“When rains do come, they’re a gift, a windfall, a lucky break…. The desert is unpredictable, enigmatic. One minute you will be smelling dust. The next, the desert can smell just like rain.”
So wrote Gary Paul Nabhan in “The Desert Smells Like Rain,” his 1982 study of the farming and foraging traditions of the Tohono O’odham people. Nabhan’s debut reflected both scientific research, and hands-on labor with Indigenous farmers, and it set the template for a singular career. Based in Arizona, Nabhan has since published three dozen books, becoming one of the Southwest’s foremost ethnobotanists and writers. He’s also a leading activist in the local-food movement and in the preservation of heirloom seeds.
Nabhan brings his desert insight to West Texas, when he speaks Thursday, Sept. 14 at 7 p.m. at Marfa’s Crowley Theater, as part of the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute’s Roger Conant Distinguished Guest Lecturer Program. He’ll participate in a “meet the author” event at Alpine’s Front Street Books the next day, from 3 to 5 p.m.
Nabhan has studied mesquite and mezcal, the plight of pollinators and the politics of food. But the 40th anniversary edition of his first book returned him to scent. His lecture will focus on the “fragrances of the Chihuahuan Desert,” its “osmocosm.”
“The osmocosm is the totality of these notes,” Nabhan said, “somehow integrated into a signature smell for each desert.”
And the Chihuahuan Desert, Nabhan said, may be the world’s most fragrant.
Our deepest memories are often tied to scent — that, say, of a grandparent’s home. And the smell of rain is potent for West Texans. It communicates relief, an assurance, a jubilation.
We correctly associate it with creosote bushes. But that’s not the full story.
“Creosote may be the lead singer,” Nabhan said, “but it’s a like a good jazz band: They may give the first note of the horn, but there are a lot of other very competent players in the osmocosmic orchestra.”
Texas ranger, or cenizo, is a player in the ensemble, as is mariola — the New Mexico rubber plant — and the artemisias, or mugworts, and bursages, or ragweeds. Fragrance reflects a desert adaptation, these plants emit volatile oils to reduce water loss and UV radiation, “like suntan lotion,” Nabhan said, and to ward off herbivores. Creosote alone deploys some 60 different oils.
Many cultures link scent with the sacred — remember the Magi and their frankincense — and Native peoples have long attributed healing power to the fragrant oils of desert plants. Science has reached the same conclusion.
These oils are rich in antioxidants — which can fight the “free radicals” that contribute to diabetes, heart disease and cancer. And they can buffer us from heat stress and dehydration, increasing threats with hotter summers. Fragrance alone is healthful, but consuming the oils is more powerful.
“Let’s face it,” Nabhan said, “direct ingestion of these volatile oils that are rich in antioxidants is the cheapest and most long-lasting way to reduce the dangers of heat, drought and radiation stress.”
Nabhan uses Chihuahuan Desert herbs in cooking, and he notes that Marfa mixologists incorporate them into cocktails. Collectively, it’s an invitation to engage this place with all our senses.
“We’re such a vision-oriented culture that we forget that fragrance and flavor and texture are signatures of particular places too,” Nabhan said. “I think there’s really something to celebrate that the Chihuahuan Desert may be among the most fragrant landscapes in the world, and you don’t have to be a scientist to appreciate that.”
Nabhan’s Sept. 14 talk is open to the public – and doors open at 6:30 p.m.