Nature Notes: A Bond Between Plant and People Inspires a Cultural Celebration

Agaves are signature plants of the Southwest and Mexico. Today, a taste for distilled agave spirits – tequila, mezcal – is global.

But that’s a recent footnote to the profound human bond with agave. For 10,000 years, from present-day Mexico to West Texas and Arizona, agaves were a foundation of survival. They were also a cornerstone of culture. Agave is central to the sacred stories and rituals of diverse Native peoples, from the Aztec to the Apache.

Agave Festival Marfa will be held June 1st through 4th. Inspired by the link between plant and people, the cultural celebration is designed to be specific to this place, and inclusive of its many cultures.

The hearts of century plants, sotol and lechuguilla are toxic when raw. But the continent’s first peoples knew that, slow-roasted underground, agaves could be converted into food. The sweet liquid could be fermented. South of Alpine, archeologists with the Center for Big Bend Studies recently excavated the continent’s oldest known earth oven. People have roasted agave in our region for at least 11,000 years.

Agave provided not only food, but fiber and medicine. In Arizona, the Hohokam bred and cultivated a distinct agave species. The Aztec worshipped a goddess of agave – and its fermented beverage, pulque.

Tim Johnson is owner of the Marfa Book Company. Last fall, he watched “Agave Is Life.” Created by anthropologists David Brown and Meredith Dreiss, the documentary explores the rich human-agave story.

“I was just really taken by the film,” Johnson said, “and all of the people who appear in it. I had the feeling that I could have watched a five- or six-hour version of the film. I knew Meredith and David. They knew very well a lot of the people in the film. So I proposed to them that we invite some of those people to come and just sort of talk to each other and to the audience.”

Johnson began organizing a festival around people featured in the film.

The festival begins with a screening of “Agave Is Life,” Thursday, June 1st, at 6 p.m. in Marfa’s Crowley Theatre. A Q&A with the directors will follow. Three archeologists will speak during the weekend. The events are free.

Dr. Steve Black speaks Friday at 5 p.m. An authority on earth ovens, Black’s work has illumined the central role that agave-roasting played in ancient life.

Dr. Carolyn Boyd speaks Saturday. Boyd has spent 25 years studying ancient murals near the confluence of the Pecos River and the Rio Grande. Her work is revolutionizing the understanding of North American rock art.

Dr. Phil Dering studies the prehistoric use of arid-land plants. He speaks Sunday morning at 11, at El Cosmico.

Attendees will also hear from Big Bend legend Johnny Sufficool. Sufficool has studied agave use with the Tarahumara of Northern Mexico, and he’s long distilled, and gifted, agave spirits. For many newcomers, a taste of Sufficool’s sotol has been an initiation to Big Bend life. Sufficool will speak at the Judd Foundation Saturday morning.

“Agave Is Life” was the genesis. But Johnson developed a broader vision for the festival – a bringing together of diverse local cultures. He invited Marfa institutions to participate.

The Hotel Paisano will host an exhibit by photographer Joel Salcido. The Capri will present a meal rooted in indigenous culinary traditions. Saturday evening features a performance by Polo Urias y Su Maquina Norteña, pioneers of Norteño music.

Johnson said the Agave Festival originates with a curiosity, a desire to feel more at home in the place he lives. It’s an impulse he suspects he shares with other, both newcomers and native West Texans.

“I think there are a lot of people here who know a tremendous amount about specific things, and some people who know a lot about a lot of things,” Johnson said. “Just to give those people an opportunity to share what it is they know – my belief is that that would be beneficial for all of us.”

The region’s natural and cultural heritage is inexhaustible. There will be always be cause for an event like the Agave Festival, Johnson said.

“I think that a festival of this nature should happen every year,” Johnson said, “though of course I don’t have to be in control of it. I think that there should be an Agave Festival in 2035.”

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