In 1934, R. Gordon Wasson joined the Wall Street banking firm of J.P. Morgan & Company. There he remained until 1963, serving for the last 20 years as Vice-President. Perhaps a typical American success story, but most definitely an unlikely background for one of the most fascinating scholars of the past century.
In the 1950’s, Wasson and his wife Valentina mounted expeditions to Mexico to study the religious use of mushrooms by the native population. They eventually met Maria Sabina, a Mazatec curandera who introduced the Wassons to the cult of the sacred mushroom. In 1957, the Wassons published a still-famous Life magazine article (Seeking the Magic Mushroom) that introduced knowledge of psychoactive mushrooms to a wide audience for the first time.
Following Valentina’s death in 1958, R. Gordon Wasson continued what had already become his life’s work (with all due respect to J.P. Morgan). His fascination with psychoactive plants and the spiritual life of indigenous people led him all over the world, especially to Papua New Guinea, India, and North America (where he studied the ceremonial use of fly agaric among the Ojibway people).
Wasson produced several books throughout his remarkable career, almost all extremely hard to find these days, and very expensive as well. Here’s just a few titles the Land Library would love to add to its shelves someday: The Wonderous Mushroom: Mycolatry in Mesoamerica, Maria Sabina and Her Mazatec Mushroom Velada, and Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality.
But for now, the Land Library is happy to have the highly informative book featured above: The Sacred Mushroom Seeker: Tributes to R. Gordon Wasson, edited by Thomas J. Riedlinger (with contributions from writers in the fields of ethnobotany, religion, and anthropology, and with a foreword by Richard Evans Schultes).
It was a 1927 honeymoon trip to the Catskill Mountains that led the Wassons to their passionate pursuit of the mushroom. Chancing upon some edible wild mushrooms they became fascinated by the differences in cultural attitudes toward the Kingdom Fungi. Field research commenced, and the couple (pictured above) published their first book, Mushrooms, Russia and History, in 1957.
On Wednesday August 18th, the Rocky Mountain Land Series will host a free program with Gary Lincoff, author of the Audubon Society Guide to North American Mushrooms. Gary will be speaking on his new book The Complete Mushroom Hunter, and he’ll be bringing along plenty of samples & examples. Over the next few weeks the Land Library hopes to add more posts on the world of mushrooms and fungi. It’s a world that has attracted some wonderful books!
And speaking of books, we couldn’t sign off without sharing R. Gordon Wasson’s personal bookplate: