Interesting glimpse at the written correspondence between Carl Sagan and a then-incarcerated Timothy Leary. Seeing what scientist Sagan made of Leary’s distinctly un-scientific book Terra II—the occult side of Leary’s ideas coming out to be sure—is an unexpected treat.
Terra II is probably one of the least known of any of Leary’s books. However, when Leary wrote to Sagan, and included a copy, he wrote back, enthusiastically, about an in-person visit. People with Sagan’s reputation and level of success generally avoided Tim like the plague, but Sagan took him seriously enough to come to one of the worst prisons in the country to talk to “the most dangerous man in America” (as described by President Richard Nixon in 1970).
Terra II is a super rare book, it’s true. It was published by Leary’s common-law wife, Joanna Harcourt-Smith, while Leary was in Folsom State Prison and never properly distributed. According to the authoritative Annotated Bibliography of Timothy Leary by Michael Horowitz, Karen Walls and Billy Smith, only between 800 and 900 copies were printed. Most copies were probably sold to directly to supporters to raise money for Leary’s legal fees.
It took me years to get my hands on Terra II. It’s super far-out stuff and something I’ve found to be an object of intense fascination for years. I actually asked Tim Leary about it myself at his house in 1995 and I could tell immediately from his reaction that it was not something he really wanted to discuss (Robert Anton Wilson, who devoted quite a bit of space to the ideas presented in Terra II and Leary’s “Starseed Transmissions” pamphlet in his book Cosmic Trigger gave the topic a cold shoulder as well, as I wrote about here). I just love the idea of Carl Sagan reacting to the ideas in Terra II. Remarkable!
February 19, 1974
Thanks for your last note and the book TERRA II. I have no problems on chance mutations and natural selection as the working material for the evolutionary process. In fact, with what we now know about molecular biology, I see no way to avoid it. But I loved your remark about the “transgalactic gardening club.” Of course, if extraterrestrials are powerful enough, they can do anything, but I don’t think we can yet count on it. I’m enclosing an article on “Life” that I did for the Encyclopaedia Britannica which you might like.
On the basic requirements for interstellar exploration, I doubt if a manned expedition to Mars could be done within the next 25 years for less than $300 billion. Try really costing your spacecraft and see what it would cost. In fact, maybe the reason we haven’t been visited is that interstellar spaceflight, while technically possible, would beggar any planet which attempted it.
If we can do it, how would you like a visit from us in the last week in February? I have no idea what the visiting privileges are, but if your and my schedules permit, Linda and I would love to visit you in Vacaville on the morning of Thursday, February 28. Frank Drake has also expressed an interest in such a visit, as has our mutual acquaintance, Norman Zinberg of Harvard Medical School. What’s your feeling about it? Write to me at the St. Francis Hotel, San Francisco, where I’ll be staying beginning Sunday, February 24, and I’ll try to firm up the visit, if it seems possible, shortly thereafter.
With best wishes,
P.S. The enclosed poem, “The Other Night” by Dianne Ackermann of Cornell, is something I think we both resonate to. It’s unfinished so it shouldn’t yet be quoted publically.
The short film “Timothy Leary in Folsom Prison” was made in 1973 to raise money for Leary’s legal defense and keep his name out there. Leary discusses his jailbreak (intimating that the daughter of a United States senator he refuses to name helped him), the revolution in consciousness and drugs, Eldridge Cleaver and what it feels like to be an imprisoned philosopher. Leary was released from prison in 1976 by then—and current—California Governor Jerry Brown.