An old friend recently visited her family in Alabama, where she described the “fields of leftover cotton winking in the wind” as she enjoyed a breakfast of “two-inch high biscuits smothered in homemade apple butter.” In her words, it was “the start of a beautiful southern Thanksgiving.”
Although I’ve been wearing finished cotton since the day I was born, I’ve never lived in a state where cotton is grown. I had never before seen cotton growing or felt it raw in my hands. I can remember once seeing a field of cotton from a distance as I drove through southern Missouri, and wondering what it was, at first thinking it was snow or perhaps some sort of fertilizer.
When I admitted my lack of exposure to this American agricultural staple, my friend was shocked and took decisive action after finding out that my son, age seven, was also so deprived. She told her son, age eight, that there was this boy in Illinois who had never touched cotton, and his reply was a disbelieving, “Is he American?” So later in their visit, my friend and her son went cotton picking for these Yankees up north in Illinois.
After a few days of anticipation, a package lay by the front door on my return from work today. Inside we found various pieces from Alabama cotton plants — wads of the fibrous seed covering that is spun into textiles, individual bolls with their barbed outer coats, and a few woody stems with bolls still attached. Hidden deep inside each fibrous bundle, we could feel the hard, quarter-inch cotton seeds.
In the bottom of the package, we also found a small bag that included a sample of the rich, red-brown Alabama clay in which cotton grows so well.
My son immediately suggested we try to grow some of the seeds, foreshadowing a research project in our future. In my ignorance of growing cotton, I don’t even know if the seeds from commercial cotton is viable. But we’ll soon find out.
I suppose that for someone from the South, traipsing across someone unfamiliar with cotton would be like a Midwesterner staring in disbelief at someone who has never walked in a corn or soybean field. It hadn’t struck me before how our impressions of agriculture and horticulture are so regional and insulated.
As I write this, I’m staring at a small bouquet of cotton on my desk, and looking forward to the next discovery along my path.