same number; on the third was Mr. Callahan, the fourth Mr. Jones, and in a far corner, Mr. Curtis.
Parochialism is endemic in rural America, and though Southerners are of a naturally hospitable nature, they and Mississippians in particular have an acquired sense of xenophobia engendered by their brutal treatment at the hands of outsiders, most especially writers. In the case of Mississippi, perhaps the most stupefying recent example of such mistreatment comes from Bill Bryson, a native Iowan and former chancellor of Durham University, U.K., who recounts his visit to Mississippi in The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America, in which Bryson chronicles a 13,978 mile trip around the United States in the autumn of 1987 and spring 1988. Bryson’s tale of his journey through Mississippi is as full of bile as most American writers who venture south, packed with shopworn stereotypes and clichés, saturated with ridicule and derision. He left Mississippi with impressions of the state that are what we have come to expect of most people who visit with baggage consisting of preconceived prejudices and with no desire to do anything more than capitalize upon the surety that their condescension would be well-received by the world at large.
That same summer of 1988, V.S. Naipaul visited Jackson during a tour of the American South that resulted in his travelogue A Turn in the South, which was published the following February. Naipaul, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2001, had by that time achieved international recognition as an observer of post-colonial politics and societies. It was in this vein, that of an observer, that Naipaul visited the South, ostensibly to compare it to his own Trinidadian background. Though the issue of race was of obvious interest, the importance of race seems to move further to the background as the work progresses, and Naipaul finds himself increasingly preoccupied with describing the culture of the South, including country-western music, strict Christianity, Elvis Presley and rednecks. This shift of focus seems to take place largely in the section on Mississippi. Entitled “The Frontier, the Heartland”, his visit to the state is for the most part restricted to Jackson, where he becomes captivated with a character he calls Campbell, from whom he received a description of rednecks that fascinated and entranced Naipaul to the extent that he seems to become obsessed (he describes it as “a new craze”) with rednecks not merely as a group or class of people, but as almost a separate species; when someone tells him that “There are three of your rednecks fishing in the pond,” he “hurried to see them, as I might have hurried to see an unusual bird . . .”
Then we have Richard Grant, whose primary if not unique distinction among outside observers of Mississippi is that he did not “just pass through”. Grant is still here, though no longer in Pluto. He also sounds like a nice fellow, and his tale of buying a home on the fringes of the Mississippi Delta has a somewhat beguiling innocence about it, reminiscent of that involving a certain young lady who fell down a rabbit hole. Indeed, his story has a few other holes in it, not the least of which is why Grant, a British travel writer formerly based in Tucson but living in New York decided to “buy a house and move to Mississippi”. Some might find simply visiting here in character for a travel writer; after all, Mississippi, a state of overwhelming poverty with a stratosphere of commanding wealth, does have a perverse sort of attraction for people in search of something off the beaten path as well as a solid claim to have produced one of the most enduring and influential musical genres of any century, but the most embarrassing legacy of blues music and one augmented by Delta writers themselves (no surprise there) is the myth of the Delta as “the most Southern place on earth”, when in reality it’s just as full of “poverty, faith and guns” as any other neck of the woods between Annapolis and Austin. Three clues as to why Grant came to Mississippi to live and write are his friendship with a Delta food maven with a national profile whose well-to-do father just happened to have a high-end fixer-upper to sell in a hamlet on the eastern bank of the Yazoo River, a pixilated party with the Usual Suspects at Square Books in Oxford and Grant himself, a talented and hard-working writer with an ear for blues music as well by all appearances a bit of capital and no small amount of time on his hands. If those aren’t compelling components for a new book about the Mississippi Delta, then I challenge you to fabricate more plausible ones.
