Thursday, July 17, 2008
This year I finally got some seeds of tsalaga yunli, or "old tobacco" - nicotina rustica, and started them in a flat in my bedroom window. The tiny seedlings thrived and grew into fine strapping plants, about 24" tall, like the one in the photo above, getting ready to bloom in my garden. The blossoms are green, unlike the pink ones of the modern tobacco we used to grow here on the farm.
Tobacco meant Christmas for us in those days. It was the cash crop for winter. We stripped the leaves off the stalks in damp November weather. The dampness brought the otherwise powder dry leaves "in case" - our term for moistened enough by atmospheric humidity to be pliant. The stripping room, a shed attached to the south side of the barn where the tobacco was hung from the rafters to dry, had a little pot-bellied cast iron stove with mica windows in its door, and a strong pervasive scent of tobacco dust. While we stripped the leaves, sorted them into grades, tied them in hands (bundles tied round the stem end of the leaves), put the hands onto sticks of 10, and pressed the sticks of hands into mounds kept plaint, and most importantly, heavy. under heavy canvas tarps, we sang and told stories. None of us smoked, but the sticky dark brown resin of the leaves would gradually accumulate on your hands as you stripped them, and by the end of the day, I could feel a numb tingling from the nicotine all the way to my elbows. I learned a lot of songs, and heard a lot of stories in that tobacco barn.
The barn burned down, mysteriously, one night when I was away from home. I was visiting a friend about an hour's drive away, deeper into the knob country east of the farm. I couldn't sleep that night and wandered around in the yard outside my friend's house all night, looking toward home with a strange feeling that something was happening there. The loss of the tobacco barn marked the end of raising tobacco on our farm, but the "tobacco buy-out" program, descendent of the "alloted acreage" program which preceded it, would soon transfer all tobacco growing from small farms to giant mega-operations anyway. I grew the last field of tobacco here on the hill in the early 80s.
Some years previous to that night, I had gotten all enthused over a book of Rembrandt etchings and drawings, especially the landscapes. The response was a batch of pen and ink drawings of barns - they were there, and in the landscape, and beyond that, I thought that the taboo of quaintness attached to barns as subjects for "contemporary" art was fun to transcend. I drew several barns, and they dispersed - I hadn't thought that the quaintness I presumed to transcend increased their marketability hereabouts, but I needed the cash too badly to even have mixed emotions about that. I was young and rather over-concerned about selling the soul of my art for 30 pieces of silver. Even the devil wasn't interested.
Tobacco is in disrepute these days, tarred by addictive behavior and general gluttony, it has entirely, or nearly, lost its mythic dimension, becoming just another "substance" suitable for abuse. No one dies anymore, everyone is killed by something. Tobacco is an industry now, along with being a health problem, a moral lapse, and something else to worry about. This would have shocked, I think, the Cherokee tobacco smokers of yore - since to them it was a blessing, a life-preservative, and a gift from the plants, who tended to side with humanity against the forces of disease, as long as - and this is the key - they were respected.
Tobacco came to the Cherokee through the efforts of a conjurer, who put on a hummingbird skin and flew to the south somewhere to procure the seeds, held jealously by a savage tribe of Dagul ku (white-fronted geese). Hummingbirds love the sweet-scented tobacco flowers, as do the giant hummingbird moths who take their place as pollinators when twilight sends the hummingbirds to roost.
Just as my last tobacco was getting ready to bloom, I was struck by the beauty of the leaves, and the rhythm of lines that they form in the row. I drew them and did a painting. I painted the leaves gold, partly because I was enamored just then of the use of gold leaf as a background in Japanese paintings of plants, and partly because gold is also a beautiful color, the color of a substance all too often degraded by the same sort of disrespect suffered by tobacco, but the real, and preferable, reason that it has long been a symbol of value.