Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Thoughts on Thanksgiving

[Nyerges is the author of “How to Survive Anywhere,” “Foraging California,” “Enter the Forest” and other books.  He leads courses in the native uses of plants.  He can be reached at Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, or www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance..com]

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday of the year.  Even moreso than Christmas.  It is our uniquely American holiday where the family gathers, where we remember our roots, we share a meal, and we give thanks.  I like it when the ridiculous Halloween images disappear in local stores, and we start to see traditional Thanksgiving images of  Indians, turkeys, and pilgrims with black powder guns.

But look how quickly such simple and profound holidays get perverted. Today, we hardly know what “giving thanks” even means, and so the act of giving thanks is lost on most of us.  Newscasters talk about “turkey day,” as if all there was to the day was eating turkey. 

Interestingly, most folks would not know whether or not they were eating turkey, or eating crow, and most of the time we’re doing the latter, figuratively speaking.  Then, when we have barely taken the time to consider the notion of “giving thanks,” we get up early on the following “black Friday” to rush around with the mobs “looking for a good deal”  to help us celebrate the consumer-driven commercial craze into which we’ve morphed “Christmas.”

Wow! How did we get here?  What can we do about it?  Let’s take a moment to look at the roots of Thanksgiving.

In the history of North America, we are told that the first historic Thanksgiving Day was in October of 1621.  After a successful harvest that year at the Plymouth colony, there was about a week of celebrations.  The local Indians and the colonists joined together, with the Indians generally showing the colonists (mostly city folks) how to hunt for the meal which consisted of fowl, deer, duck, goose, and fish.  Corn bread, wild greens, plums, leeks, and many other vegetables (wild and domestic) were shared in this celebration.  Interestingly, there is no evidence that wild turkey or wild cranberries  (totally unpalatable without cooking and adding sweeteners) were part of the menu. 

In fact, some (but not all) historians question whether or not there were any religious overtones at all on this “first Thanksgiving,” citing such evidence as the archery and firearms games, and the running and jumping competitions, which they say would never be done at religious ceremonies by the Puritans.

What then is it, if anything, that sets the American (and the Canadian) Thanksgiving celebration apart from any of the other myriad of Harvest Festivals?

The pilgrims experienced a severe drought in the summer.  That season, they were totally dependent on wild game and wild plants, and owed their survival largely to the English-speaking Indian “Squanto” (Tisquantum).   In their lack, they refocussed upon their real purpose for coming to this new land.  They sought to establish a time to give thanks for their spiritual bounty, in spite of the fact that they had no material bounty that year.

Not widely known is that this thanksgiving feast had political overtones, which seem to have largely backfired.  Tisquantum was actually the interpreter for Massasoit, who was the political-military leader of the local Wampanoag tribe.  Massasoit was worried that his weakened tribe would be taken-advantage of by the stronger Narragansett.  Massasoit would permit the European newcomers to stay as long as they liked, as long as they aligned with Massasoit against the Narraganset. (There was a short-lived peace, and you can read all about it in your history books). 

Despite the varied history of this day, Americans have chosen to see this as day set aside so that we do not lose sight of our spiritual heritage, which is the real bounty.

Both Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July are the times that Americans have traditionally set aside to reflect upon the concepts of “freedom” and “giving thanks.”  The purpose of such special times of reflection is to see how well we have done during the past year, and determine what corrections we should make if we find that we are veering away from our chosen path. It should not be a time of merely “having fun.”

As long as we confuse “giving thanks” with “eating a lot of really good food,”  the practical effect is that Thanksgiving today is little more than a Harvest Festival.  “Giving Thanks” is a particular attitude which accompanies specific actions.  Perhaps sharing our bounty with the needy would be a better Thanksgiving activity than eating large volumes of food.  More to the point, perhaps we should use Thanksgiving to give thanks where it is due -- to the American Indians who have become the “forgotten minorities.”  Rather than “eat a lot,” perhaps we could send blankets, food, or money to any of the American Indian families or nations who today live in Third World conditions.

To me, the essence of Thanksgiving was the coming together of two cultures, trying to work together under trying circumstances.  Yes, they shared a meal.  Food sustains us.  But it was not about food, per se.  They practiced with their bows and guns, a sign of mutual preparedness. And in their own ways, they “prayed to God,” in the ways that were appropriate to each culture. 

By the way, much has been said about the term “Indian,” supposedly because Columbus thought he was in India when in fact he never got beyond the Carribean islands.  But not everyone agrees with that linguistic conclusion. For one, India was not called “India” in the late 1400s.  Some have suggested that it was the phrase “en Dios” (with God) that Columbus used to describe how the native, who lived simply and were perceived to be “close to God,” was the actual root of the term “Indians.”  It is still debated.
But we really should not forget our national roots.  Don’t just give lip-service thanks to the Native Americans whose land was taken.  Rather, find those organizations that are actually providing real assistance to Native Americans in poverty, such as many of those living in the third world conditions so prevalent on today’s reservations.  (IF you have trouble locating such organizations, contact me and I will make some suggestions).

Friday, October 30, 2015

Some History of Hallowe'en

[Nyerges is the author of Extreme Simplicity, How To Survive Anywhere, and Guide to Wild Foods. He has led outdoor field trips since 1974.   He can be reached at Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, or www.ChristopherNyerges.com.]

How did all this Hallowe’en stuff get started? It turns out that the modern Hallowe’en commemoration is a smorgasborg of symbols, very much like the Christmas holiday takes bits and pieces from all over the world from different eras.

The origins of this day go back to the ancient Celts, at least 2000 years ago, to the people who eventually settled in Ireland and northern France. They divided their year into four equal parts, which were the equinoxes and solstices, for which they had special feasts. They also had special days which were more-or-less the half-way point between the equinoxes and solstices.

One of these half-way points was the feast of Samhain, pronounced “sow-wen.”  Samhain literally translates as “summer’s end.”  This half-way feast, celebrated anywhere between October 31 and November 6, marked the end of summer, the harvest, and the beginning of the dark dreary winter.  Samhain was regarded as their New Year, when the dark half of the year was beginning. It was during this time that people believed that ghosts and/or spirits were returning to the earth, and could be more readily contacted by the Druids, which were the Celtic priests and priestesses. 

People built big bonfires where animal sacrifices were burned (the origin of “bon-fire” was “bone-fire,” since the bones of the animals would burn up too). Costumes would be worn, and according to historians, these were mostly animal heads and skins.  A big part of the feast was to try and tell the future, such as would you get married, or how would your crop do this year.  The ghosts and spirits were not feared, but were summoned in order to learn the unknowable.

In the first century, by at least 43 A.D., the Romans had conquered the Celtic territories, and perhaps tactfully used that political influence to combine two Roman festivals into the existing Samhain festivals. Feralia was a day in late October when the Romans commemorated the dead, and this was combined into the Samhain commemoration. They also rolled the commemoration of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and trees, into the Samhain event.  That’s probably the origin of the “bobbing for apples” on Hallowe’en.

Then, on May 13, 609 A.D., Pope Boniface IV established All Martyrs Day on May13 to honor the saints and martyrs of the church. About a hundred years later, Pope Gregory III moved the May 13 observance to November 1, today called All Saints Day, which they hoped would blend with the existing Celtic rites already being commemorated on that day. By the year 1000, the church created All Soul’s Day for November 2, to honor all the dead.

The All Saints Day holyday was called All-hallows, and the night before it began to be called All-hallows Eve, which is where we get Hallowe’en.

And that’s just the 25 cent version!

In medieval Britain, the day would be observed by going door to door with a hollowed turnip which had a candle in it. The turnip was said to represent a soul who was trapped in purgatory, and you could make a prayer for the deceased by giving food to the turnip-carrier.  Others believed that such turnips actually warded away evil spirits. The pumpkin was a strictly American innovation, since pumpkins were common here and were easily carved out.

This, of course, is how the “trick or treating” began.  It has, of course, evolved and devolved in many directions.

Witches on broom sticks, black cats, candles, cauldrons, and the like have become the popular symbols of this day, each of which has a full back story which we don’t have space for now.  Some of it is not suitable for a family publication.