Grant is a fine writer with an amiable voice, but there’s a lot to get past in Dispatches from Pluto. He understands the intensity of isolated people and knows that in such empty places minds fix on petty matters, but in Mississippi he seems to have lost his compass on what is petty and what is not. Granted, travel writers should employ a degree of objectivity, but at some point the observer must become engaged, and throughout this book I kept asking myself, “Where is Richard Grant?” The answer is that he was making a living on many levels, steadily at work not only on what eventually became Dispatches but also on any number of other projects, including making the house he bought habitable, an effort that took an increasing amount of time and money, surely trying not only his patience but that of his long-suffering companion Mariah, not to mention Savannah. His engagement with the Mississippi Delta is in the most basic sense one of making do and getting by, one to which by his own accounts he as a free-lance writer is well accustomed and one well understood by Mississippi’s native residents. It’s worth suggesting that this is the reason he came and stayed, though there’s far more to it than that. A man such as Richard Grant does not lead a simple life.
This is not to say that all else in Dispatches is window-dressing, but much of it can be dismissed as such. One reads a great deal about the people, places and things in the Delta that any Mississippian or for that matter most people in the South or even the nation might find iconic to the point of cliché; the same tired recitation of the rich, sophisticated upper crust and poor, simple lower crust, the same circuitous itinerary of colorful towns and villages, the same boring assortment of restaurants, juke joints and run-down architecture as well as the obligatory nods to racial tension, a whole slew of blues musicians, firearms, possums and raccoons, alligators and snakes, cotton, sweet potatoes and catfish. In Dispatches from Pluto you won’t find any airy odes to the union of earth and sky or muddy elegies on the preponderance of the past; such things are no doubt within Grant’s ability, but that’s just not his style. He is a journalist at heart, a documentarian, if you will.
Curtis Wilkie likens Dispatches to Innocents Abroad, which might be more apt than it appears on the surface; Twain was of course far from innocent, and one suspects that Grant’s placid detachment is a mask for the sort of ferocious cynicism Twain himself often employed, but cynicism doesn’t seem to be Grant’s style either. He is a camera with a finely-ground lens, and this is why you should read this book, particularly if you are from Mississippi: to see Mississippi through the eyes of another person who came here not to deride or ridicule but for an account of how it is being here, or in Eliot’s fortuitous phrase, to explore and perhaps arrive where we started and know the place for the very first time.
People who are paid to postulate upon such matters have in recent years theorized that the reasons we don’t have herds of brontosauri stomping around in our bayous is due not just to the Alvarez event, but also to egg-eating possums. You’d think we’d be grateful for this service to their fellow mammals, but as in the case of the dove (which brought Noah the most significant tidal measurements in the history of mankind) possum has been served without apology at meals throughout the South since the region was settled and far before.
Southern culinary icons tend to be traditional and domestic, the comforting products of home gardens and kitchens. Those game dishes brought in from the woods and fields have in recent years come to play a strikingly diminished role on our tables because fewer people are hunting these days, particularly for sustenance, and while most if not all of you might consider having possum on the table a revolting prospect at best, the simple fact of the matter remains that possums have long been esteemed for their porcine flavor. One early recommendation comes from John Boynton, a New Englander who came to Mississippi (near Vicksburg) to teach in 1836. Boynton was amazed at the “Old Southwest”, writing to his father, “It would take more than 19 letters to tell you the half of what I’ve seen in one week.” He hunted turkey and deer as well as an exotic animal: “(o)possums by the scores. Had one for dinner today—first rate.”
Faulkner included possum on the Thanksgiving table of the Sartoris family in Flags in the Dust, his first novel to be set in Yoknapatawpha County (called “Yocona”). Written in 1927, the novel is set just after World War I and focuses on the once-powerful, influential and aristocratic Sartoris family contending with decline, but still clinging to the vestiges of affluence. Here’s Faulkner’s description of the meal:
. . . Simon appeared again, with Isom in procession now, and for the next five minutes they moved steadily between kitchen and dining room with a roast turkey and a cured ham and a dish of quail and another of squirrel, and a baked ‘possum in a bed of sweet potatoes; and Irish potatoes and sweet potatoes, and squash and pickled beets and rice and hominy, and hot biscuits and beaten biscuits and long thin sticks of cornbread and strawberry and pear preserves, and quince and apple jelly, and blackberry jam and stewed cranberries.
