Worldbuilding: Don’t Cotton To It

One of the things characters in a realistic world have to deal with are competing goods. No, not merchants undercutting each other in the marketplace. The plain (but not simple) fact that an item, location, or other resource might be profitably and reasonably used for one of several purposes, each of which may preclude other uses.

For example, damming a river may give hydropower and a lake for recreational boating, but it puts whitewater enthusiasts out of luck, and tends to imbalance the usual species of river fish because the water coming out the bottom of the dam will be colder than the sun-warmed river water. You can’t say one of these options is Bad and the other Good. Each of them are useful. Which is why arguments over them can be so fierce, and spawn a lot of potential conflict in-story.

Another example of competing goods is naturally colored versus white cotton. White cotton is probably the variety most of us are familiar with. Dyeing cellulose is never easy, but we’ve worked it out, hence why you can get your t-shirts in a rainbow of colors. The downside is… well, dyeing cotton is not easy, it involves a lot of chemicals, there are more pesticides and herbicides used to grow white cotton – in short, it is not exactly the most environmentally friendly crop out there.

Colored cotton has mostly been preserved as heritage varieties in odd places, although some companies like FoxFibre are trying to grow it on a larger scale for luxury products. It doesn’t need as much pesticides or herbicides, you can select varieties for a range of colors from a striking green to reddish browns, and so long as you like the color it needs no dyes at all.

It’s also legally banned from being grown in many states and counties, especially those that grow white cotton on large agricultural scales.

Cotton will apparently out-cross very easily, even with plants not close by. Farmers growing white cotton for the regular textile market do not want to find colored fibers showing up in their crops. It damages the value of their product. So they’ve passed laws to keep their business stable. As, you know, regular people wanting to make a living tend to do.

So for a fantasy setting, say it’s two different varieties of magical component herbs, each of which is specific to a particular kind of spellcasting. Who’s going to grow what? Which kind of magic is most useful? In particular, is one kind more useful for spells running a kingdom, while the other works better for the massive single-caster spells used by dragonslayers? Who decides what you can use, and what are the consequences if someone grows one variety in the territory of another? Things to consider!

23 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: Don’t Cotton To It

  1. Not to overlook the narrative potential in regards to invasive species, or the consequences of large scale monocultures and the introduction of foreign diseases/pests.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ll raise you Asian Carp, and Zebra Mussels. Dutch Elm Disease, and Chestnut Blight.

        The orignial American Chestnut was pretty much as prevalent in much of the East Coast forests, as firs and pines are on the West Coast. The lumber was of great quality for wood working. It’s been generations since actual american chestnuts were roasted over an open fire…

        I recall several years back hearing about some southern (Lousiana?) farmers wanting to grow bamboo, because of it gaining popularity as a source of fiber, and other products. I applaud that in principle, but I fear that they won’t have really considered how easily the stuff spreads… Its a deep rooted giant grass, with no natural predators in NA…

        Also, some of the complications and issues that can surround efforts at habitat restoration..

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      2. The orignial American Chestnut was pretty much as prevalent in much of the East Coast forests, as firs and pines are on the West Coast. The lumber was of great quality for wood working. It’s been generations since actual american chestnuts were roasted over an open fire…

        There are at least two different groups that are bringing it back– there are a few American Chestnuts hanging around, and these breeding programs take their seeds, cross them with the blight-resistant Chinese chestnut, do that at least three more times (no more than 1/8th Chinese chestnut) and then they started crossing the crosses and selecting for all American traits other than vulnerability to blight.

        The two I’ve found have one that does saplings, and one that sends out chestnuts, to spread the plants.


        Yes, we are also the kind of folks who have milkweed planted for the @#$@# butterflies, old lilacs, irises, daffodils and Oregon Trail roses that date back to the folks in wagons, and the American wild roses. On the upside, they’re very resilient?

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  2. With cotton in particular, there are some states where it is illegal to grow without informing the state of location and quantity. So they can come inspect the site and place traps for weevils. Even if weevils have been eliminated from the state for years. Even if you’re just growing for yourself. So. What eats your plants, and how does that affect the laws?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh dear heavens, this is coming for bees, if it’s not already quietly in place.

      A lot of folks are having hives wiped out by neighbors doing “all natural” bees. By which they don’t mean that they use the least invasive methods of pest and disease management possible, they mean that they buy the hives and ignore them other than snagging the honey.

      Reportedly, a lot of the mysteriously abandoned hives have been situations like this. /shudder.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. *Headdesk* Varroa mites alone…. not to mention foulbrood…. aaaauuuugggghhh.

        I grant you I’ve only read articles in Countryside and the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Beekeeping…. okay, maybe a few more books than that, still.

        European honeybees are domesticated animals. (Native Americans used to refer to them as “white man’s flies”.) Can some hives survive in the wild? Sure, like feral cats do. Is it healthy for them? Only if all goes well. People constantly harvesting the hive without taking care of it is not going well!

        Why do people do things like this? If you’re going to take advantage of something, you need to take care of it. Otherwise you’re just a user.

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      2. I lived in a rich-people area– mostly third generation trust fund kids– so we got a lot of the kind of people who really do think that all you have to do to farm is to put a seed in the ground and pour water on it. Once.

        I haven’t even read that much, I just heard enough on one of those oddball Coast-to-Coast AM episodes to make the right sounds and got some of the folks who know about it talking.

        Good heavens, it was scary.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. *Head, meet desk. Repeat.* Oh man… didn’t they even get the grade-school science experiment of growing a bean plant? Sigh.

        I’d feel sorry for these guys, so much of what they don’t know is getting a kid’s natural curiosity nipped in the bud so they fit in with the “right people”… if it weren’t for the fact they think they’re more educated than those of us who actually grub in the dirt, and thus Know Better. Oy.