In Mexico, back before the Spanish conquest, Day of the Dead has long been observed as a day when family and friends gather to remember and pray for those who have died, and to give them moral support on their spiritual journey.

In its origin, historians can trace this event back to an Aztec festival to the goddess Mictecacihuatl. Prior to the 16th century, this commemoration of the dead was scheduled in the beginning of the summer.  It was moved to October 31 through November 2 during the reign of the Catholic church so that it would coincide with the Catholic three days of All Saint’s Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day.  Though people mostly in the southern parts of Mexico commemorated this day, it  has now been declared a public holiday by the Mexican government. 

The Day of the Dead is commemorated with private altars (you can see them at the square at Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles), sugar skulls, marigolds, the favorite foods of the departed, and face painting.  Unlike the fear-focus of  Hallowe’en, the Day of the Dead seems more about remembering and honoring the dead, and wishing them well.

It’s noteworthy that most cultures in the world have their commemoration of the dead, in various forms. The Buddhist Bon festival is one example, as are many worldwide examples with many variations from Europe, China,  Japan, Phillipines, Australia, Nepal, Indonesia, etc.

With such a rich holiday, it’s a shame that so many of us have turned it into silly costumes and fear-invoking zombies.  Members of the Wiccan religion gather  and conduct a ceremony in a circle, giving respect to the powers of the universe and each other, and then sharing a meal.  Yes, there are always many ways to commemorate any holiday.  If you don’t like the way that our popular culture goes through its routines, then step out of the routine and try a more meaningful and enlightened way, the best you are able.

Comments? I’d love to hear from you! 

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Ghost of Mrs. Killman

This is part of a chapter of the book "Til Death Do Us Part?", available on Kindle [on sale right now for a week for a mere 99 cents!], or from www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com.  Each chapter is full of real experiences and practical applications for everyone. (By the way, story also appears in the "Squatter in Los Angeles" book, also available on Kindle.]


Shortly after Edward and I moved in as squatters, we became aware the “something or someone” was still around in this old house. We presumed it was the recently-deceased owner, a Mrs. Killman who I later learned had been bed-ridden, overweight, and heavily medicated.

“She probably didn’t even know that she died,” my friend and associate at the non-profit, Ellen, told me.

One night while Edward and I were in our rooms – I had my door open and could see right through the kitchen – the kitchen door began to shake violently. I could both see and hear the door shaking. We both rushed into the kitchen to check it out. It was clear that there was no earthquake, and inexplicably, the kitchen became very cold. We looked around outside. There was no one in the inner yard, and we would have heard it if someone opened the creaky gate to enter, or exit.

This happened another time, and Edward and I talked about it for a long time, assuming it was some sort of psychic presence, but not really knowing one way or the other.  Then there were at least two occasions when we heard dogs barking in the kitchen.  There were no dogs in the yard, no dogs next door, no dogs in the yard. The barking was emanating from within the kitchen.   The dog barking could not have been an  “echo.”            

It turned out that Mrs. Killman did have two large dogs.  We determined that Mrs. Killman must have been a paranoid woman, for she had written multiple wills and various trust deeds pertaining to her property.  All this was unresolved when she died.  And maybe she was forgetful.

I was unsettled by these events, and at the earliest convenience, I shared these details with both the head of the non-profit, REW, and Ellen who resided in the non-profit’s facility. 

Shortly thereafter – within a week or two – REW asked me if I could come over at 3 p.m. the following day to view a show with him.  I said "yes."  He added that this particular program was extremely important, and that I should find a way to view it even if I couldn't return to his place.  He said that the show would help me to deal with the “ghost” that had been “visiting” at my home.

Of course, I returned the following day at 3 p.m., and seated myself comfortably in his cold “learning chamber.”  The show was about to begin, which was "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir."  During the commercial just before the show, REW told me to watch very carefully for the clues telling me what I should do about the "ghost" in my house.             

I had already told REW and Ellen all about it – barking dogs though there were no dogs, and no possibility of echoes, or underground passages, or a dog walking by.  We knew that there absolutely was no dog in the house, or near the house.  However, the old woman did have dogs that stayed in the house with her.  Also, the house’s glass doors rattled furiously on two occasions when there was no one around.

