the rambling boy
Agave festival points to plant’s long history
By LONN TAYLOR
Two Sunday mornings ago I found myself sitting at a table under the vine-covered portico of El Cosmico in Marfa telling Tim Johnson and Caitlin Murray what a mind-opening experience the three-day Agave Festival that was just concluding had been for me. Johnson, who operates the Marfa Book Company, and his wife, Murray, who is the archivist for the Judd Foundation, were the masterminds behind the festival, which they produced with the help, apparently, of everyone in Marfa. It was a dazzling combination of lectures, music, and food events, all inspired, according to Johnson, by a remarkable film called Agave Is Life.
The film, which kicked off the festival on Thursday night, was produced by two part-time Marfa residents, anthropologists Don Brown and Meredith Dreiss. It opened with shots of a contemporary agave-roasting ritual on the Mescalero Apache reservation in New Mexico, part of the young women’s coming-of-age ceremony, and went on to trace the role that the agave plant has played as a provider of food, drink, and fiber for the people of Mexico and the American Southwest over the past several thousand years. My favorite part was footage of an archaic factory on a hacienda in Yucatan that used late 19th-century machinery to turn agave leaves into henequen, a fiber used to make rope. The owner of the hacienda sadly explained that the factory’s production declined every year and that there was no longer a market for henequen, as it had been replaced by artificial fibers. During the question-and-answer period I asked Brown what the owner’s motives were for keeping the factory open. Brown said, “He employs everyone in the village. He loses money every year. He does it for love.”
The speakers over the rest of the weekend were all people featured in the film. Friday we heard from Dr. Steve Black, an archaeologist from Texas State University, a big man with twinkly eyes, a gray beard and moustache, and a self-deprecating manner. Black and his students have spent 30 years excavating the sites of earth ovens along the lower Pecos and Devil’s rivers, ovens constructed for the purpose of cooking agave stalks. Black estimated that people have been doing that in our region of Texas for 8,000 years, or, as Black puts it, 500 generations. The sheer longevity of this practice is staggering when you consider that what we call “history” – written records – here goes back only 500 years, and human memory only five generations at the most. It requires a colossal shift in perspective to try to image what life was like here 4,000 years ago, much less 8,000.
One person who has successfully made that shift is Dr. Carolyn Boyd, who was Saturday’s speaker. Boyd, who is the founder of the Shumla Archeological Research and Education Center at Comstock, Texas, has achieved her perspective by making a 25-year study of one site, the White Shaman Rock Shelter on the lower Pecos, where ancient people, perhaps 4,000 years ago, painted a four-color mural that stretches 26 feet across the back of a shallow rock shelter. Earlier archaeologists had described the painting as a collection of random images painted over a long period of time. Boyd, whose initial training was as an artist, recognized it as a single composition the first time she saw it in 1989, and as she continued to study it she realized that it depicted a proto-Aztec creation myth concerning the birth of the sun, a myth that is still well-known to the Huichol people of northwestern Mexico. In her lecture Boyd told how, after researching the anthropological literature concerning the myth, she confirmed her interpretation of the mural by bringing a Huichol shaman to the site. He looked at the mural and, with tears in his eyes, said, “They are all here, all of the great-grandfathers.”
Boyd explained that she was aided in her work on the mural by using a digital microscope, which enabled her to determine the sequence in which the mural’s paint was applied. Surprisingly, she found that all of the black portions of the mural, including the black dots that decorated some of the figures, were applied to the surface first, followed by the red portions, then the yellow, and finally the white. This confirmed her instinctive realization that the mural was a planned composition, a single work of art probably created by one artist.
Sunday morning’s speaker was Dr. Phil Dering, an ethnobotanist whose specialty is the agave plant known as lechuguilla – little lettuce – and who happens to be Carolyn Boyd’s husband. He was introduced by both Black and Boyd, Boyd saying that she had long ago accepted the fact that the only thing that her husband loved more than her was lechuguilla, adding that she was not as prickly as lechuguilla. She went on to say that she and Dering had once written a song about lechuguilla, which she declined to sing, but she hummed the chorus to “La Cucuracha” and mouthed the words, “la lechguilla, la lechugilla.”
Dering began his talk holding a three-foot high lechuguilla plant in one hand, explaining that it had two lines of defense against predators, one physical, the thorns and spines on its leaves, and one chemical, the poisons in its stem, which could be extracted for tipping arrow points and poisoning fish. The poisons, he said, could be neutralized by baking the stems at 100 degrees centigrade for 48 hours, and then he went on to show how he and his students had learned how this was done through experimental archaeology (trying to do it themselves) and how many mistakes could be made along the way. He pointed out that lechuguilla-baking, while extremely labor-consuming, not only produced food but the materials for getting more food, such as fiber for making deer-snaring nets.
I missed other aspects of the inaugural Agave Festival, such as Johnny Sufficool’s talk on how to turn the agave plant in your backyard into your own sotol, and the luncheon at the Capri that featured a salad made of desert flowers, and the concert by Polo Urias y Su Maquina Norteña. But Johnson and Murray told me that they regard agave simply as a gateway into the culture of the Big Bend, and that what they are really interested in doing is increasing an understanding of that culture, so that there will definitely be an Agave Festival in 2018. And I am already looking forward to it.
Lonn Taylor is a historian and writer who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Story filed under: West Texas Talk
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