When I heard there was going to be a Pride in Tobacco Festival down our way, I immediately remembered the first time I ever set eyes on this fabled crop. It was the day we moved here, one of those torpid, excruciatingly muggy summer days that Southern Marylanders learn to accept but that newcomers can scarcely believe.
We were driving down through Calvert County, following a friend who had come along to help. Suddenly he swerved onto the shoulder of the road, stopped short and leaped out of his car. My first panicky thought was that the heat had sent him daft. I eased the truck over and slowed, watching him closely. He had walked a little way off the shoulder and was gazing out into a field, where I could see rows of what looked like some outsized, mongrel cabbage. His face had frozen in an expression of awe and disbelief.
It turned out that our friend had spent a summer on a farm in Alsace. And there, among the gentle folk of the French villages, he had toiled for days, bent over uncomfortably, inching his way along, picking tobacco. And picking. And picking. He hadn't seen a tobacco field since--and he hadn't exactly gone out of his way to find one. But here, along Rte. 2, just across the road from a sleepy general store, the memories of that summer's labor flared again. Clearly, they were intense ones. And clearly, too, they owed their grip to something more than the pain of hard work. The crop itself had got to him, somehow.
Since that beastly day when I roused my friend from his trance, I have come to know a little bit about the culture of tobacco in Southern Maryland. I've been hard put to comprehend the depth of my friend's feelings, though. I do admire the tobacco fields of my adopted region but mainly because I find it hard not to admire any farm landscape. I must admit that aside from its role as a link between man and soil, tobacco doesn't really move me. I am impressed that tobacco channels more money into St. Mary's County than anything besides Navy technology--this according to the local paper. And I am happy when the farmers get a good price at the auction in spring. But tobacco by itself somehow fails to reach my emotions. I would much rather contemplate cows.
Having lived in Vermont for two years, I could go on about cows. Suffice it to say that they have philosophical eyes and names like Flossie and Marie. I am fond of pigs, too, and goats, and horses, and sheep, and even chickens. It's a stony man who looks at the tribe of domestic animals and doesn't sense some distant kinship.
Of course, in New Jersey, where I moved next, the farm commodity that attracted all the attention was the tomato. Tomatoes aren't philosophical, nor do they graze on hillsides, creating pastoral scenes. And even though New Jersey residents revere the tomato as a source of heritage and cultural identity, I never heard of a Pride in Tomato Festival.
Nevertheless, the simple fact remains that tomatoes can be eaten. And as any anthropologist will tell you, the way to a society's heart is through its stomach. Food touches our senses and desires--and thus the roots of our imagination--in a way that other inanimate things cannot.
Which brings me back to tobacco. True, it is ingested, after a fashion. But that's only after it has been processed, packaged and sold--not as a crop but as a drug. The plant itself is a clumsy-looking thing, with a gaggle of leaves like elephant ears and a gangly flower that looks like your maiden aunt's Sunday hat.
Moreover, tobacco, considered apart from the human history surrounding it, offers little in the way of adventure, glory or pathos. A cow can grow into a noble beauty, bear adorable calves and die in the jaws of the wolf. There is nothing more erotic than a ripe tomato, and nothing more pitiful than a sun-blistered one.
The tribulations of tobacco, however, revolve around bugs and mold. Its single triumph is to survive, to attain the right color and chemical composition. And this it does only in the presence of powerful insecticides and herbicides, and only because it belongs to a disease-resistant breed that has been created in the lab--a breed, moreover, with a sterile name like Md-59 or J-326.
I grant you that there are plenty of genetically engineered, chemical-dependent cows and tomatoes around; and that somewhere beyond the Amazon, wild strains of tobacco grow. But we can still think of cows and tomatoes as having lives of their own. Tobacco has an air about it of artificiality.
No, tobacco just doesn't seem to reside comfortably in the natural order of things. Mankind has to work too hard to make it thrive. He has to plant the seeds as early as February or March, raising the seedlings under plastic. Then he has to dig them all up and transplant them.
He has to see to the poisons and worry about the weather and slave at harvest time--chopping the stalks, then spearing them and finally hanging them in the barn.
And then, when he ought to be able to wash his hands of it all, he has to tend to the barn slats, adjusting them as the weather changes, so that the stalks dry properly. And when a wet, clammy day comes along, turning the dry leaves supple again, he has to take down the stalks and strip them, leaf by leaf, staining his hands with the gummy fluids that still cling to the aging fibers.
Maybe it is just this quality, though--this recalcitrance, this insistence on stubborn labor--that gives tobacco its grip on the memory. Tobacco exists in a realm where nature and human artifact mingle. It calls forth man's labor. The man must be of the field and also the barn. He must entwine himself with the plant--and with the seasons, too, which shape the labor required by the plant.
Seasons and their chores--these engender the deepest memories. And if I am right in thinking that tobacco in itself doesn't stir our most human instincts--that it is, in a sense, pointless, a pure commodity, good for nothing but money--then what remains of it, for the farmer, is nothing beyond season and chore, and so memory.
That is a peculiar kind of affirmation, I know, but, then again, the look on my friend's face when he stared at the tobacco field was a peculiar look.