By far, the most solid recommendation for possum comes from Bill Neal, who is widely considered by many to be the dean of Southern cooking, the man who played a key role in raising Southern foods to national prominence and continues to influence new generations of Southern culinarians. In his authoritative Southern Cooking, Neal begins his entry on possum by stating, “All southerners—black, white, or native—who know game relish possum roasted with sweet potatoes. The two components are inseparable; the dish is practically a cultural symbol of regional pride in the piedmont and mountain areas.” He continues with a recipe from Horace Kephart’s Camp Cookery (1910) that beings: “To call our possum an opossum, outside of a scientific treatise, is an affectation. Possum is his name wherever he is known and hunted, this country over. He is not good until you have freezing weather; nor is he to be served without sweet potatoes, except in desperate extremity.” (The possum season in Mississippi this year extends from Oct. 1 until Feb. 28.)
The recipe reproduced here comes from another authority, Erma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking (13th edition, 1975). Note that the recipe recommends “feeding it out” (i.e. capturing the animal before slaughter and feeding it with bland foods not just to provide the meat with a less gamey flavor but purging the possum, which is a notorious scavenger), and while a good Southerner will always serve possum with sweet potatoes, the Rombauers were from St. Louis, which is marginally Southern and urban, so turnip greens were probably suggested since they are, like possum, an iconic Southern dish.
Growing cotton in Jackson, Mississippi is problematic, yet while well south of the fabled Delta and sorely lacking in expansive fields and farming equipment, the capital city of Mississippi does have a favorable climate for the cotton plant.
In my hometown of Bruce, Mississippi, well into the hills, Mr. Buddy Massey, who ran the Shell Station on the corner of Hwys. 9 and 32 grew cotton every year. Everyone sort of chuckled at it, but the townspeople loved talking about how his crop was coming along. I wanted to do that here, reinforce a sense of community that I’d felt growing up and was certain others here remember as well. This was an ambitious undertaking in the heavily-wooded old neighborhood in Jackson I call home, Belhaven, where many years before I’d hacked out a small garden on what was once a barren, sun-scorched verge at the corner of two long streets. The sun is strong there, and not only was the soil hard-packed, it had the stump of a long-dead oak embedded in the clay. But former mayor Leslie McLemore had the stump removed (thank you, Dr. McLemore), and armed with only a shovel and persistence, I eventually worked the ground into a garden that grows a good variety of flowering plants and vegetables over the course of a given year. I figured if Buddy could grow cotton, I could too.
This project encountered obstacles right off the bat. First and perhaps foremost I discovered you need permission to grow cotton in Mississippi; the shadow of the boll weevil still looms over the Cotton Kingdom, and the Mississippi Code states specifically that “Every person growing cotton in this state shall furnish to the commissioner and the corporation on forms supplied by the commissioner such information as the commissioner may require concerning the size and location of all commercial cotton fields and of noncommercial plantings of cotton grown as an ornamental plant or for any other purposes.” Having found that out, I knew having the Mississippi Department of Agriculture in a building a mile and a half away magnified my chances of getting busted for cotton, and since the novelty of being hauled to court for growing cotton in Mississippi did have some appeal, I called the Commission. They in turn directed me to a man at Mississippi State University who assured me that such a small “field” as mine wasn’t an agricultural time bomb. Second, getting the seed; cotton seed, because of the restrictions, is not something you find in a yard and garden emporium. They seem to be sold not by the bushel, nor even the pound, but by the seed; the individual seed, mind you. At a loss, I issued an appeal on the local social networks for help, which came forthwith, netting me not only enough seeds for my modest enterprise, but enough to plant a city block. For some time, I considered the novelty of becoming a Jesse Cottonseed, spreading the wealth of white gold across Jackson’s cityscape, but in the end I decided that I would never live down the shame of being the man who reintroduced the boll weevil to Mississippi. I’d probably be pilloried, then burned at the stake, at the very least tarred and feathered and exiled to Arizona. Third, waiting for it to get warm; we had a typical winter, but a cool spring. The first batch, planted in outside seed flats on April Fool’s Day of course failed, so I decided to sit on my haunches and seed while my part of the earth tilted more towards Sol. While waiting for it to get warmer, I decided to dig up a new bed for the cotton. I’d already planned to put it in the center of the main bed where I get my best sun, but just west (all of about 5 yards) was another patch of ground covered in grass. In my mind I’d always known that I’d have to hew out another bed there, but this time I needed more than a shovel. This earth, Yazoo clay to be exact, had been baked by the brutal Mississippi sun for decades and was full of gravel, broken bricks and fragments of concrete and asphalt. I found this out on my first efforts at making it useful for cultivation.
