Photo taken by Elaine Mayes courtesy of NBC News
“Magic Mushrooms” have held humankind captive, especially in America, since the 1960s. But there is one article that kicked off this psychedelic trend: Seeking the Magic Mushroom by R. Gordon Wasson.
Wasson was a mushroom enthusiast and had been looking into the role of mushrooms in Native American and Mexican Indian rites. Gordon Wasson was the vice president of J.P. Morgan & Co. Incorporated, but had decided to travel deep into Mexico to a remote village. After thirty years of research he says “Richardson and I were the first white men in recorded history to eat the divine mushrooms, which for centuries have been a secret of certain Indian peoples living far from the great world in southern Mexico. No anthropologists had ever described the scene that we witnessed.”
At around 8 o’clock in the evening on June 21st, 1955, Wasson and his companion joined about 18 other people in the basement of the mayor’s house; the only two caucausian men and the only two who could not speak Mixteco, only Spanish. By 10 o’clock Eva Mendez had passed a cup to each of them, containing six psychedelic mushrooms. Over the course of thirty minutes they would chew them slowly, describing the taste as “acrid with a rancid odor that repeated itself.”
Eva Mendez then quickly blew out the only candle in the room, plunging them into darkness. A few minutes later Richard Allan whispered “Gordon, I am seeing things!” and Wasson told him not to worry, because he was to.
Allan and Wasson would repeat this process three days later.
He describes his visions as “vivid in color, always harmonious.” Between the two “trips,” as they are now called, he thought his soul had descended into the mountains and met a woman beside a tranquil rivier. “It seemed as though I was viewing a world of which I was not a part and with which I could not hope to establish contact. There I was, poised in space, a disembodied eye, invisible, incorporeal, seeing but not seen.” A common phrase used to describe the effects of psychedelics was: Le llevan ahí donde Dios está or “They carry you there where God is.”
Him, his companion, and later both of their wives, would scribble notes in the dark to be deciphered the morning after. After nine trips to the south of Mexico, they found five distinctive cultural areas where psychedelic mushrooms were used in ritual. Remote from highways and blocked by language barriers, these tribes believe the mushrooms “hold the key to what we call extrasensory perception.”
Wasson’s incredibly artistic portrayal of magic mushrooms was published in LIFE magazine in 1957. By the 1960s all forms of psychedelic mushrooms had proliferated the drug market throughout the counterculture movement, until they were banned by the 1971 UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances. Richard Nixon supported this vehemently and in May 1971 began his infamous “War on Drugs” with the Controlled Substances Act; many have argued that this was not about drugs, but rather a bid to try and stop the questioning of America’s materialism, conservative culture, and political norms.
But for the ten year period where psilocybin mushrooms thrived, the culture of America shifted. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club by the Beatles, albums by Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, and the Grateful Dead were all gifted to the world in 1967, the peak of psychedelic rock. Andy Warhol painted the infamous Campbell’s soup can and The Summer of Love attracted nearly 100,000 young people to go to San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury district to celebrate music, art, and life.
Historians agree that the 1960s witnessed some of the most significant cultural changes in the 20th century. Jann Wanner, founder of Rolling Stone, puts it this way:
“The culture wars that began in the sixties, about drugs, about military incursions into foreign countries, about sex and human rights, the environment and on and on, are still being fought. All the issues are correct, and they are rooted in the activism of the sixties. The values have not only survived – in many ways they are the mainstream values of our times.”
Yet, much of this would not have been possible if a banker and a photojournalist had not decided to take a trip south of the American border to test out “the divine mushroom” for themselves.