Our Man In Raleigh

Calvin Stacy Powers


Around 1586 Sir Walter Raleigh is believed to have introduced tobacco to Britain. Following his Knighthood in 1584, Queen Elizabeth I, of whom he was a personal favorite, sent him on the first of his three expeditions to America. Whilst there he noticed the native Americans using a pipe to smoke the leaves of the tobacco plant. The herb was valued highly as commodity, as well as a sign of friendship. The court of Elizabeth took up the habit under Raleigh's influence, and contemporary paintings of Elizabeth holding a small pipe exist.


The Beautiful Golden Leaf

I've always had a fascination with the mathematical field of fractal geometry, which deals with the notion that sometimes a thing looks more or less the same no matter how close or far away you are from it. If you look at a cloud without any surrounding context, it's very difficult to tell how close or far away you are from it because the big billowing clouds of vapor bend and curl the same way that small ones do. The math is way beyond my capability to grasp, but the idea is very powerful and appealing. No field of mathematics is useful unless it helps describe something in the real world, and so with fractal geometry. And that's the lure. Can I learn something about the world just looking around me? As I look out the window of my car while driving to work, can I learn lessons about the social forces shaping the country? Maybe so, maybe not. But while driving to work last week I had a tremendous wave of recognition flow over me as I passed newly planted fields of tobacco.

North Carolina is a beautiful state, with both a keen sense of history and an optimistic eye on the opportunities of the future; and I count myself lucky to live here. I live in a suburban community called Cary, located just outside of the capital city of Raleigh. Cary is often criticized for being too dull and plain. Heck, I feel that way sometimes too. Sometimes it seems like the Cary Town Council has passed a law requiring that every house be painted tan and have exactly seven shrubs and a dogwood tree in the front yard; or maybe a redbud tree or an oak if you're feeling in a particularly wild mood. Everything in Cary closes at 10:00 at night: I was even stopped once by a Cary police officer for returning a library book at the drive-by book drop because I was there suspiciously late at night. On the other hand Cary is safe, with an enviably low crime rate. The schools are good, the roads are well kept, and the water is clean and cheap. Generally speaking, it's a pleasant place to live, and the people here still have a good-natured, friendly attitude toward each other. Even the crustiest Northerners that move to the area mellow out considerably after a couple of years. It's an extremely conservative town where deviations from the norm are noted with raised eyebrows, but it's also conservative in a good way.

I work for a computer company in "The Research Triangle," which is an area situated in the middle of a triangle formed by Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, where many companies in high tech industries like computers and pharmaceuticals have major development centers. Software companies both large and small are cranking out everything from next season's video games to the next generation of the Internet. Pharmaceutical giants are methodically testing new treatments for just about any ailment you can name: Alzheimer's disease, AIDS, high Cholesterol, Sickle Cell Anemia, etc. The area is also one of the country's leading centers of medical research with the renowned Duke Medical Center and University of North Carolina Medical Center. Even industries that you wouldn't normally think of needing big research and development efforts, the textile industry for example, have facilities in "the Triangle."

Every morning people in this area wake up in their safe, conservative, suburban neighborhoods, and drive off to jobs in the triangle to help build the future. Okay, maybe that's being more than a tad melodramatic, but you get the idea. And I couldn't help but wonder if this little slice of Americana that I call home isn't in some sense a bit of the American dream poking through reality. Isn't this representative of some unspoken, communal goal that underlies everything we do? How much can you look at this lifestyle and see the rest of America?

Self-centered and arrogant as they may be, these were my thoughts when I noticed the fields of tobacco.

The Tobacco Experience

The drive from my house to my job passes by several large tobacco fields cultivated by area farmers and I always enjoy noting the progress of the year's tobacco crops as I drive by each morning. If you've never had the good fortune of seeing a tobacco field, then you will just have to take my word for it that tobacco is the world's most beautiful crop when it's growing in the field.

You start with an empty field, totally plowed under so that all you see is the rich, red Carolina clay, the same stuff they make bricks and moonshine jugs out of, and plow it into rows of earth. This usually takes a day or so. Then the farmers plant the tobacco seedlings into the rows of earth. They have special machines that they pull behind their tractors that take the seedlings and plant them into the earth at just the right spacing. Although as I understand it, usually someone has to walk behind and give each seedling a little more detailed attention. In any event, for a few days, you see these huge fields of red/orange clay with perfectly spaced green seedlings.

I couldn't tell you exactly when this occurs, but it seems to be in the late spring, just as the weather is getting warm and you can expect plenty of sunshine. What I can tell you is that tobacco grows incredibly fast. In no time at all, you have chest-high tobacco plants filling the fields. The warmth of the red-orange landscape is replaced by a lush, cooling green. A tobacco plant stands up very straight and precise, but it's all leaves. Huge, lance shaped leaves, one on top of another, almost like petals of a flower, from the ground on up.

When the tobacco plants get to be about chest-high they sprout stems of small white flowers at the top, a perfect accent to the fields of green and the red-orange clay underneath. They will stay like this for a few weeks, then apparently the farmers cut off the flowering parts. I've never actually seen people doing this, but it seems like they disappear overnight, just about the time that I also see crews of migrant workers sweeping through the fields.

Eventually the leaves start turning yellow. For some reason it's always the leaves at the bottom of the plant that turn first, followed by the ones above. I don't know how farmers know when it's time to harvest the tobacco, but at some point they deem it the right time and more crews of migrant workers show up. As far as I can tell, harvesting tobacco must be done by hand because you have to cut the tobacco plants near ground level. You then haul the entire tobacco plant away to the curing shed where it is staked on long wooden poles and hung. In the shed it will finish turning color from green and yellow into a rich, golden brown. Then sometime in the fall the farmers make huge piles of tobacco in the backs of their trucks and they haul it off to the market.