Since I had carefully inspected the many papers left in the house when I moved in, I was likely the only person aware that the old woman may have been the victim of foul play.  Also, since the old woman took massive amounts of medication, and Ellen  told me in her insightful way that Mrs. Killman was probably was very confused in her initial after-death states, and possibly didn't even realize that her body had died.  These circumstances were the classic ones which coincide with the presence of ghosts, or spirits of the recently deceased.

"The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" illustrated a couple who moved into an old house, and eventually began to have "appearances."  REW told me to be particularly alert during those scenes depicting the way in which the woman and man interacted with the ghost.

I watched the movie carefully, generally wondering what I was doing there, since I didn’t see anything that pertained to my situation.  It was an interesting movie, but seemed to be something other than what I needed.  When the movie was over, REW restated the practical lesson within the movie.             

"They depicted the proper two-step process for dealing with ghosts," he told me.  "What was the first way in which the people tried to interact with the ghost?"  Really?  I shrugged.  I tried to remember, but could remember nothing useful.  Ellen then spoke up, saying, "She asked the ghost, 'Who are you?  What is your name?’"  

"That's important?" I asked.  REW responded in the affirmative, as I began to recall that particular scene.  The first step was the name-challenge, and involved asking the entity its name.  Then the woman in the movie asked the ghost why it was there in the house. 

"That's right," said REW. "The woman queried the ghost as to its purpose.  And when such entities are queried using this formula, they are compelled to respond," he told me.  I found this fascinating.

"So this is the way you should interact with the ghost of the old woman," Ellen  told me.  “First make certain you know who, or what, is present, and then find out what she wants of you."

I wondered aloud how I would do that.  Ellen then began to explain a method which would make it easy for the ghost in my house to interact with me.  She pointed out that you don't always get vocal words from ghosts, nor do you often get writing on paper.  However, Ellen suggested that I lay papers on the floor for all the letters of the alphabet, and of numbers 0 through 9, as well as all of the key documents that I found which might be of some value.  Ellen suggested that I could talk to the ghost when I felt  “her” presence, and then ask her to communicate by moving the papers on the floor to spell out words, or numbers, or move key papers.

"You need to decide for yourself if you can help her in any way," Ellen told me, "and what you're willing to do.  She's contacting you because you're there in her house, and you are the most likely person to provide help.  But you'll have to use some creativity to get answers if you really desire to help.  She may not be able to just speak like you and I speak."

I wasn’t really certain about all this, and it sounded vaguely like some sort of séance session, and I wasn’t sure what I was willing to do. But Ellen was right, I was in her  house, and I would rather that the ghost of Mrs. Killman move on to somewhere else and not haunt my kitchen.

Lastly, according to both Ellen and REW, once I performed this task, or resolved the issue that was keeping the ghost of Mrs. Killman close to the earth plane, I was to tell her that she has passed away, and that she should now go on, that her work is somewhere else.

I listened quite intently to all of this, having a curious mix of excitement, anticipation, and even fear.  I recorded all the details into my notebook.

That evening, I prepared myself to interact with the presence of the old woman's ghost. 

Onto the floor of my room, I placed the key papers which had to do with the deceased woman.  I also placed squares of paper on the floor, one for each letter of the alphabet, thinking that perhaps "she" would rattle papers, and might even spell out some message by sequentially rattling letters of the alphabet.

By 1 a.m., I had everything set up, since the usual time of the "appearance" was about 2 a.m.  I wanted to be ready.  I sat there reviewing the papers, wondering how I would react if anything actually visually appeared.

At around 1:40, the room became very cold with an oppressive presence. The cold was very penetrating, and I felt some fear.  I knew that "she" was there.  I attempted to vocalize the words "What is your name?" but was unable to do so.  I literally could not speak.  This was a unique sort of fear. I tried hard to speak aloud, but could not!  I mentally stated the question, and I intently watched the papers on the floor.  I remained in a kneeling position which I'd originally adopted so I wouldn't fall asleep.  But I was now keenly alert, intently aware that something else was there in the room with me, and painfully aware that I could not utter a word.  My intense fear was not a rational thing, for I was aware that "she" could not hurt me.  Yet, I was actually sweating there in that ice-box cold room. 

