Sometimes, as I roll southward along the Great River Road, the changes in geography, culture and accents seem to happen subtly and gradually. At other times, it feels like I might have nodded off during a play and missed a complete set change. The Midwest has abruptly been left behind. Here, in “the Bootheel” of Missouri, everything, even the heavy, humid air, feels decidedly “Southern.”
This is cotton country and the fluffy white stuff is everywhere. It’s smooshed into huge round bales and waiting in harvested fields. It’s blowing across the road in frothy waves and it’s riding down the highway in the backs of semi-trucks, like the one I have been staring into for miles now. I’ve had a few chances to pass, but now I’m intrigued. I’ve never seen cotton like this, in such enormous bundles, so I’ve decided to trail along a bit and see what I can discover.
When the truck leaves the highway and makes several turns on side roads, I follow like a duckling behind its momma until we turn into the L. Berry Cotton Gin at Holland, Missouri. The truck falls in line with its comrades and I turn into an expanse of orderly rows of bundled cotton, looking a lot like giant nougat candy bars in their pastel green and yellow wrappers. They are even bigger than they looked from a distance, perhaps eight feet in diameter, tightly compressed and neatly sliced at each end. I walk among them, picking up stray boles, fingering the silky threads and the seeds buried within.
There’s a cacophony of machinery noise roaring from a huge building and a smaller, quieter one that must be the office, so I opt for that. The woman at the counter looks surprised to see me, but she smiles when I tell her about the journey of a raindrop and asks me to wait a moment. A minute later she returns, smiling broadly and says, “Mr. Sonny Berry, the owner of the company is here and would be happy to talk with you.”
Mr. Berry is a silver-haired gentleman who seems not the least bit bothered by my surprise visit. “The process of ginning cotton,” he explains as we walk, “is basically the same as when Eli Whitney made the first gin in 1793. It’s just easier and faster now.” The big, round bales, which are each the equivalent of four 500-pound bales, are called “modules” and are the latest evolution in streamlining the process of separating the seeds and hulls from the cotton.
I’ve passed into the Mississippi Delta, he tells me proudly, and Delta cotton is among the finest anywhere. His roots are deep in this land, he says, as his family has farmed here for many generations and they have weathered many changes. The cotton industry suffered when synthetics were preferred, but that tide has now turned. “It’s a good year to be in the cotton business,” he says, unable to contain a brilliant smile, “and the price of cotton is at an all-time high.”
Back on the road, I pass mile after mile of empty, harvested fields. Only random wisps of cotton cling to the stubs of plants and litter the ground like the morning after a party. Then, surprisingly, there is one field that is still covered with a blanket of white. I pull over and walk the impossibly straight rows and marvel at how pristinely white the boles are amidst all the dust. I break off a brittle stem and touch the sharp, prickly hull and images arise of all the bare hands that were sliced by such plants.
It’s day 63 of this amazing 90-day journey and it seems perfectly fitting that as I transition into the South, I would be walking in a cotton field. Cotton is the backdrop for most of the South’s stories – it’s the very fabric from which many are woven. The stories will be different from those of other parts of America and yet they will be the same. They will tell of oppression and freedom, cruelty and kindness and joy and sorrow – and they will tell, as they always do, of Love that survives and transcends all circumstances.