It has been a little puzzling to me to tell just when autumn gets here the past few years anyway. When I was growing up, it was the smells that signaled its arrival. Our little town was thick with pecan trees. Every yard had at least two or three. Our yard had about a dozen. All of the kids (and some of the adults) made a few bucks picking up pecans and selling them. Raking the leaves off the yard (we never called them lawns) made it easier to find the pecans. Once the leaves were raked into piled, the best way to get rid of them was to burn them. They burned quickly and easily. I never heard of a serious fire getting started because someone let a leaf fire get away. You just raked up a pile out of the grass, which was brown and dry by then, cleared a small area around it of any combustibles, and dropped a lit match into it. The whole thing was over in five or ten minutes. The smell of burning leaves filled the air on autumn afternoons.
The other smell that wafted over the countryside was that of burning cotton burrs. The cotton was taken to a gin where the fibers were separated from the seeds and the dried burrs and other debris. The seeds were saved for replanting or cattle feed while the hulls went into a towering incinerator or burr burner. On chilly nights, the cool air kept the warm smoke close to the ground. It could be smelled for several miles.
The EPA decided that burning leaves and cotton burrs was polluting the air and I am sure that is so. Still, I miss those autumn smells. (I don’t know why they haven’t decided the same thing about burning rice straw from the fields in Arkansas and Missouri.)
Cotton is a very labor intensive crop. The ground has to be worked in late winter to get it ready for spring planting. Once it is planted, it has to be rolled. This means that a tractor pulls a set of rollers over it to cover the seeds. On big farms, they use tractors powerful enough to haul the planters and pull the rollers but on our little east Texas farms, that was not the case. Once the plants are up, you have to be diligent about keeping the weeds out of the crop. This is done was done by walking up and down each row with a hoe and chopping or digging up the weeds. Of course, herbicides are used as well but some things have to be done with the hoe. Then you have to keep the insects off the plants as best you can. This involves the use of more pesticides than you really want to think about. Then there is all the fertilizer. You get the picture.
When harvest time comes, a defoliant is sprayed on the field to kill the plant and make the leaves fall off so that the ‘stripper’ can take the cotton and what few dried leaves are left on the stalks off in one pass. The chemical smells for all the world like skunk spray. The old strippers were attached to the tractor and spit the cotton and debris into the trailer that was pulled behind. To keep the cotton from piling up in one place, someone had to ride in the back with a pitchfork and keep the cotton spread out. That was usually my job. I weighed no more than ninety pounds so I got bounced around a lot. The full trailers were taken to the gin where the cotton was graded, processed and baled. If you have ever heard the phrase fair to middlin’, you heard a cotton grade without realizing it. The grades were based on the length and condition of the fiber as well as how much debris was in it.
The harvesting equipment has evolved and now a huge cage fits over the tractor and catches the cotton. It then is compressed into big rectangles that are covered with tarps until it is moved to the gin on trucks. This requires much larger tractors and small acreages are pretty much a thing of the past. Most cotton seeds are hybrids and have been genetically prefabricated not to reproduce so saving your seeds for next year is also a thing of the past.
Little if any cotton is grown in the area of northeast Texas where I grew up. Huge old buildings which once housed the cotton gins dot the landscape as they slowly rust away unless a tornado or other high wind sends the sheet metal flying into the surrounding fields.
The soundtrack for this post has to be Those Old Cotton Fields Back Home.
Photo of cotton boll: http://www.ecofriend.org/images/genetically_modified_cotton.jpg
Photo of gin:http://images.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://pics3.city-data.com/cpicv/vfiles22336.jpg&imgrefurl=http://www.city-data.com/picfilesv/picv22336.php&h=530&w=827&sz=184&hl=en&start=88&um=1&tbnid=7szPZvey_qcpvM:&tbnh=92&tbnw=144&prev=/images%3Fq%3Dcotton%2Bgin%26start%3D80%26ndsp%3D20%26svnum%3D10%26um%3D1%26hl%3Den%26rls%3DGGLG,GGLG:2005-47,GGLG:en%26sa%3DN