None of the letters moved.  I  recalled the Biblical quote about “there is no fear in love, for fear has to do with punishment…” and so I worked to calm my fear-emotions, and made the strong effort to emanate  a Feeling of Real Love.  At first, I was simply attempting to allow that Feeling of Love to be there, within me, and to “send” it outward.  Once I was able to do that, I specifically attempted to send that Feeling of Love to the old woman, while letting her know that I could be of some assistance.  I mentally asked her to tell me what I could do, as I tried to squeak out the vocal words.  Then one of the old legal papers in the middle of the room rustled.  There was no chance of a breeze moving the paper, since all the surrounding papers right there on the floor didn't move at all.  A second paper moved.  I took note of which two papers rustled.

I sat there stiffly for another 15 minutes in the cold room, with its cinder-block walls.  The night outside was quite, and dark, and cold.  After a while, it was clear that the presence was gone and I knew it was over for that night. 

Friday, October 23, 2015

How I Got a "D" in Botany!

[Nyerges has been leading ethno-botany field trips since 1974, and is the co-founder of the School of Self-Reliance. He is the author of “Guide to Wild Foods,” “Foraging Oregon,” “Nuts and Berries of California,” “Enter the Forest,” and other books. He can be reached at www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com.]

“Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school…. Wisdom is not a product of schooling but of the life-long attempt to acquire it." -- Albert Einstein

By the time I was enrolled in college, I had already spent many years learning about wild plants and mushrooms, and had already spent a week in the local mountains eating only the plants that I found in the wild. How then could I have received a “D” in my first botany class?

I was already obsessed with the study of botany and mycology before I entered high school.  Specifically,  I wanted to know about the many wild plants that were used by our ancestors for food and medicine. Mycology – the study of mushrooms – seemed to be an even more mysterious and esoteric study. After all, mushrooms came up one day and would be gone the next.  Just like mushrooms, mushroom experts were few and far between.

So I studied with whatever books I could find, and whatever local lectures I could get to. I made the acquaintance of every local botanist I knew about.

I joined the Los Angeles Mycological Association, and began taking up every spare bit of time to go to their monthly meetings and occasional field trips. Also, every spare bit of money went to paying for my trips and for film for my camera – remember back when we paid for film, and paid to develop it?

In my junior and senior year of high school, I became acquainted with naturalist Euell Gibbons, and carefully read all his books, and attempted to find the wild plants in my neighborhood. I also read all of Bradford Angier’s wild food books, and whatever else I could find.

After high school, I moved to my grandfather’s farm for the next 6 months and studied the botany of the eastern part of the U.S., which is almost like another world, botanically-speaking.  After work, my brother and I would drive through the Ohio countryside in search of new foraging fields, and in search of wild  mushrooms, which we often brought home and ate.  We became acquainted with local Amish people, who all seemed to know all the local wild edibles and wild medicines.

By January of 1974, I was back in California and enrolled in Pasadena City College, taking nothing but journalism and science classes.  It was a full load, but not the balanced load that allows you to actually graduate.

Obviously, I took botany classes. This proved to be a less than desirable learning experience, because my true interest was ethno-botany, not botany per se. Botany was a lot about the cellular structure of trees and leaves, how photosynthesis worked, and different ecologic zones in Southern California.  Our classroom had not a single living plant in it.

There were two sessions each week, lecture and a field trip or lab work.

The field work was great and I loved it. The lecture… ah, much to be desired. To make a bad situation better, I not only read the text book, but I also read about botany research in the weekly Science magazine, and Scientific American.  And I got to know some of the local Indians and attempted to learn some traditional stories about the plants’ uses.  Somehow, I thought I would be better able to engage in discussions in my botany class at the college.

A few times I raised my hands and attempted to share things about botany that I was studying, like how plants have photo-optics, and new ideas about how photosynthesis actually works, how plants communicate, and how they have feelings. I even shared some of the esoteric mathematics of plants. I wanted to hear what my teacher thought about these ideas I was studying.  My teacher told me that the subjects I’d brought up were not going to be on the test, and therefore there was no point in taking the time to discuss it.

