Cotton is said to be one of the most researched plants in the history of the world. The resultant countless thousands of papers, books, theses, and other publications also constitute probably some of the dullest reading in the history of the world. Snoozeville.
A recent book, Big Cotton: How a Humble Fiber Created Fortunes, Wrecked Civilizations, and Put America on the Map, by Stephen Yafa, is an exception, as entertaining a story of this major crop as I’ve read.
Yafa, a writer for national publications, in addition to being a playwright, video producer, and award-winning screenwriter, has put together a volume that includes suspense, intrigue, skullduggery, and a lot of fascinating material about the crop associated with man’s development for more than 5,000 years.
“For a scrawny, gangling plant that produces hairs about as substantial as milkweed,” Yafa writes, “cotton has exerted a mighty hold on human events since it was first domesticated... Cotton rode on the back of Alexander the Great… robed ancient Egyptian priests, generated the conflicts that led to the American Civil War, inspired Marx’s and Engels’ Communist Manifesto, fooled Columbus into thinking he had reached Asia, and made at least one bug, the boll weevil, world famous.”
Today, “Cotton is family: We sweat in cotton. It breathes with us. We wrap our newborns in it. In fact, we pay cotton the highest compliment of all: we don’t go out of our way to be nice to it.” While linen, silk, and wool — “uptown fabrics, to be sure” — are “fibrous divas that demand attentive coddling, cotton, the sword-carrier… is what silk would be if it gracefully absorbed sweat, and what linen might aspire to if it didn’t wrinkle on sight.”
Cotton has even insinuated itself into our language, with the expressions “fair to middlin’,” or “cotton to,” or “in high cotton.”
Kings “are mere mortals,” he writes. “They die and the world keeps on turning. (Cotton), by contrast, has eternally rewarded and punished with the haughty abandon of a capricious god; has stirred up more mischief than any penny-ante royal; and yet remains so casually seductive in its look and feel that we are willing to forgive its sins even as we continue to pay for them.”
Denim jeans, Yafa writes, are “cotton as God intended it to be used… Jeans were put on earth to get us through our chores… You can’t buy another piece of clothing as right-headed as a pair of jeans.”
His tack on some of the modern-day issues may raise a few hackles, but all in all, it’s as readable a chronicle of cotton as you’re likely to come across — ranging from its ancient beginnings to the WTO Brazilian dispute, government subsidies, and cameos of growers like Mississippi’s Kenneth Hood, who “in 40-odd years of farming has crawled under one too many tractor to fix a leaky universal joint and torn up his fingers pulling burrs off the barbed spindles of a mechanical harvester once too often to consider himself a slacker feeding at the government trough.”
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