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Richard de Mille 40 Allegory is not Ethnobotany: Analyzing Castaneda’s Letter to R. Gordon Wasson and Carlos’s Spanish Fieldnotes Many people have written letters to Carlos Castaneda, but few have gotten answers, R. Gordon Wasson is one of the few. On 26 August 1968 he sent the following letter: Dear Mr Castaneda’ J have been asked to review The Teachings of Don Juan for Economic Botany. [have read it and am impressed by the qual- ity of the writing and the hallucinogenic effects you have had. Perhaps you are not yet overwhelmed with letters from stran- gers and you can discuss with me the use of mushrooms by don Juan. ‘My professional life has been chiefly concerned with the hal- lucinogenic effects of the Mexican ‘sacred mushrooms.’ It was ‘my wife and I who publicized the re-discovery of the cult in Oaxaca, and it was on my invitation to Professor Roger Heim that he came over and studied them with us. We three have written books about them and innumerable articles, i ‘Am L right in concluding from your narrative that you never gathered the mushrooms, nor indeed ever saw a whole speci- men? In the book they are always in powder, perhaps already mixed with other ingredients, are they not? Don Juan carried the powder around his neck in a sack. When he utilized them, they were smoked. Once you embarked (p. 63) on a trip to Chihuahua for honguitos, but your quest tuned out to be for rmescaito. When you first mention the mushrooms they are ‘possibly’ Psilocybe mexicana (p. 7), but later they are that species. Did you satisfy yourself that you were dealing with Psilocybe mexicana? This mushroom would normally, in don Juan’s hands, macerate into shreds, rather than a powder, 319 320 Richard de Mille whereas the hallucinogenic puffballs used in certain spots in the Mixteca would give a powder. Do you know where your mush- rooms grew, whether in pastures, com fields, bovine dung, on the trunks of dying trees, or elsewhere? i Don Juan (I assume that this was a name adopted by you to save him from pestering) seems to have spoken perfect Spanish and to have lived in many places—the U.S. and southern Mexico, perhaps elsewhere, as well as Sonora and Chihuahua. ‘What is his cultural provenience? Is he a pure Yaqui? Or has his personality been shaped to a noticeable extent by the influences cof the foreign places where he has been? May he have been influenced by the Indians of Oaxaca, in the remote parts of that | State, and there learned to know the mushrooms? I ask this because the use ofthe hallucinogenic mushrooms has never pre- viously been reported in Sonora or Chihuahua. In fat they have never been found there, and one would think that if specimens were found, in the arid conditions prevailing in those States, it would be hard to find enough for ceremonial use, or at any rate to count on finding enough. There may be restricted areas lnown to the Indians where the Indians might expect to find them, places well watered and fertile. Perhaps the species is one rot yet known to science and that grows in arid country. It would be thrilling if you could pursue this further and make a discovery. The practice of smoking the mushroom powder is hitherto unknown to me. Had you brought back the powder, or the mixture in which the mushroom powder was an ‘we might have identified the species under the microscope, since there must have been spores present, and if the species is a own one, the spore suffices to place it. We now have almost a score of hallucinogenic species from Mexico, m1. Will there be a Spanish edition of the book? You gave a few translations, but there were many times when I was hungry for ‘more. ‘A man of knowledge’—did don Juan say, ‘hombre de conocimientos’ or simply ‘un hombre que sabe"? In Mazatec a ccurandero is chottatchi*net, ‘one who knows.’ Was don Juan bilingual, or was he better in Spanish than in Yaqui? Did you CASTANEDA’S LETTER TO WASSON 321 gather in your field notes the Yaqui equivalents of the terms he used? Tt would be fascinating to study with a linguist proficient in Yaqui the meaning of those terms. Did you ever tell your readers whether he could read and write in Spanish? How did he ordinarily make his living? His esoteric knowledge must have been his vocation, but he must have had a bread-and-butter oc- cupation. I take it thet you yourself are a fully acculturated ‘gringo,’ since you spell your name ‘Castaneda’ rather than Cas- tafieda in the Spanish way. Sincerely yours, R. GORDON WASSON Those who believe don Juan was born in the rare book room at UCLA while Castaneda was reading the Wassons’ 1957 volumes will see some irony in Wasson’s introducing himself as a “stranger” and taking the trouble to establish his ethnobotanical qualifications. In 1968 Wasson did rot yet appreciate the extent to which his own work had inspired Cas- taneda. As he would admit three years later, however, he did “smell a hoax.” Not only were don Juan’s mushrooms unrecognizable, but Cas- taneda seemed oddly unconcerned about identifying them. Wasson'slet- ter exemplifies the scrupulously respectful tone in which senior scholars query junior scholars they suspect of fraud. In 1968 Wasson was 70 years old and had bested his share of tricksters and pretenders, but in Castaneda he met an opponent worthy of his scholarly and forensic skills. In replying to Wasson’s letter, Castaneda purports to be a scholar and man of science who has published ethnobotanical findings, or at least legitimate observations that could lead to ethnobotanical findings, and is now answering questions put to him by a well known contributor to that field and strictly limited to his published claims. That being so, the sub- stance of his letter inevitably becomes the property of the scientific com- munity and may not be withheld on any plea of property or privacy. [is therefore my duty and privilege, made possible by Wasson’s kind coop- eration, to convey that substance to you. On the other hand—and this will disappoint many—the literary property constituted by the letter is protected by the copyright law and may not be exploited without the proprietor’s permission. On 12 August 1979 I wrote to Castaneda: Your fans and my readers would appreciate the opportunity to read the origi- ral text of your reply rather than depend on me to tell them what is in