So I put out a cattle call on the local social media for a garden adz. After much back and forth, I ended up with a pick-axe with a horizontal blade weighing about 50 lbs. What followed was a series of excruciatingly painful lessons on performing heavy manual labor with a body that had grown soft and old involving such simple elements of physics as gravity and motion. In the end, I had not one bed but two: the one intended and another across the parking lot entrance, smaller and with a trellis. I dug the beds as deep as I could after reading up on cotton roots, which are said to extend up to nine feet in an alluvial soil such as the Delta’s. People, I did my best, but I only ended up with a bed that is about two and a half feet deep. I filled it with a mixture of clayey sand and humus, Mrs. Hutto’s garden soil. As a good son of Calhoun County, there I buried a sweet potato that had sprouted over the winter behind the refrigerator as a blessing on my endeavors and waited for the earth in orbit to tilt closer to the sun, another lesson in physics, this time involving celestial mechanics.
Springs in Mississippi are usually brief; most years we jump directly from winter to summer with little respite at the end of March, but this year Father Winter, who had enjoyed a brutal reign in the north with record snows and lows, lingered here in the South with cool temperatures and cloudy skies. Any other year I’d have been grateful for his late company, but I had a crop to plant, one that needed warmth. The temperatures remained cool and rainy until the end of April; then suddenly the skies cleared and the sun came out in force. The earth, which up until then had been too soggy to work, suddenly firmed and my shovel seemed inadequate. But it was all I had, so I began digging, one square yard at a time, sometimes only one a day, at the same time working in the sand and humus the cotton needed with the clayey soil. The teachings of toil and tedium brought home another lesson of how hard people worked to grow cotton when it was still a farm crop, something people raised to provide income to abet that from what little food they had to sell. If they were lucky, they had a plow and a mule, but they were no strangers to hoes and shovels, and had to deal with weeds in the same way I do, by uprooting. Likewise, herbicides and pesticides were out of the question, since calling in a crop duster to fly down Poplar Boulevard might have peppered the gyros at Keifer’s with legal consequences potentially much worse than growing cotton without a permit and besides, with the exception of an occasional light fertilizer, my garden has always been free of chemicals. I prayed for some Muse of Cotton to grace my crop with benevolence as she must have for those who came before me.
The first week of May, Jim Steeby from Stewart, Mississippi, said cotton planting had begun in the Delta. With two beds ready, I sowed my cotton by hand, which was a less-than-mystical experience than I had anticipated, but shouldn’t have, since cotton itself is a plant, and what aura it has is what we have given it; besides, it was the seeds themselves which no doubt found an exhilaration in being thrust into warm, moist soil after such a wait. Of the four beds planned, the ones on the east and west were planted on May 5. Since my appeal for seeds had netted no less than three copious batches (in different colors, I might add, blue, brown and purple due to the fungicides which coated them), they were mixed together in a batch and sown, some in short rows, others in small hills. Predictably, once the seed was planted, the rains ceased, and watering began, not just for the cotton, but for the other seeds and seedlings already in place; their roots, once established, would sustain them in months to come, but the roots themselves had to be encouraged.
