R.O. Wilson of Cullowhee, N.C., and Hamper McBee of Monteagle, Tenn., are listed as "distillers" in the folklife festival catalogue, but they're betrayed as moonshiners by the nose-jarring kick of their cornmeal and sugar mash and the random gracelessness of the Rube Goldberg contraption they've set up on the Mall.

"It's more powerful than the stuff you get out of the liquor store," Wilson says proudly of his 170 proof whiskey (it has to be proofed down with water).

"If you want to take a chance on it, it'll slap you in the creek," he warns. "Course, they don't let you taste it or we'll all go to jail."

Wilson and McBee, all grizzled faces and handlebar mustaches, seem to enjoy the idea of working out in the open for the next few weeks. "Most of the time if you're in the woods, you're hiding from the revenuers under the protection of the forest," Wilson says. Here on the Mall, the moonshiners are under the protection of the revenuers, though still subject to detection by innocents: "Why are they making whiskers?" one little girl asks her dad.

The Festival of American Folklife, which opened its 20th season here yesterday, is a Walt Whitman sampler of this country's culture, a lively assortment resonant with the rhythms and melodies of diverse people and places come together with a single purpose -- to expose other people to the varied strands that make the fabric of American life so rich.

It is a treasure of resources and information, a festival of answers begging for questions.

"These cultures are a priceless human resource and they are certainly the basis of human resourcefulness," said David Maybury-Lewis, director of Cultural Survival Inc., during yesterday's opening ceremonies. "It's through their cultures that human beings make sense of the world, it's through their cultures that they give meaning to their own lives, and it's through their cultures that they deal with the world, finding their own particular solutions to the problems of existence that are common to all humankind. People in touch with their own traditions are people who retain their own self-respect."

Other scenes from a festival meant to be experienced by sight, sound, feel, smell and taste:

George Lopez, an 86-year-old woodcarver from Cordova, N.M., patiently whittling pieces of aspen and cedar for an evolving sculpture of "Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden," with the help of his wife Silvianita, his brother Ricardo and his great-nephew Alex Ortiz, who will be carrying on a craft tradition rescued from neglect in 1917 by George and Ricardo's father, Jose Dolores Lopez.

The Original Sun Rhythm Band, with guitarists Paul ("Train Kept a-Rollin' ") Burlison and Sonny Burgess, drummer J.M. Van Eaton and Jerry Lee (Smoochy) Smith rekindling Memphis rockabilly fires with "Blue Moon of Kentucky" (done as both country and rock) and "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" (there was, too).

Tim Waggoner, a Knoxville herbalist and author of "The Poor Man's Medicine Bag (Home Remedies and Helpful Hints)," dispensing some of same under a tent, supplying supple metaphors for the festival when he says "don't throw away your peelings" and "use herbs to spice things up," causing a few gasps when he brings out a tin of "Potted Possum" for lunch -- and then confessing that it's just a joke.

The Japanese ta-bayashi, an earthily elegant rice-planting ceremony, reinforcing the tradition of labor accompanied by music and ritual, with the graceful motions of the brightly clad dancers, the celebrant drums and flutes and the timelessness of the moment transforming the temporary rice paddy into something eternal.

Fairfax gravedigger and bluesman John Jackson finger-picking a lively melody, "Just Because," while his 4-year-old granddaughter Denise bounces to the rhythm, beams beatifically and nudges her immediate neighbors with her most precious piece of knowledge -- her blood connection to the performer ("That's my granddaddy," she says proudly, over and over again).

Folk culture is a celebration of tradition and transmission: song, dance, story and craft, passed down from generation to generation within a group, whether it be ethnic, geographical or occupational. So it's little wonder that everywhere on the Mall there are families maintaining their connections, or that there are so many things waiting for completion -- the husk of a canoe, waiting for the walls that will keep water out and float its rider downstream; the skeleton frame of a Kashima sama, a giant effigy that wards off sickness and evil spirits in small Japanese villages, waiting for its flesh and blood of rice straw; gospel songs waiting for the audience to enrich their harmonies; sprightly Cajun music made whole by a sudden swirl of two-step dancers; fabric waiting for imprint, quilts waiting for embellishment, chunks of stone waiting for the chipping away for detail. Even the tools are beautiful, and you are always reminded that everything here depends on the skill and vision of a craftsman, that everything from instruments to sake caskets is built, not manufactured.

If, as someone pointed out yesterday, the Smithsonian museums that surround the festival are nouns, then this sudden township on the Mall is an enormously rich and provocative verb. It sings, it dances, it shocks with its peacock colors, entices with its smells, barbecue being somehow dominant. Since folklore is an accumulation of the knowledge, wisdom, imagination and experience of a people, then a festival that accumulates so many different folklores is truly something special.

Which is exactly what the Festival of American Folklife has been for 20 years, of course.