JOURNEY TO IXTLAN -- THE LESSONS OF DON JUAN
Chapter 6: BECOMING A HUNTER
Friday, June 23, 1961
As soon as I sat down I bombarded don Juan with questions. He did not answer me and made an impatient gesture with his hand to be quiet. He seemed to be in a serious mood.
"I was thinking that you haven't changed at all in the time you've been trying to learn about plants," he said in an accusing tone.
He began reviewing in a loud voice all the changes of personality he had recommended I should undertake. I told him that I had considered the matter very seriously and found that I could not possibly fulfill them because each of them ran contrary to my core. He replied that to merely consider them was not enough, and that whatever he had said to me was not said just for fun. I again insisted that, although I had done very little in matters of adjusting my personal life to his ideas, I really wanted to learn the uses of plants.
After a long, uneasy silence I boldly asked him, "'Would you teach me about peyote, don Juan?"
He said that my intentions alone were not enough, and that to know about peyote--he called it "Mescalito" for the first time--was a serious matter. It seemed that there was nothing else to say.
In the early evening, however, he set up a test for me; he put forth a problem without giving me any clues to its solution: to find a beneficial place or spot in the area right in front of his door where we always sat to talk, a spot where I could allegedly feel perfectly happy and invigorated. During the course of the night, while I attempted to find the "spot" by rolling on the ground, I twice detected a change of coloration on the uniformly dark dirt floor of the designated area.
The problem exhausted me and I fell asleep on one of the places where I had detected the change in color. In the morning don Juan woke me up and announced that I had had a very successful experience. Not only had I found the beneficial spot I was looking for, but I had also found its opposite, an enemy or negative spot and the colors associated with both.
Saturday, June 24, 1961
We went into the desert chaparral in the early morning. As we walked, don Juan explained to me that finding a "beneficial" or an "enemy" spot was an important need for a man in the wilderness. I wanted to steer the conversation to the topic of peyote, but he flatly refused to talk about it. He warned me that there should be no mention of it, unless he himself brought up the subject.
We sat down to rest in the shade of some tall bushes in an area of thick vegetation. The desert chaparral around us was not quite dry yet; it was a warm day and the flies kept on pestering me but they did not seem to bother don Juan. I wondered whether he was just ignoring them but then I noticed they were not landing on his face at all.
"Sometimes it is necessary to find a beneficial spot quickly, out in the open," don Juan went on. "Or maybe it is necessary to determine quickly whether or not the spot where one is about to rest is a bad one. One time, we sat to rest by some hill and you got very angry and upset. That spot was your enemy. A little crow gave you a warning, remember?"
I remembered that he had made a point of telling me to avoid that area in the future. I also remembered that I had become angry because he had not let me laugh.
"I thought that the crow that flew overhead was an omen for me alone," he said. "I would never have suspected that the crows were friendly towards you too."
"What are you talking about?"
"The crow was an omen," he went on. "If you knew about crows you would have avoided the place like the plague. Crows are not always available to give warning though, and you must learn to find, by yourself, a proper place to camp or to rest."
After a long pause don Juan suddenly turned to me and said that in order to find the proper place to rest all I had to do was to cross my eyes. He gave me a knowing look and in a confidential tone told me that I had done precisely that when I was rolling on his porch, and thus I had been capable of finding two spots and their colors. He let me know that he was impressed by my accomplishment.
"I really don't know what I did, " I said.
"You crossed your eyes," he said emphatically. "That's the technique; you must have done that, although you don't remember it."
Don Juan then described the technique, which he said took years to perfect, and which consisted of gradually forcing the eyes to see separately the same image. The lack of image conversion entailed a double perception of the world; this double perception, according to don Juan, allowed one the opportunity of judging changes in the surroundings, which the eyes were ordinarily incapable of perceiving.
Don Juan coaxed me to try it. He assured me that it was not injurious to the sight. He said that I should begin by looking in short glances, almost with the corners of my eyes. He pointed to a large bush and showed me how. I had a strange feeling, seeing don Juan's eyes taking incredibly fast glances at the bush. His eyes reminded me of those of a shifty animal that cannot look straight.
We walked for perhaps an hour while I tried not to focus my sight on anything. Then don Juan asked me to start separating the images perceived by each of my eyes. After another hour or so I got a terrible headache and had to stop.
"Do you think you could find, by yourself, a proper place for us to rest?" he asked.
I had no idea what the criterion for a "proper place" was. He patiently explained that looking in short glances allowed the eyes to pick out unusual sights.
"Such as what?" I asked.
"They are not sights proper," he said. "They are more like feelings. If you look at a bush or a tree or a rock where you may like to rest, your eyes can make you feel whether or not that's the best resting place."
