We’re home! What an amazing trip — I’m still processing it all. I learned so much and came away with so many new ideas. I thought I had a decent idea of what the novel would include, but now I have a hundred new ideas. I feel somewhat overwhelmed by the mass of material that’s floating around in my head right now. I know that the best way to deal with that feeling is just to start writing it all down. And, luckily, I feel much more able to start writing after this trip. How exciting!
I’ve already talked about the farm a bit, but let me say again, it was amazing. I loved being there with Addie, knowing that it’s been in my family for nearly 100 years. It created a new sense of family tradition in me. I want to keep the farm forever.
And yet. There’s this, from my journal of the trip:
“I stand on this land and I’m overcome with emotion. This is the land that my Grandma grew up on. The land that she worked. This is where she found joy, I’m sure, but also where she faced tragedy and deprivation. The kind of deprivation that would stay with her for the rest of her life. Even in the midst of wealth, she would never feel wealthy. She would shop at dollar stores, she would buy everything on sale, she would get all her clothes at rummage sales.
I stand on this land and I see beauty. But did she see the beauty, too? Or was there too much work? Too much poverty? Too much tragedy?
This is where she grew up, but this Tupelo is a different world. This is a city of strip malls and chain restaurants, of car dealerships and gas stations, liquor stores and big box stores. This is a city like any other in America.
Not only has the city grown and changed, the land has, too. There are hardly any individual farmers any more – the farming is mostly big business. You’re more likely to see cows than crops in the big fields around here. And if there are crops, it’s soybeans, mostly, or maybe corn. They don’t grow cotton around these parts anymore. Only in the Delta, now. When cotton was king, they grew it everywhere in the South, even here where it wasn’t ideal. But cotton isn’t king anymore and it hasn’t been grown here for some time.
The world of my grandma’s childhood has drifted away. My hope is to recover it.”
Addie and I drove around Tupelo and the countryside, attempting to recover that past. We found some hints of the past in odd places.
I also really wanted to see cotton, but like I said, cotton isn’t grown around Tupelo anymore. So our last stop before coming home was the Delta.
From rolling hills and trees everywhere, suddenly you come out onto the Delta: flat and much more open, still with trees, but with fields that stretch out into the distance. And cotton. Lots and lots of cotton. We came at the perfect time: the cotton was just ready to be harvested. In fact, some of the fields were already harvested, and we watched the big machines harvesting other fields.
We found a field that was still full of cotton, a little off the main road. I pulled over to the side and got out. The bursted cotton bolls create a sea of white – it looks like the field has been dusted with snow. I walked a little way into the field and stood looking out. The plants only came up to about my knee. I bent over and picked some cotton, three bolls off the top of the plant. To pick the entire plant, including the bolls down by the ground, I would have had to bend far over or kneel down. The cotton came off easily, but I had to reach among the branches to get the inner boll. Over time, the branches would scratch your hands. Your fingers would ache with the repeated motion. Cotton picking would take weeks or maybe a little more than a month. In the field from dawn to dusk, working all the time. It would have been backbreaking work.
Like so much else in Mississippi, everything has changed from my grandma’s childhood. Shortly after WWII, scientists finally developed the holy grail of cotton: a mechanical cotton picker. Now an entire farm of cotton is harvested in hours, maybe a few days. Small farmers couldn’t compete with that. And so the small cotton farm died. My grandma’s family switched to dairy cows. My grandma was already gone by that time.
The world has, certainly, moved on. I’m excited to remind it, if only briefly, of this chapter of its past.