“The beast hath root, the plant hath flesh and blood.”
Du Bartas His devine weekes and works translated (Sylvester, London 1584)
Although it doesn’t grow here, one plant above others came to dominate these valley towns; Gossypium, a member of the Mallow family, commonly known as cotton. It’s strange to think of place in terms of its relation to plant fibres. Filaments designed to aid seed dispersal, were themselves carried by ship to England, for processing, production. This isn’t the circular lifecycle illustrated in botany books. Scientific representations of plants abstract the specimen into the clean space of the page, fixed, isolated. Cotton as global commodity has complex entanglements and afterlives. As crop, raw material and product, cotton was and is central to forms of colonialism, slavery, exploitation and environmental degradation.
Growing-up in a cotton town, these entanglements were never mentioned in school, where we learned the names of engineers and inventions, spinning wheels, power looms and King Cotton. History as progress belied the view from the classroom window; industrial decline.
The slow-death of the cotton-towns was complete by the 1970s. In its aftermath, we occupied a shifting landscape filled with cotton’s eerie presence; a place of controlled explosions and managed decline, mill ruins and falling chimneys. Becoming post-industrial had a real sense of things unspooling, and nothing in place to pick-up the thread. We went from ‘cotton town’ to former cotton town; dead-ends and heritage loops. Leaving school, I ‘volunteered’ in a cotton mill, repurposed as a museum; a school-friend, Lee, took his first job in a small textile factory – making shrouds. I imagined these garments as fairy-fine muslin, woven from smoke; a ritual dressing for something in transition, a thing between worlds.
Cotton entangles, it pulls disparate things together, holds tension, binds us to myriad relations, networks, webs. In the middle ages, this sticky substance was mythologised and contested by Northern Europeans. Cotton arrived here in the 12th century, a thing shrouded in mystery, a monstrous birth, crafted from the fibres of something in-between; a zoophyte, part plant, part animal, named Barometz or The Lamb of Tartary.
Reports of this ‘vegetable lamb’ were popularised during the 14th century through tales of journeys to the East, such as The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. In some accounts the vegetable lambs were flesh and blood, herbivores, grazing a tight circle of available land until supply was exhausted and the zoophyte died. This image of a creature exhausting the land make it difficult to resist association with the global environmental costs of cotton as crop and industry.
Tethering people to the life-cycle of a crop is central to agricultural production. But the idea of hybridity evoked by the vegetable lamb resonates with the use of enslaved people to pick and bale cotton; where plant and human were both commodities. In America, this crop defined the life-course of slaves, and the ‘cotton field’ became part of the iconography of the Southern states. Thousands of images show generations at work in fields, picking cotton. At the turn of the 20th century, postcards and advertising offered images of hybrids; one shows an illustration of a cotton plant where the uppermost boll is a black face; postcards show black faces superimposed on white, fluffy cotton bolls, still attached to the branch.
There’s an eeriness to cotton and the way it entangles certain bodies within its sticky reach; black bodies, poor bodies, women’s bodies. Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel, North & South (1854), offers a picture of the Northern cotton industry, grinding poverty and the struggle for worker’s rights. One character, Bessy Higgins, is dying because she’s “poisoned by the fluff”. It’s a word suggesting something soft, trivial – something to be brushed away. But this thing has entered her body; “They say it winds round the lungs, and tightens them up”. The mills were thick with fluff and the dust of cotton fibres; carding rooms and blowing rooms were indoor blizzards. Bessy knows her fate, she’s seen many workers that “fall(s) into a waste, coughing and spitting-up blood”.
Byssinosis, a preventable lung disease, is caused by inhalation of textile fibre. It remains an elusive diagnosis, because the shadows on textile workers’ lungs revealed by medical imaging technologies are difficult to distinguish from other lung conditions. In the first part of the 20th century the diagnosis was often challenged because it relied largely on the testimony of the worker – like stories of the Barometz, more verifiable evidence was needed.
At the same time as chest physicians, insurance men and trade union officials peered at the white clouds and threads on X-ray transparencies, other men photographed ecstatic bodies that could vomit-up the ghosts of cotton.
Lengths of gauze, cheesecloth and butter muslin were ‘captured’ in séances where celebrated mediums produced ectoplasm. As a manifestation of the 'outside' or the beyond, it was largely female mediums who exuded this sticky substance from mouth, nose, ears, vagina. These extrusions crept and slithered into the world, where some could form into figures, faces, limbs. Existence of an afterlife, of spirit as matter was readymade, domestic and, like the vegetable lamb, an object of wonder, doubt and scientific investigation.
Cotton winds its way through bodies, stretches through time and across continents, linking the living and the dead. Protean, dreaming of new ground, desperate to escape its cycle of growth/exhaustion of available resources/death, Barometz was more prophecy than archaic misunderstanding. In 2019, the first seed to germinate on the moon was a cotton seed. This small, short-lived seedling was part of an experiment aboard China’s Chang’e-4 moon lander; helping to prepare for eventual human settlements
Raw cotton, American and Egyptian
Mandeville’s depiction of the Lamb of Tartary, with living sheep in place of cotton bolls
Chest x-ray, Byssinosis
Kathleen Goligher, physical medium
Helen Duncan, physical medium
Cotton plant germination aboard Chang’e-4 moon lander, 2019