Chapter 12: Breaking Dependency on Tobacco

“The sun slowly evaporated the dew off the tobacco leaves. The feeler of the picking machine bounced and groped its way between the rows. The four seats and the four pickers remained just the right distance from the plants. I leaned back against the steel seat. My feet rested on the stirrups in front of me. I skimmed along the ground, my heavy yellow rain pants and jacket shiny wet and flecked with sticky sand. My right hand shot out and with a twisting sweep gathered in the three sand leaves. A quick transfer to my left hand, the leaves slapped into the steel framed basket in front of me. Twist slap my right hand shot out again and brought in the leaves from the next plant as we jittered and bumped between the rows. The motor chugged and pulled its way along with a rhythmic motion matched by the twisting snapping slapping of the leaves. The sticky sap covered my fingers and burned my eyes as the higher leaves brushed my face. I tried to wipe the sand and sweat from my forehead with the back of my hand but it too was sandy and covered with the juices of the plant. My hair hung down stringy and wet.

The pile grew slowly. The wide flat leaves stacked up neatly in front of me.”

"Export A,” by Danny Buckles (1974)

I wrote these lines when I was 18, after a season picking tobacco in Tillsonburg in southern Ontario. They are part of a short story called “Export A” I published in a university student collection. My creative writing teacher at Sir George Williams University was Clarke Blaise, a Canadian-American writer of short fiction and co-author with his wife Bharati Mukherjee of an analysis of the Air India tragedy. He said he liked the rhythmic repetition of words used to convey meaning and mood.

This was a time when anti-smoking movements were just beginning to have an impact on policy worldwide. My short story was not political at all, but rather a coming of age tale. It did, however, feature a mysterious illness I experienced then without realizing that it was “green tobacco sickness” from exposure to nicotine through the skin.

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Photo: British American Tobacco entices farmers into clearing land and forests, leaving behind debt and degraded soils.

Photo: Sheuli Begum (centre) and other farmers engaged in research on alternatives to tobacco growing.

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