Monday, October 15, 2007

Is it Autumn Yet?

According to the calendar, autumn is upon us. That just shows how much one can rely on calendars. Summer has decided to make up for the time she lost to the rains of mid-year and bless us with 90 degree days in October. We have had several so called cool fronts already. The best the impotent little puffs have been able to manage has been temperatures in the mid to high 80s.

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.


The Minstrel Boy said...

from an ecological viewpoint cotton is a brutal crop. soil depletion (sometimes beyond the power of chemical replenishment), the defoliants, the fumes of the monsterous equipment are all nightmares.

still, it does feel good doesn't it? (i have some high thread count egyptian cotton sheets that are total dream wagons)

The Minstrel Boy said...

p.s. leaves are a wonderful ingredient in a compost heap. they degrade very fast, and in the process of degrading create a great deal of heat, which attracts all the worms and other bugs you want to attract to your heap.

seventh sister said...

You are right,MB. Cotton is a brutal crop from an eco stand point. Not only are huge amounts of agri-chemicals used, it is also a very thirsty plant. I do agree that it feels good. I have been looking for alternatives and have found some birch fiber sheets that are awesome and some 60% bamboo and 40% cotton that I like a lot.

Yes, leaves makek great compost except for these live oak leaves that we have around here. They take forever to break down.

Brave Sir Robin said...

Thank you for this post!!!

It brought back some terrific memories for me.

Cotton was pretty much the only crop grown around here (South Texas Coast) when I was young. It went away for many years but has recently come back.

Yes, the burning is gone, as is the old cotton wagon. When I was a child the wagon followed the combine around and cotton was dumped into the wagon to be pulled to the gin. We would play in those wagons of cotton balls for hours and hours, diving into them off the rails of the trailer. Now the cotton is baled right in the field into an 18-wheeler sized bale and loaded onto big trucks for the trip to the gin. I guess a "bale" of cotton no longer exists.

seventh sister said...

I think it is probably baled at the gin. The bale system is also most likely used for units of weight...abour 480 to 500 lbs. per bale.

And you were tougher than I was if you could dive into those cotton trailers with all the burrs still on the bolls. I bet ya'll got scratched up some.