The next two beds were planted on May 10, after the soil had been broken up with an adz borrowed from a nearby neighbor, then churned by another near neighbor with a gas-powered tiller, which thoroughly belittled my former efforts. Sandy clay and humus was mixed with existing dirt to a depth of at least a foot. The seeds were sown in roughly four very short rows in both beds, and though rain threatened all day, it never appeared, so watering was again in order. On the same day, I noticed that the first seedlings had begun to appear in the pot and the west bed. Again, their emergence seemed anticlimactic. Perhaps I was simply tired, or perhaps I was distracted by other events in the garden, since other plants were up as well: sunflowers, morning glories and moonflowers, marigolds, plum grannies and zinnias, cherry tomatoes and celosia. The coneflowers were budding, as were the orphaned Easter lilies I’d garnered from neighbors, and the herbs (chives, mint, oregano and others) were at their late spring peak. The garden was coming into being, and it promised to be a bountiful year.
For whatever reason, the cotton seeds proved fickle. To make a series of mini-rows, a total of perhaps fifty were planted each round, each planting a mixture of the three seed types, those with a purple coating proving the most viable. Rainy weather in mid-May helped the second set, and before long the rows (as such) began to take shape, not only in lines but in triangles and circles. Only the closest of seedlings needed thinning. In Delta fields, such fussy tending is not necessary, but being fractional this acreage needed more attention to crowding; in this instance, optimal outcome involving big, pretty plants that would bloom and boll. A rainy May helped; the cotyledons and stems grew big and fat. By the end of the month, some seedlings had preliminary leaves, and I decided to wait on thinning. On the one hand, I wanted the best plants possible, but then I’ve seen cotton growing close together, and in the best situation of open field and plentiful rain, all the plants were tall, leafy and in flower. Somehow back in the back of my mind I kept trying to imagine what kind of machine planted cotton, and I couldn’t envision it being less haphazard than me. I tried to imagine how cotton must have looked in its primeval state in Tehuacán, predictably failed but persisted. While many scoffed at my crop, growing cotton had become more than an endeavor; it had become a responsibility, and my care paid off. By the first week in June, the cotton was about six inches tall and the cotyledons were being replaced by true leaves. Though my beds received only five hours of direct sun a day, the stems were strong and red, so I decided thinning needn’t be that drastic, since cotton in row crops grows much closer together.
In the Deep South, we have nothing resembling the graduated springs and falls of more northerly latitudes, and while our winters are predictably brief and comparatively mild, summer has such a duration that it can be divided into three parts: new summer, high summer and far summer. The summer solstice marks the beginning of the high summer, when daytime temperatures are in the nineties and seventies at night. By that time, the cotton was a foot high, but overshadowed by early summer annuals such as zinnias, first crop marigolds and sweet cherry tomatoes. With marigolds and cotton still in mind, more marigolds are planned for early August before the cotton bolls. By that time the old maroon plume coxcomb will bloom, the yellow plum grannies ripen, the red popcorn will begin to brown and the low hedge of asters make such a show of blue as to bring the October sky to ground. In the meantime, it was lay-by time.
