Monday, January 14, 2008

Into the Heart of the Desert

Cactus in the Botanical Garden at the Charco de Ingenio, San Miguel

Perhaps it is the very barren nature of the desert, the dry clear air, the spiny tortured plant life that sprout miraculously from the dry dust, that make me feel alive, something fragile that can whither and perish in the harsh sun. You have to have thick reptilian skin to protect yourself with in the desert. You have to pull nourishment from a deep well and hoard it. Life depends on resourcefulness and tricks to survive.
We are hiking through the Charco de Ingenio, a desert botanical garden and preserve, amidst 30 foot high organ cactus and round spiny barrel cactus large enough to crawl into. Nopal leaves shaped like hearts and laden with red prickly fruit called tunas that symbolize the sacrificial heart in Aztec codices. “Ixtli in Yollotli” in the Aztec language of Nahuatl, meaning the face heart, signifies the emotional balance one must achieve to live a good life. They say that the goal of this life is to match the heart with one’s outward expression or personality, to find harmony within. We pick the white fuzzy cochineal that is sticking to the spines of the nopal leaves and watch as it drips crimson between our fingers, like a tiny miracle.

And then of course there is the Agave, the source of the lifeblood of Mexico, reaching its sword like arms up towards the sun like a silent green explosion from the dry desert sand.
Not really a cactus at all, but a member of the lily family, it flowers only once in its long lifetime, sending out a long flowering stalk up into the sky, filling it’s heart with precious juices to nourish its seed before the whole plant withers and dies.
The Otomi Indians in central Mexico harvest the Agave or Maguey, as it is also called, to make the mildly fermented drink called pulque. They have ancient names for every part and every stage of growth of the plant, and use it for food and drink, to make a fiber for clothing, needles and tools, and even use the dried leaves to build their homes with.
The goddess of the Maguey is Mayahuel, who appears with 400 breasts spouting the precious white liquid with which to feed and nourish her many children.

In the making of Mezcal the heart is smoked in mesquite before fermenting. At the Mezcal tasting bar in San Miguel, Maurice has a passion for every nuance of the brew and is happy to share with us the entire process.
We sample the pure mezcal base, and then a rose colored mezcal that has been cured in wine barrels. Another that tastes a bit like scotch because of the part of the plant that it is fermented from. After several samples he offers me a special glass filled with a type of Mezcal called Sotol that comes from a the Yucca plant and is not available commercially. This one is for artists, he says, because it makes you have magical visions. I munch on a little dried worm sprinkled onto a fresh orange slice to clear my palate and ease the burn as I suck it down, feeling a dizzy rush of heat that sends my head spinning. For a moment the only vision I have is of myself passed out on the floor. But then I am enveloped by delicious warmth and feel the spirit of plant inside of me, as if Mayahuel herself were whispering sweet secrets for my ears alone. At least that is how it seems, as I am the only one nodding my head. Everyone else is watching me with raised eyebrows that for a moment look peculiarly like arching worms.
Now the Agave begins to appear in my paintings in silvery greens and dark blues. The overlapping patterns of spines and thorns slowly unfolding to reveal a protected heart that is ready to blossom at any moment.

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