West Texas, Part I
I am a reluctant gym go'er. And not from a disinterest in movement or sweat, rather a nagging self-consciousness each time I step onto a machine that gestures at running or hiking or climbing an absurd amount of stairs. I love to run, I love to hike. I don't even mind climbing an absurd amount of stairs, but I want those seemingly straightforward verbs to be as they were long before they inspired research and development in the quest for marketable machines. Despite this, either from a running injury or pollen waging war against my lungs, I acquiesce to the membership, dress the part and give in to the gym's soundtrack of predictable pop songs that sound like these machines feel. Rihanna and elliptical machines totally deserve one another.
And so it was this past Saturday morning, except not at all because some bright soul had left the August issue of The Sun next to a treadmill where Golf Digest and Us Weekly live out their tattered lives. During a slow 4-mile run, I read an interview with Jack Turner on the difference between wildness and wilderness, a reflection from a true man of the woods not unlike Thoreau in his insistent retreat and ardor of putting pen to page. The irony of reading about Jack Turner while running indoors on a clunky machine was immediate- and, yes, sacrilege- but I'd like to assert that you should read it wherever you can get it because Turner's life within the wilds of solitude offers searingly honest insight into our complex vortex of choice on this changing planet. His message is one of exposure, an insistence on deeply experiencing the rigor of the natural world as constitutional to being in the world at all.
I recently traveled to Lubbock, Texas for the annual Field Day of the largest organic cotton co-op in the United States. They were extremely generous to include me as most of my fellow participants were large-scale industry customers- Patagonia, Whole Foods, Loomstate- companies who actually make a dent in the supply chain of 10-15,000 bales up for offer each year. I'd found my way to this West Texan agricultural hub through a series of inquiries about the state of organic cotton farming as Dow and Monsanto are on the verge of releasing another GMO 'super seed' into the conventional cotton marketplace. This research, this curiosity, hangs at the far end of my experience with small-scale, independent farmers but it feels critical to understanding the continuum- and so I ventured.
The two hour drive from Midland to Lubbock took me from an endless horizon of oil pumps into an endless horizon of cotton plants. The contrast was hauntingly palpable, the proximity startlingly real.
During Field Day, we spent 14 hours on a very nice air-conditioned bus, touring farms, a cotton gin and the Buddy Holly Museum (!). Lunch was proper Texas barbecue, served on wax paper that slid right atop the table, no plate, where you doused it with sauce and ate it with your hands. I sat alongside a lovely woman from Prana and a farmer named Frank, an elderly gentleman who was the first of these farmers to 'go organic'. Frank wore a sky-blue mechanics jumpsuit and moved slowly from troubled knees. We exchanged various pleasantries and a bit of chit chat and when he learned that my dress was woven from Sally Fox's cotton and that I wove it with my very own hands, I became Frank's darling for the afternoon as he kept announcing, 'She wove her own dress!'. Frank asked me to weave him a shirt so our first button-down pattern is in the works and will be aptly named for Frank. The Evridge.
Our bus tour ended with an evening of local wine and too much Tex-Mex and music from a family of 11 children, each with an instrument and starring role. The sun set as lightning cracked in the far distance and I got to spend a good half hour talking with Dr. Jane Dever about her work as a cotton breeder and her recent decision to leave Bayer's GMO development lab. We'd spent time in her greenhouse at Texas A&M's Agricultural Extension program earlier in the day and walked the breeder plots where she and her graduate students work on naturally developing stronger organic seed stock for these organic farmers. I learned more about the difference between trait development- GMO advancement- and breeding, why weeds grow resistant to chemical suppression after about fifteen years and how exposure on these beautiful plains means much more than great winds and dusty drought.
Many of the fields we visited use no irrigation, a practice known as dryland farming. Rain had come late in the season, and with too much exuberance, so much of what we saw teetered on the edge of failure. One of the co-op staff members jokingly commented, "When customers start buying organic cotton from us, they start paying attention to the weather." I thought back on this comment when I read Jack Turner's interview at the gym and of an earlier essay he'd written for Patagonia in 2001. He sings an early warning song to what we now commonly incur at both table and shelf, " Commerce controls evolution and the future world may consist of the most profitable life form, for the transgenic salmon must survive the rigors of the market, not the rigors of its river and sea."
I'm returning to West Texas in a few weeks to properly document the cotton before harvest strippers and deep frost take the successful crops from their fields. This is cotton that has survived the natural order of things, farmed by men who have chosen a difficult journey amongst their neighboring Roundup Ready farms. This is cotton that makes customers pay attention to the weather and while that is some distance from the rigor that Turner would have us all experience in the depths of remote wilderness, it's a constitutional start .