After a wet June, when the petty dregs of cool air from the north had wrung what rain they could from the encroaching Gulf winds, a mountain of hot still air settled over Jackson, and the sun was unrelenting, turning upon the city as a child with a magnifying glass but without pity might focus on an insect. The light itself had gravity, a throbbing, beating pressure that made any lengthy walks in the afternoon an exercise in humility and endurance. The cotton plant is what horticulturalists call a heavy feeder, meaning that it needs more nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium than an ordinary garden-variety soil can provide in order to achieve maximum growth. Cotton needs a lot of nitrogen, which was bad news for my tomatoes, but the cotton had priority. Since the cotton was planted very near the end of spring, the rest of the garden needed much tending before the solstice; the flowers and fruit of May had to make room for those of October: orange marigolds and autumn sunflowers, corn and gourds as well as hollyhocks and hibiscus for the coming year. These all had to be in the ground by the first week in July, and with the rain and heat the weeding became even more arduous. So though the cotton grew taller, I took no notice of what was happening beneath the canopy of leaves and found myself surprised in early July by the first blossom, a pale crimped envelope of crepe protruding from a frilly green box. Again, I’d been anticipating a transcendental moment for the occasion, but my reaction was more composed of surprise and curiosity, which for all I know may well be the essential elements of a transcendent experience. I lack a frame of reference. Pale at first, the petals of the blossoms turned a rich purple before dropping. My neighbor John Lewis said that in Leflore County they have a saying: “First day white, second day red, third day from my birth I’m dead!” When the blooms had fallen they left a tight, blocky wad of green still enclosed in a feathery case. On this bud empires had grown and tumbled, but other work distracted me.
July brought a heat like I couldn’t remember in many years, the sun a hot press upon the world, heavy and dense, but the autumn seeds broke from the earth and reached for the sky, hungry for light. Their growth soon replaced the spring bloomers, which had to be cut. Room also had to be found for plants that languished in other places for various reasons, others had to be moved and some culled even when the temperatures were in the eighties at midnight, but any sincere gardener knows that caring for plants is an honorable duty, and one often done against odds. Such are the toils of the earth. August brought the far summer, when the sun begins to lessen but the heat lingers like a rash no ointment will cure. Some people maintain that the southeastern United States would be just as dry as the southwest if it weren’t for hurricanes, and after once enduring an autumn drought in Tupelo that killed most of the azaleas and dogwoods, I believe it. Clouds would form and rain would fall over the Pearl, but not over LeFleur’s Bluff, which held my little share of earth.
Remember that this is a very small patch of cotton in a city, so access to water could be found; Jackson does have a water system, however antiquated. The problem was finding a tap, which involved negotiations with a local landlord who owns several apartment buildings nearby (including mine, which is unfortunately across the street). His property just up the hill has an outside tap about 200 feet away. He readily agreed to let me use it; not only that, but he gave me a better hose, a sprinkler and a spray nozzle to boot. The sprinkler covered the entire garden (all 100-odd square feet, if that) and with this water, which ultimately came from the Pearl itself, the cotton and corn, gourds and hollyhocks thrived, particularly the cotton, which began to set bolls the last week in July. As mentioned, cotton is a hibiscus, as is okra, the latter with a pod, the former a boll, both exhibiting a symmetry that is architectural under examination, one elongated and the other compact, one edible and the other not, but both threads in the woof and weave of the fabric that is the South. As I’d hoped, the cotton outgrew the celosia, four-o’-clocks and marigolds, all planted at the same time. The other plants blossomed and stoutened first, and though the cotton began blooming as well, it kept stretching towards the by now waning but still powerful sun. Very soon, a canopy of cotton thrust above the flowers, broadening as it secured stronger light. Beneath this undulating blanket of green more blossoms opened and the bolls swelled. What weeds grew beneath were smothered in the cotton’s shade, and I grew lackadaisical in dealing with them; in time, I’d get the unwanted before they went to seed, but for now I could stand and wait rather than crouch and search. It was lay-by time, after all.
