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Posts Tagged ‘tobacco farming’

It’s been a few years since I saw a patient with their fingers stiffened by black gum, so tarry and mean you just absolutely couldn’t get it off.  For years they were regulars, members of several local families, and by late August I’d usually treated two or three of them.  Oh, they didn’t consult me to take care of the black gum.  That was a fact of life.  They’d come in with a sprained back from first priming (bending over to pull the lowest leaves, the first ones to ripen).  Or one of their kids would be vomiting from green tobacco sickness when the morning dew permitted the nicotine to penetrate her clothing and permeate her skin.  (The older ones all smoked or dipped, and a little extra nicotine didn’t phase them.)

To say tobacco farming has changed is like saying calling to your neighbor has changed.  The wood-fired tobacco barn has gone the way of the rotary dial phone.  The government bought back all the allotments, but you can imagine plenty of other reasons why you see so many fewer acres of tobacco in Surry County now (and so many more acres of grapes).  On top of that, those big steel gas-fired curing barns just ain’t as picturesque.  And I guess the kids have all gone off to college, because I don’t see them with that black gold on their fingers during priming any more.

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I moved to Elkin over thirty years ago to join Jonesville Family Medical Center right where rural nirvana blooms, the juncture of Wilkes, Yadkin, and Surry Counties.  Some days over lunch, one of my nurses shared stories of her farming childhood.  When priming was finished and the barn was full the whole family would join in the curing – cousins, uncles, the tribe.  The men had to tend the fire all night long to keep the heat just right.  The women would bring baskets of supper; the kids would play until way after dark; someone would break out a fiddle or a guitar.  There was probably a Mason jar of something potent being passed around in the shadows beyond the firelight, but my nurse wouldn’t want to make any accusations.  She and the other youngsters would bed down in quilts and blankets around midnight, and when the sun came up across the fields, there Mama would be with cold milk and biscuits.

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Who’s going to keep these stories alive for us?  Thank goodness for Shelby Stephenson.  I wonder if Mrs. Stephenson, watching her little boy helping with the priming, could have imagined he would go off to college and come back home a professor.  Could she have imagined him turning the black gum into poetry?  As English Prof at UNC Pembroke, as editor of Pembroke magazine, as author of numerous volumes, and as picker of a mean guitar, Shelby has given the old stories new voice, new breath, new life.

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Tobacco Days

The rows almost ridge themselves, shaping the year again
towards seasons that let the dust of sandlugs
fall into yesterdays lost in failed crops, quick dreams.

*   *   *   *   *

I lay on the warm ground of the Mayo barn at four in the morning
hoping Brother would oversleep.
The flatbed trailer bounded across the ditch,
the Farmall Cub droned.
“Morning, boys.”  I climbed the tierpoles.
Taking the top, I handed down four sticks at a time to Lee to
Paul who packed the trailer.  From my perch I
stirred the sun through airholes uner the eaves.
The barn emptied, we walked through dew to breakfast.
Dreams drifted awkwardly, Brother’s Big Man chew
rolling over in sand-dust.

*   *   *   *   *

The tobacco greens for the farmer who dives into the dirt,
renewed in the smell of warehouses,
golden leaves in the lightholes bringing the legged sunlight in.
Dew in dust, a musk in  mist,
the tobacco tips one more time on the prime,

a sea of blooms
bobbing in ninetyfive degree wisps of heat,
adhesive tape slipping over blisters.

My bare feet burn on the ground and I shuffle
toes into dirt for moisture, inching stalk by stalk
down endless rows in the ten-acre field where short rows
fade into plumbushes and shade.

The mules on the drags relax through the hot, climbing
July days, the frying dust, and you wonder if you’ll ever
get the gum off your hands.

Shelby Stephenson
from Finch’s Mash © 1990 by Shelby Stephenson

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