Friday, March 25, 2011

Waking Up

I love the idea of "working" in the Delta. Now that I have my place in Rolling Fork, I can imagine going down on a Friday morning or even a Thursday evening and working from the cottage on the internet (yes, even in Rolling Fork we have internet) and cell phone (yes, even in Rolling Fork, we have AT&T coverage). After all, a lot of what I do is talk to people, either on the phone or on email, Facebook, or Twitter! Or I am researching on the internet or creating documents on my computer. I can do that down in the Delta as easily as from Memphis!

But today, I had a real reason to work in the Delta. I had an appointment in Clarksdale, MS, so I  headed south from Memphis after a morning meeting, having already plotted my path...Memphis to Tunica..have a late breakfast at the Blue & White on Highway 61...stop by to see if the eagles were still nesting and if "my" cypress swamp had changed with the seasons...take Old Highway 61 through Lula to Clarksdale...and find my way to my meeting.

What I didn't expect was how busy the Delta would be today. Just two weeks ago, there was no action in the fields. All was quiet and action for miles. But today, the Delta was a buzz.

I could smell the fresh, turned up dirt in the fields. I could see the dust thrown up by the trucks, tractors, and other farm equipment making their way down dirt rows or tilling new rows to ready them for planting. Even the yellow crop dusters were flying about. Every now and then, some piece of farm equipment blocked the road and slowed me down. But for some reason, I didn't just meant I could spend a little more time enjoying the moment.

I made several bat turns to go back to take a picture of a tractor tilling the land. I am sure the guys driving those tractors wondered why a middle-aged woman in a red Toyota Camry Hybrid was so interested in their work??? I mean, if you live in the Delta all the time, this is just normal activity. No big deal.

There is a cycle to farming. You till; you plant; you water; you harvest; you store; you sell; and then you start all over again. But for a city girl, there is just something about the dirt, the dust, the physical labor of it all. Something that just yells, "I am really working". This is not whimpy work; not virtual work through email, conference calls, Facebook or Twitter. This is get your hands dirty work!

My grandfather, Pa, knew this type of work. He, with the help of others, literally cleared his Delta land by hand. I have been told he used the "deadening" method of girdling the trees (cutting a band around the trunk), which, over about two years, killed the tree, making it easier to cut down. The tree limbs and, sometimes stumps, were burned, and hauled off.  We still call the first field he farmed "The Deadnin" after this process used to clear the land. At the end of the Civil War, 90% of the Delta bottomland was still undeveloped and covered by ancient forests and swamps. Thousands of people came to the Delta where they traded their labor to clear the land to purchase it for themselves.The Delta is what it is today, because these people cleared it and farmed it. I cannot even imagine how much work it required to change so much land!

There is part of me that longs to have this type of work. After all, you can see the fruits of your labor. You see the seedlings turn into productive plants that you then harvest, store and sell. You see the land turn over anew each year with the promise (or hope) that new life will grow in the old fields. You physically feel the work yourself: you sweat and ache from your efforts.

I bet my Delta friends and family are laughing at me for saying all of this. For, in reality, working in the Delta is not always this romantic.

I can remember watching Delta farmers trying to salvage their rice crops after the winds of Katrina ravaged their fields...toiling to harvest whatever they could after all the rice had "laid" down with the counterveiling winds. I know that for many Thanksgivings, soy beans were left in the fields to rot because the fall rains came early and it just wasn't possible to get the beans out in time. And the years that disease attacked acres and acres of corn fields, leaving nothing for all the expense and effort it took to make the crop.

And, many Delta farmers have just given up. They weren't able to pay off prior year loans with the next crop and then had no collateral to offer up for the next year,,, so, out of business after a lifetime, and sometimes generations, of farming. Many had to either sell or lease their land to those few farmers that had the capital to farm. Or, as you can clearly see driving through much of the Delta, many farmers just let their land go to seed.. or waste.

So, I know that really working in the Delta is not quite the picture I paint in my mind. But I do love to see the Delta come alive this time of year. It is a time of renewal; a time of hope; a time of activity. After a long winter, it is good to see the Delta waking up.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed reading this. I grew up in Clarksdale and am gratified to see the "hold" or "mystery" that the Delta has on its sons and daughters is still alive and that people are finding livelihoods there.
    --Alex Lundy