I again urged him to describe what those feelings were but he either could not describe them or he simply did not want to. He said that I should practice by picking out a place and then he would tell me whether or not my eyes were working.
At one moment I caught sight of what I thought was a pebble which reflected light. I could not see it if I focused my eyes on it, but if I swept the area with fast glances 1 could detect a sort of faint glitter. I pointed out the place to don Juan. It was in the middle of an open unshaded flat area devoid of thick bushes. He laughed uproariously and then asked me why I had picked that specific spot. I explained that I was seeing a glitter.
"I don't care what you see," he said. "You could be seeing an elephant. How you feel is the important issue."
I did not feel anything at all. He gave me a mysterious look and said that he wished he could oblige me and sit down to rest with me there; but he was going to sit somewhere else while I tested my choice.
I sat down while he looked at me curiously from a distance of thirty or forty feet away. After a few minutes he began to laugh loudly. Somehow his laughter made me nervous. It put me on edge. I felt he was making fun of me and I got angry. I began to question my motives for being there. There was definitely something wrong in the way my total endeavor with don Juan was proceeding. I felt that I was just a pawn in his clutches.
Suddenly don Juan charged at me, at full speed, and pulled me by the arm, dragging me bodily for ten or twelve feet. He helped me to stand up and wiped some perspiration from his forehead. I noticed then that he had exerted himself to his limit. He patted me on the back and said that I had picked the wrong place and that he had to rescue me in a real hurry, because he saw that the spot where I was sitting was about to take over my entire feelings. I laughed. The image of don Juan charging at me was very funny. He had actually run like a young man. His feet moved as if he were grabbing the soft reddish dirt of the desert in order to catapult himself over me. I had seen him laughing at me and then in a matter of seconds he was dragging me by the arm.
After a while he urged me to continue looking for a proper place to rest. We kept on walking but I did not detect or "feel" anything at all. Perhaps if I had been more relaxed I would have noticed or felt something. I had ceased, however, to be angry with him. Finally he pointed to some rocks and we came to a halt.
"Don't feel disappointed," don Juan said. "It takes a long time to train the eyes properly."
I did not say anything. I was not going to be disappointed about something I did not understand at all. Yet, I had to admit that three times already since I had begun to visit don Juan I had become very angry and had been agitated to the point of being nearly ill while sitting on places that he called bad.
"The trick is to feel with your eyes," he said. "Your problem now is that you don't know what to feel. It'll come to you, though, with practice."
"Perhaps you should tell me, don Juan, what I am supposed to feel."
"No one can tell you what you are supposed to feel. It is not heat, or light, or glare, or color. It is something else."
"Can't you describe it?"
"No. All I can do is give you the technique. Once you learn to separate the images and see two of everything, you must focus your attention in the area between the two images. Any change worthy of notice would take place there, in that area."
"What kind of changes are they?"
"That is not important. The feeling that you get is what counts. Every man is different. You saw glitter today, but that did not mean anything, because the feeling was missing. I can't tell you how to feel. You must learn that yourself."
We rested in silence for some time. Don Juan covered his face with his hat and remained motionless as if he were asleep. I became absorbed in writing my notes, until he made a sudden movement that made me jolt. He sat up abruptly and faced me, frowning.
"You have a knack for hunting," he said. "And that's what you should learn, hunting. We are not going to talk about plants any more."
He puffed out his jaw for an instant, then candidly added, "I don't think we ever have, anyway, have we?" and laughed.
We spent the rest of the day walking in every direction while he gave me an unbelievably detailed explanation about rattlesnakes. The way they nest, the way they move around, their seasonal habits, their quirks of behavior. Then he proceeded to corroborate each of the points he had made and finally he caught and killed a large snake; he cut its head off, cleaned its viscera, skinned it, and roasted the meat. His movements had such a grace and skill that it was a sheer pleasure just to be with him.
"It is like what I have told you about hunters," he said. "I don't necessarily like to talk. I just have a knack for it and I do it well, that's all."
I found his mental agility truly funny.
"Hunters must be exceptionally tight individuals," he continued. "A hunter leaves very little to chance. I have been trying all along to convince you that you must learn to live in a different way. So far I have not succeeded. There was nothing you could've grabbed on to. Now it's different. I have brought back your old hunter's spirit, perhaps through it you will change."
I protested that I did not want to become a hunter. I reminded him that in the beginning I had just wanted him to tell me about medicinal plants, but he had made me stray so far away from my original purpose that I could not clearly recall any more whether or not I had really wanted to learn about plants.
"Good," he said. "Really good. If you don't have such a clear picture of what you want, you may become more humble.
