A SINGLE COTTON seed looks like a furry Rice Krispie and weighs about the same. Massaged between two fingers, it feels like a tiny nubbin of yarn, but if you take a handful and let them fall back on the pile, they clack like glass beads. They crackle underfoot. Cotton dust rises if you walk heavily or stamp a foot on the ground. Cotton lint hangs in the air, like the slowest-falling snowflakes in the world.
And of course, there’s the elephant in the room: a pile of cottonseed, nearly 75 feet high.
A fixture of Southern landscape, the cavernous, football-field-sized structure in which we’re standing—better known as a Muskogee house—is built around the shape cotton seeds make when they fall from overhead. As one seed becomes two, and two become hundreds and thousands and millions, the shape they make is this. It’s like watching the sand in an hourglass—if the bottom half weighed 26,000 tons. In places where a leak’s sprung from the pipes above, you can see scale mounds of cotton seeds—the same conical shape rendered infinitesimally miniature. They store the seeds here; they take them out. Often, there’s activity. But not today.
Today, in Brinkley, there is a slowness, and there is a stillness—in part because there’s nothing coming in or out. Flooding along the Arkansas River has inundated the rail yard in Pine Bluff, and at least nine boxcars, black tarps stretched tight and bulging at the tops, wait along the company’s spur of rail line. In part, too, because cotton isn’t what it used to be, and as a consequence, neither are its byproducts. Four or five times in the past few years, says Ricky Joshlin, who’s worked at this Muskogee house since it opened in 2000, they’ve shopped out the space and stored rice.
But no matter the stillness, and no matter the slowness, there are signs that something big happens here—even if it isn’t today. Seventy-five feet above the ground, the rafters are draped with tattered curtains of cotton lint, something resembling spray-on insulation or dehydrated ectoplasm. Outside, where the sun is bright and the air is fresh and the wind is banging against the metal doors, a line of nine shipping containers with tightly bound bulging black tarps wait for the flood waters some 70-odd miles to the southwest to recede.
It’s not difficult to see why Tim Hursley, an internationally known architecture photographer who’s worked for everyone from Frank Gehry to Moshe Safdie, is drawn to such spaces. Because in this place made by falling seeds, something so natural and unnatural, there’s art or something like it.
A MUSKOGEE HOUSE that’s active doesn’t have the same stillness to it. As such, it’s much more difficult to capture one deep in the throes of cottonseed production. There is much less time to consider it at length, no time to think of it in terms of sculpture or cathedrals. In these moments, we’re forced to embrace the bigness, the hugeness of the agricultural complex, of all these little things piled into big things and the people who are paid to move the seed and earn their livelihoods by it. In Wilson, a hundred miles northeast of Brinkley, photographs do not receive priority on a busy day.
For most of the afternoon, Tim and I have been looking through the doors of the Muskogee houses. On a few occasions, he sets up his tripod, but within seconds we hear the telltale beeping of a skid loader reversing and we look down to see that we are standing in its hexagon-printed tracks. But it’s OK, though. That house, and most of the houses, are all about the same. Their pyramids of cottonseed are still intact, they haven’t been picked at yet. The last one, though, is different. It’d been full when he was here before, Tim says, but not today. That’s where most of the men are working. That’s the shot he wants.
“Hey, Bo!” Tim yells to a man in a shapeless blue gingham shirt that billows around him mostly untucked. “Can we snag one here?”
“Yeah, real quick,” Bo says, immediately turning his attention back to a train car filled with cottonseed, the long arm of a backhoe smoothing the jutting vertebral humps of the off-white ridge, the rough equivalent of some 80 bales worth (white lettering on the car’s red-iron side reads “7,100 cubic feet”). Though it seems a huge amount, it’s hardly anything when you consider this one business—which operates both a cotton gin and a handful of Muskogee houses—processed 184,000 bales of cotton this past year and expects 200,000 next year. Or that 50 million tons of cottonseed are produced annually, according to the International Cotton Advisory Committee, for use in everything from salad dressing to livestock feed.
After getting the go-ahead from Bo, we walk over to the house and pass through a doorway blackened with flies. It’s dark inside. Your eyes adjust to it. And this? This is what he’s been looking for. This is the gold mine, the sculpture, the stone carted off and the statue revealed.
“This is a moment, right?” Tim says, his voice carrying like it wants to be an echo, but it’s swallowed by the seed. “This isn’t going to be this way tomorrow. This isn’t going to be this way when [Bo] comes back.”
For a few minutes, there’s silence inside as Tim composes the frame. But it’s not quiet. Outside, you can hear the skid loader running and re-running its course, the sound of Bo yelling over the engine of the backhoe. I find myself wondering what they must be thinking, if it’s odd to see two people so captivated by something they see every day.
“If you look at ’em, they’re almost like portraits,” he says a few moments before we see the lights of the backhoe illuminate the entrance, forcing us to duck through the door again. “And they’re fleeting, really.”