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  3. Another phenomenon along those lines is the farming vs ranching debate. How did that song in Oklahoma go? “The farmer and the cowman should be friends”, except for how they dont get along.

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  4. And the narrative potential if magic includes things like Feng Shui, and thus growing one crop as opposed to another (or growing it in different ways) affects the magic of the whole region (and thus how everything else in the region grows). Maybe the other variety of plant is more useful… but growing it ruins the whole region for everything else.

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    1. Or you could have Expansionist Empire X conquering a region to either secure the resource, or to force them to cultivate their preferred resource, no matter the consequences.

      The oppressed people can’t fight back because their traditional resource is either taken or pushed out by the new one, until the plucky hero figures out how to use it or attack it to turn it against the Empire.

      “-and that’s how an entomologist saved the country!”

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Honestly, deciding what non-magical farm goods to plant can be surprisingly exciting.

      I remember there was one fanfic out there where one of the big Hobbit clans deciding to take out fields of corn and taters in favor of pipeweed they could sell to the Bree, and the little folk were Not Happy with the Master. That’s the food on their table you’re fucking with, after all.


    3. Honestly, deciding what non-magical farm goods to plant can be surprisingly exciting.

      I remember there was one fanfic out there where one of the big Hobbit clans deciding to take out fields of corn and taters in favor of pipeweed they could sell to the Bree, and the little folk were Not Happy with the Master. That’s the food on their table you’re fucking with, after all.


  5. Dams also tend to severely disrupt the populations of migratory species. What if some of those species aggressive or predatory (migratory crocodiles or hippoids?) are even Intelligent? And dispute the necessity or right to even build such a structure.

    What if the fantasy setting has actual river gods and the like? Any setting that has Water and Earth Elementals has some challenges in building dams to account for such dangers. Or maybe such Elementals could be bound to prevent disasters…

    Halkegenia Online has a storyline where an intelligent (original, not canon) aquatic demi-fae species based in the Undine ALO regions migrates down to Lake Ragdorian (iirc), where there’s interaction between them, the Water Spirit of the area, and yet another newcomer from ALO, one of the Border Bosses (2, actually), whose purpose in ALO was to keep the players “in the bounds” of the game wotld…

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  6. Hm. Gotta wonder if there’s a way to genemod cotton so that it doesn’t spread without human help.

    As far as spirits go? In Exalted, the Sidereals try to suppress the worship of local spirits because they then become bloated and tend to act like corrupt officials rather than doing their jobs. It occurs to me that in a fantasy setting, maybe in one area the culture is that you don’t make offerings or provide any other form of dulia or latria to local spirits, so they aren’t awake in the way that animist religions tend to describe. Whereas a few hundred miles away (remember, in the US a hundred years is a long time, in Europe a hundred miles is a long distance) the local spirits are awake and active, and if they don’t get a steady diet of offerings then they weaken and their neighbors start taking advantage of them (like a river drying up because the spirits of the fields next to it suck all the water away and the river spirit isn’t strong enough to block them). Then far enough away to be a third culture, there’s a peace treaty that a dragon forced on all the local spirits centuries ago, so that they don’t mess with each other beyond the natural boundaries of the seasons; unfortunately the dragon woke up recently and terrified the humans who’d moved in while it was napping, and now a call has gone out for heroes to slay the evil dragon that has destroyed so many lives and hamlets . . .


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    1. When I’d sometimes imagine a setting with Shinto-like animism, where significant environmental/landscape features can have a “thought-form” entity associated with it when the local/regional population generates a coherent enough mental image. To varying levels of ability to communicate, or be interpreted.

      What some of the conflict might come from, is the local/regional populace not understanding that this “Feature Spirit/Local God” can only communicate its current state… Its no use praying to the local river God not to flood, or dry up, or a Harvest God (Hi, Holo!) for good harvests- they don’t actually have any control of that. A River God might warn of a flood coming, or of obstructions/contamination, but cannot do anything about it. A Harvest God might be able to warn if pests or disease strike the crops, or if they need more water/fertilizer, but not predict or prevent a twister or hailstorm ruining a crop.

      Prayer and sacrifices only function as a way to reinforce the “thought-form”, as a concept a person with the right talents can communicate/form a bond with. If the locals think a blood sacrifice is necessary, don’t be surprised if the god is “bloody minded”…

      Possible major spoilers, for a manga I unfortunately can’t remember the title of…

      There’s a manga out there with that underlying premise, – a young boy comes to live on a remote Japanese island, and is selected/chosen/recognized as “The Dragon God” (or something like that), and there’s a bevy of local young beauties that are his potential brides…

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      1. IIRC, Holo could control the fertility of the fields, but only by using up soil nutrients faster, until the fields were exhausted and she had to spend the next year helping the soil recover (which meant bad harvests that year). Since she was a fairly reasonable goddess, if the village had remembered how to talk to her she probably would have been cooperative with adjusting how the fields work to smooth out the bounty/famine cycle. 5 fields overproducing, while the sixth recovers, rotating the recovering field each year, or something like that.

        In general, I prefer a metaphysical setup where either whatever Powers That Be are shy of mortal attention for various reasons (i.e., what’s going on in the real world), or that the culture of living mortals has a strong influence over the local phrenosphere. The latter encourages a setup where everyone can think they know What’s Really Going On, but instead it’s more like having a homefield advantage for dealing with the preternatural when it’s been influenced by local folklore.

        Also gives low-tier characters reason to learn the folklore when moving to a new area, while the mighty have a decent chance of being able to handle nasties without needing the folkloric cheat codes.


        Liked by 2 people

      2. Holo wasn’t the best example to illustrate what I was trying to explain, but in essence, her limitations and having to work with nature, and not simply command it is what I was after.

        Liked by 1 person

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