Those of you who have never experienced it probably won't believe me, but even as a nonsmoker I think the smell of cured tobacco is wonderful. The smell of tobacco defines "Good Earth." You can't smell tobacco without thinking of nature and sun and plants and the miracles of chlorophyll. In downtown Durham there are still tobacco processing plants, which I believe are owned by Ligget-Myers; and certain times during the fall the entire downtown area is filled with the earthy aroma of cured tobacco. It smells great. Everyone should experience it at least once.

And while I was musing over the social implications of living in a conservative town and making my living by working on the future, I had this overpowering feeling sweep over me that the tobacco just had to be explained. It had to fit into the scheme of things. If this was a slice of Americana, the tobacco had to represent something. It's just way too big to ignore and way too beautiful to discount.

Tobacco is Key

At first glance you might think that there's no place for tobacco, even metaphorically, in Our Modern Lifestyle. Barring any future discoveries of a medicinal or industrial use of tobacco, it's difficult to imagine that tobacco won't be stamped out in our lifetime. In a culture that won't tolerate body odor; where cleanliness is next to godliness; where everything has to be buckled in, strapped down, and locked into place; where everything has to be inoculated, inspected, and inventoried; and where "sanitized for your protection" permeates our being, it's difficult to imagine that tobacco will be tolerated. "Tobacco is addictive and unhealthy," the conventional thinking seems to go, "therefore it must be eradicated."

Certainly those that know how to play the media like an instrument are thinking along those lines. Over the past few months, how many times have we heard a talking head pose the question, "What should the nation's tobacco control policy be?"? Note that the question assumes that everyone has already agreed on the point that tobacco should be controlled. They would like you to believe that the only remaining question is regarding the most effective means of "controlling" tobacco.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that one of the government's largest welfare programs, Medicaid, is in serious financial trouble. Politicians and spin control experts are desperately trying to find deep pockets to plunder in order to hide the fact that Medicaid is near insolvency. They will do everything in their power to avoid letting the public think that the reason Medicaid is in trouble has anything to do with the inefficiencies and bureaucratic nature of governmental programs. They will fight to the last to keep the public from thinking that maybe this nation can help those in need without a Federal Program. They will stop at nothing to prevent people from considering that maybe the government's control of the health care industry is responsible for spiraling health care costs. To stop these unthinkable thoughts the government is working overtime to convince the nation that it is tobacco-related health problems that are responsible for the Medicaid crisis and that therefore it is morally acceptable to force the tobacco industry to keep the Medicaid program afloat.

Insurance companies make their very living by studying long term trends and using statistics to predict what's going to happen to people and how often. Then they base their premiums on those predictions such that they can cover their future claims and still make a profit. If insurance companies can do it, there's no reason that the government can't also do it. If the Medicaid program isn't financially solvent, then it's either because its administrators failed to predict the long term trends or they simply offered more to previous claimants than they could afford. Either way, to blame the nation's Medicaid crisis on tobacco and tobacco-related illnesses is to blame the symptom, not the ailments. The number of smokers in the United States has slowly gone down over the past few decades, so if anything, there should be a surplus in Medicaid because the number of smoking-related illnesses should also be going down.

But Everyone Dies Of Something

Just think, if the government could stop people from dying, they could take all that Medicaid money and spend it on something else. Silly as it sounds, that seems to be the rationale driving the anti-smoking lobby and the government. But no matter what happens at the end of our lives, our bodies are going to weaken and eventually fail. And because we are human, we will always fight it. We will always strive to live longer. We will always want to spend money on our health whether through preventive measures or by medical treatment. None of this is going to change if tobacco is eliminated tomorrow. The Medicaid crisis is not going to be fixed if tobacco is eradicated from the planet; the only thing it would do would be to rob many people of one of their pleasant vices.

Because while smoking is generally considered unhealthy and addictive, it is nonetheless a pleasant habit for most smokers. It is often said that every cigarette a man smokes shortens his life by 7 minutes. And so? If a man chooses to give up seven minutes of his life in exchange for sitting on his back porch and enjoying a good cigar among friends, has he made a bad choice? Maybe. Is he being short sighted? Perhaps. But isn't it his choice to make? Whom would be so arrogant that they would try to run the man's life, change his habits, and force him to do what's "best" for him?

As an ardent liberal in the truest and best sense of the word, I for one would never claim to have the right to second guess a smoker's choices. Certainly if I were asked my opinion of the matter, I would recommend strongly against smoking, but everyone has the right to choose their own vices. And if Medicaid can't keep up, then it should be abandoned and replaced by private insurance companies which certainly seem to be able to fulfill claims against their policies and still stay solvent. And if no one will insure the smokers, then that's their worry. That's the cost of their choice. It's morally wrong to start trying to rob people of their self-control and independence just to keep a bankrupt federal program afloat.

And as I drove down the road watching those beautiful fields of tobacco growing lush and green under the hot Carolina sun, I recognized that tobacco fits right into the picture because it represents the choices we make. The rich earthy aroma of cured tobacco reminds us that life is an experience, not an elaborate game of avoiding risk factors. Life is not entirely a game of building a safe home town to live in, nor is it solely an endless march into the future. Although those are both important parts of life, an equally important and valid part of life is choosing our indulgences along the way.


Calvin Stacy Powers can be reached at powers@ibm.net