"Let's put it this way. For your purposes it doesn't really matter whether you learn about plants or about hunting. You've told me that yourself. You are interested in anything that anyone can tell you. True?"
I had said that to him in trying to define the scope of anthropology and in order to draft him as my informant.
Don Juan chuckled, obviously aware of his control over the situation.
"I am a hunter," he said, as if he were reading my thoughts. "I leave very little to chance. Perhaps I should explain to you that I learned to be a hunter. I have not always lived the way I do now. At one point in my life I had to change. Now I'm pointing the direction to you. I'm guiding you. I know what I'm talking about; someone taught me all this. I didn't figure it out for myself."
"Do you mean that you had a teacher, don Juan?"
"Let's say that someone taught me to hunt the way I want to teach you now," he said and quickly changed the topic.
"I think that once upon a time hunting was one of the greatest acts a man could perform," he said. "All hunters were powerful men. In fact, a hunter had to be powerful to begin with in order to withstand the rigors of that life."
Suddenly I became curious. Was he referring to a time perhaps prior to the Conquest? I began to probe him.
When was the time you are talking about?"
"Once upon a time.
'"When? What does 'once upon a time' mean?"
"It means once upon a time, or maybe it means now, today. It doesn't matter. At one time everybody knew that a hunter was the best of men. Now not everyone knows that, but there are a sufficient number of people who do. I know it, someday you will. See what I mean?"
"Do the Yaqui Indians feel that way about hunters? That's what I want to know."
"Do the Pima Indians?"
"Not all of them. But some."
I named various neighboring groups. I wanted to commit him to a statement that hunting was a shared belief and practice of some specific people. But he avoided answering me directly, so I changed the subject
"Why are you doing all this for me, don Juan?" I asked.
He took off his hat and scratched his temples in feigned bafflement.
"I'm having a gesture with you," he said softly. "Other people have had a similar gesture with you; someday you yourself will have the same gesture with others. Let's say that it is my turn. One day I found out that if I wanted to be a hunter worthy of self-respect I had to change my way of life. I used to whine and complain a great deal. I had good reasons to feel shortchanged. I am an Indian and Indians are treated like dogs. There was nothing I could do to remedy that, so all I was left with was my sorrow. But then my good fortune spared me and someone taught me to hunt. And I realized that the way I lived was not worth living ... so I changed it."
"But I am happy with my life, don Juan. Why should I have to change it?"
He began to sing a Mexican song, very softly, and then hummed the tune. His head bobbed up and down as he followed the beat of the song.
"Do you think that you and I are equals?" he asked in a sharp voice.
His question caught me off guard. I experienced a peculiar buzzing in my ears as though he had actually shouted his words, which he had not done; however, there had been a metallic sound in his voice that was reverberating in my ears.
I scratched the inside of my left ear with the small finger of my left hand. My ears itched all the time and I had developed a rhythmical nervous way of rubbing the inside of them with the small finger of either hand. The movement was more properly a shake of my whole arm.
Don Juan watched my movements with apparent fascination.
"Well . . . are we equals?" he asked.
"Of course we're equals," I said.
I was, naturally, being condescending. I felt very warm towards him even though at times I did not know what to do with him; yet I still held in the back of my mind, although I would never voice it, the belief that I, being a university student, a man of the sophisticated Western world, was superior to an Indian.
"No," he said calmly, "we are not."
"Why, certainly we are," I protested.
"No," he said in a soft voice. "We are not equals. I am a hunter and a warrior, and you are a pimp."
My mouth fell open. I could not believe that don Juan had actually said that. I dropped my notebook and stared at him dumbfoundedly and then, of course, I became furious.
He looked at me with calm and collected eyes. I avoided his gaze. And then he began to talk. He enunciated his words clearly. They poured out smoothly and deadly. He said that I was pimping for someone else. That I was not fighting my own battles but the battles of some unknown people. That I did not want to learn about plants or about hunting or about anything. And that his world of precise acts and feelings and decisions was infinitely more effective than the blundering idiocy I called "my life."
After he finished talking I was numb. He had spoken without belligerence or conceit but with such power, and yet such calmness, that I was not even angry any more.
We remained silent. I felt embarrassed and could not think of anything appropriate to say. I waited for him to break the silence. Hours went by. Don Juan became motionless by degrees, until his body had acquired a strange, almost frightening rigidity; his silhouette became difficult to make out as it got dark, and finally when it was pitch black around us he seemed to have merged into the blackness of the stones. His state of motionlessness was so total that it was as if he did not exist any longer.
It was midnight when I finally realized that he could and would stay motionless there in that wilderness, in those rocks, perhaps forever if he had to. His world of precise acts and feelings and decisions was indeed superior.
I quietly touched his arm and tears flooded me.