One year with an independent Mississippi cotton farmer reveals the harshness and fragility of life in the Delta.
Helferich (Humboldt’s Cosmos, 2004) has a busy agenda. He competently chronicles 12 months of sun and storm, good and ill fortune. He pauses regularly to broaden and contextualize. He reflects on issues of race and class. He sketches the personal life of farmer Zack Killebrew. Not everything goes well. Zack’s crop suffers nasty visits from the residue of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita (the latter actually does more harm). His 30-year marriage to the author’s first cousin fractures, introducing an awkwardness that Helferich never sufficiently addresses. Most of the digressions are instructive and necessary. They teach us about the geology of the Delta, its natural history, the chemistry of cotton, the evolution and workings of the cotton gin, the creation of genetically engineered seeds, battles with pests, crop-dusting, irrigation, the history and functions of relevant farm equipment, the political issue of farm subsidies, the techniques of making denim. The author returns continually to Holmes County’s internecine racial conflicts, reviewing the history of slavery, the uses of slaves in cotton farming, the ongoing economic hardships many black families in the region endure. (He devotes perhaps too many pages to a rehearsal of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi.) A number of Zack’s employees were black, and Helferich carefully observed them, recording their sometimes unpleasant interactions with their boss and other whites. The author explores, as well, the hunting-and-fishing culture of Zack and his comrades; Helferich himself amusingly failed at both.
A generally genial portrait of a rugged man shaped and shoved by geography, weather, economics and race.