During the last week in July and the first in August I found myself continually researching the growth and development of the cotton plant, which as luck would have is one of the most complex structures in the kingdom Plantae. I wanted to know such things when maximum production of bolls takes place (from 80 to 110 days after cotton is planted), how cotton responds to heat and water stress (badly) and why the buds are called “squares” but they’re triangular bracts; nobody knows, though a graduate prominent graduate of Mississippi State University (to my mind the final court of authority when it comes to cotton cultivation) did point out that an open boll has four locks of fiber and four carpels which dry into a bur with prickly tips that make picking cotton by hand an often bloody business. The garden received a long soaking once a week, and while this benefited all the plants, the cotton needed nitrogen. With nothing to give but a general-purpose fertilizer, I held off feeding the plants until cotton seed meal could be found. I’d heard that it’s risky to fertilize in such heat anyway, and though the season was rapidly waning, I simply watered when needed, and had to be content.
Two months after the solstice, the intensity of the sun had lessened, but because the earth had begun to tilt back in its orbit, the cotton plot received more continual light (if fractionally) as the sun cleared the tree line south of the garden. It was then almost to the day that the first vestiges of cold air presaging the oncoming season came sweeping across the Lower Forty, bringing frost to North Dakota but to Mississippi nothing more than a steady northerly breeze that in a higher latitude might well be construed as a sirocco. Summer’s rule was under siege, and though the heat persisted in the days, nights no longer wrapped you in a suffocating blanket. It was hurricane season; sere, still and expectant. The first boll opened the last week of August. I saw it under the light of a nearly-full moon, a low, white symmetrical glow against the shadowed green. Again, no thunder and lightning came, but though a friend in Arcola had sent me photos of a local field crop waist-high and plush with open bolls along with disparaging comments about my “scrappy-ass Jackson ‘plantation wanna-be’ cotton”, I was proud of my little fraction of an acre. It was, after all, making a crop, one that fit well with my modest and unpretentious character as an urban planter. Making a bale out of it might be impossible, but I’d have cotton to harvest.
To my astonishment, the opening cotton proved unrecognizable to many if not most of my neighbors. On many occasions I found myself faced with the question, “What is that?” as someone pointed to the whitening bolls. “Cotton,” I’d say, and they would either slap their foreheads or form a silent “o” with their lips. These reactions became a general rule of thumb for determining who of my neighbors were from where, and I’d always ask, but then I found that people from North Carolina and Tennessee didn’t recognize the plant. Most of them didn’t know an oak from an elm, either, but I’d cherished the notion that most Southerners would recognize the most iconic crop of their homeland out of repetition if nothing else. Perhaps the image of a cotton boll itself has become so divergent from reality that its actuality has become inconceivable to anyone save those who plant the seed.
Sure, I was a half-assed farmer in the middle of Mississippi’s capital city, but I was making an effort. As the weeks drew on, every surface of the cotton, leaves, stems, even the ripening bolls, became scorched, ruddy and freckled beneath the unrelenting sun. The change in color was so drastic I’d be willing to bet that big-time cotton farmers can look at a photo of a full field and tell within a month or less of how long it’s been in the ground as well as if it needed a goosing of nitrogen before it set a crop. While the cotton was reddening, the trees were yellowing, becoming sallow, assuming that peculiar jaundice I found familiar from past Septembers. The air itself became hazy because what brief winds we had were picking up the dusty earth and passing it around as they do with pine pollen in June. Everything had a sense of resignation about it, even the light, which seemed suspended in ether, hung between a pale blue sky and a dark dun earth. The world was a sepia silhouette, and the leaves were falling. With the failing of the light, the tentative knocking of Father Winter brought about the decline of the cotton plants themselves. Blistered by the sun and exhausted in their efforts to produce seed, the stems drooped under the weight of the swelling bolls, which were opening ever-so-slowly while the autumn sunflowers were swaying in a northerly breeze.
October proved the coda for the cotton; the heat was gone, the light lessening, their dance was over, and the year itself was coming to a close. Sure, for all my work and attention, I was left with a mere bundle of cotton, no more than a grocery sack, but the real harvest was reaped from the people who were a part of this creation of a bit of nostalgia and whimsy on a street in a Southern city.