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Then came footage of a big costume ball with lingering close-ups of a giant punch bowl that had been spiked with dozens of different kinds of psychedelic mushrooms. Stamets pointed out several prominent mycologists and ethnobotanists among the revelers; many of them dressed as specific kinds of fungus—Amanita muscaria, button mushrooms, and so on. Stamets himself appeared dressed as a bear.

When one is screening raw footage of people in costume tripping on mushrooms and dancing sloppily to a reggae band, a little goes a long way, so after a few minutes we flicked off the TV. I asked Stamets about earlier iterations of the conference, some of which seemed to have a slightly more interesting ratio of intellectual substance to Dionysian revelry. In 1977, for instance, Stamets had the opportunity to play host to two of his heroes: Albert Hofmann and R. Gordon Wasson, whose 1957 article in Life magazine describing the first psilocybin journey ever taken by a Westerner—his own—helped launch the psychedelic revolution in America.

Stamets mentioned that he collected original copies of that issue of Life, which occasionally show up on eBay and at flea markets, and on my way upstairs to bed that night we stopped in his office so I could have a look at it. The issue was dated May 13, 1957, and Bert Lahr was on the cover, mugging for the camera in a morning suit and a bowler hat. But the most prominent cover line was devoted to Wasson’s notorious article: “The Discovery of Mushrooms That Cause Strange Visions.” Stamets said I could have a copy, and I took it to bed.

• • • FROM THE VANTAGE OF TODAY, it is hard to believe that psilocybin was introduced to the West by a vice president of J. P. Morgan in the pages of a mass-circulation magazine owned by Henry Luce; two more establishment characters it would be difficult to dream up. But in 1957, psychedelic drugs had not yet acquired any of the cultural and political stigmas that, a decade later, would weigh on our attitudes toward them. At the time, LSD was not well known outside the small community of medical professionals who regarded it as a potential miracle drug for psychiatric illness and alcohol addiction.

As it happened, the Time-Life founder and editor in chief, Henry Luce, along with his wife, Clare Boothe Luce, had personal knowledge of psychedelic drugs, and they shared the enthusiasm of the medical and cultural elites who had embraced them in the 1950s. In 1964, Luce told a gathering of his staff that he and his wife had been taking LSD “under doctor’s supervision”; Clare Boothe Luce recalled that during her first trip in the 1950s she saw the world “through the eyes of a happy and gifted child.” Before 1965, when a moral panic erupted over LSD, Time-Life publications were enthusiastic boosters of psychedelics, and Luce took a personal interest in directing his magazine’s coverage of them.

So when R. Gordon Wasson approached Life magazine with his story, he could not have knocked on a more receptive door. Life gave him a generous contract that, in addition to the princely sum of eighty-five hundred dollars, granted him final approval on the editing of his article, as well as the wording of headlines and captions. It specified that Wasson’s account include a “description of your own sensations and fantasies under the influence of the mushroom.”

As I paged through the issue in bed that evening, the world of 1957 seemed like a faraway planet, even though I lived on it, albeit as a two-year-old. My parents subscribed to Life, so the issue probably sat in the big pile in our den for a stretch of my childhood. Life magazine was a mass medium in 1957, with a circulation of 5.7 million.

“Seeking the Magic Mushroom,” in which “a New York banker goes to Mexico’s mountains to participate in the age-old rituals of Indians who chew strange growths that produce visions,” opened on a spread with a full-page color photograph of a Mazatec woman turning a mushroom over a smoky fire and goes on for no fewer than fifteen pages. The headline is the first known reference to “magic mushrooms,” a phrase that, it turns out, was coined not by a stoned hippie but by a Time-Life headline writer.

“We chewed and swallowed these acrid mushrooms, saw visions, and emerged from the experience awestruck,” Wasson tells us, somewhat breathlessly, in the first paragraph. “We had come from afar to attend a mushroom rite but had expected nothing so staggering as the virtuosity of the performing curanderas [healers] and the astonishing effects of the mushrooms. [The photographer] and I were the first white men in recorded history to eat the divine mushrooms, which for centuries had been a secret of certain Indian peoples living far from the great world in southern Mexico.”

Wasson then proceeds to tell the improbable tale of how someone like him, “a banker by occupation,” would end up eating magic mushrooms in the dirt-floored basement of a thatch-roofed, adobe-walled home in a Oaxacan town so remote it could only be reached by means of an eleven-hour trek through the mountains by mule.

The story begins in 1927, during Wasson’s honeymoon in the Catskills. During an afternoon stroll in the autumn woods, his bride, a Russian physician named Valentina, spotted a patch of wild mushrooms, before which “she knelt in poses of adoration.” Wasson knew nothing of “those putrid, treacherous excrescences” and was alarmed when Valentina proposed to cook them for dinner. He refused to partake. “Not long married,” Wasson wrote, “I thought to wake up the next morning a widower.”

The couple became curious as to how two cultures could hold such diametrically opposed attitudes toward mushrooms. They soon embarked on a research project to understand the origins of both “mycophobia” and “mycophilia,” terms that the Wassons introduced. They concluded that each Indo-European people is by cultural inheritance either mycophobic (for example, the Anglo-Saxons, Celts, and Scandinavians) or mycophilic (the Russians, Catalans, and Slavs) and proposed an explanation for the powerful feelings in both camps: “Was it not probable that, long ago, long before the beginnings of written history, our ancestors had worshipped a divine mushroom? This would explain the aura of the supernatural in which all fungi seem to be bathed.”* The logical next question presented itself to the Wassons—“What kind of mushroom was once worshipped, and why?”—and with that question in hand they embarked on a thirty-year quest to find the divine mushroom. They hoped to obtain evidence for the audacious theory that Wasson had developed and that would occupy him until his death: that the religious impulse in humankind had been first kindled by the visions inspired by a psychoactive mushroom.

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