I was one of the few students who ever spoke up at all in the class. If you were ever in college, you might recall that so many classes are lecture and your job was to sit there and take notes and then take a test.   One fellow student even said to me, after I’d been told to be quiet once again by my botany teacher, that I was ruining my academic future.

“Really?” I said.  “I’m here to learn.”

“Not really,” my friend told me. “This is junior college. You’re just here to graduate and then go on to some better college.”

“Well, I really am trying to learn, now,” I said. My friend just shook his head, figuring that I just didn’t get it.

Not long after, I was told by my teacher that I had used up my quota of questions, and that she preferred that I remain silent for the remainder of the semester.

“Look,” she said. “Each time we meet, I need to turn this handle 10 times.”  She was describing a roll of acetate with the entire semester’s notes written on it.  The acetate roll would move over the overhead projector and project the already-written notes onto the classroom screen. “If I do not get through about 10 turns each time we meet, I will not be able to share with you everything that will be on the test. If I do not cover what will be on the test, I cannot expect you to be able to answer the test material, can I?” she challenged. “So that is why I don’t want you to share anything that is not part of our class material.”

Once more in the semester I did raise my hand. This time she was showing some slides describing various plants. There were two mushroom slides, one for an edible mushroom, and one for a poisonous mushroom.  The captions for these two had been reversed, and so our teacher described the edible mushroom as poisonous, and the poisonous mushroom as edible. She obviously didn’t know mushrooms very well, because the two slides showed a  very common edible mushroom, the Agaricus campestris, and a very showy obvious poisonous mushroom, the Amanita muscaria.  These two mushrooms are actually so common that any beginning mycologist knows them well.

When I described the error to my teacher, I almost expected that I’d receive extra credit for knowing my mushrooms, or at least a thank  you.

“No, you’re wrong,” she scolded me in a loud voice. “These slides come from a well-respected educational agency, and they don’t make mistakes.” She went on and on for a bit longer and then once again told me to remain quiet.

I tolerated the class, and managed to earn a “D” for the one subject that became the most dominant focus of my life.

Fortunately along the way, I was to meet other teachers who were more skilled in answering my questions, and who had no particular agenda except to pass along their knowledge.

I made the acquaintance of all the local botanists and naturalists within a reasonable distance from my home, such as Dorothy Poole (the Gabrielino “Chaparral Granny”), Dr. Louis Wheeler, Isabelle Fetterman, William Breen, and Robert Tally.

I also had the very good fortune to listen to a suggestion from a mentor, and to follow that suggestion, to enroll in a course in “Edible, Medicinal, and Poisonous Plants” at the Los Angeles County Arboretum, taught by Dr. Leonid Enari.

Dr. Enari was a humble man who grew up in Estonia, and experienced the Nazi regime during WWII.  He earned higher degrees in both chemistry and botany, and moved to Portland area where he taught college for a few years and wrote 2 books.

He became my mentor for years after I attended several of  his classes.  He worked with me on the fine details of my first book, and opened my mind to the vastness of the ethno-botanical world as a tool to helping people.

Despite the "D" in my junior college botany class, Dr. Enari kept my lifelong interest in botany and ethnobotany alive and well. I didn’t realize how rare of an individual he was when I met him, but I know it now.  In the next year or so, I intend to compile a book on Dr. Enari and his teachings in order to pass along what he imparted to me.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Excerpt from "Til Death Do Us Part?"

Today, October 2, would have been Dolores' birthday. After she died in 2008, I wrote a book, "Til Death Do Us Part?" which talked about our lessons and practices regarding death, as well as detailing how we dealt with her death.  She stipulated in her will that her body be left alone for 3 days after death, and we honored that request. You can read some of those details in Memoriam at www.ChristopherNyerges.com. This excerpt is what happened after the 3 days, when we were required by law to call 911 and report the death.  You can get the full book at Kindle, or from the Store at www.ChristopherNyerges.com.

            On Friday, we powwowed in the morning to decide the next course of action. I’d found a place to do the cremation as Dolores wished.  I was about to use a well-known company, and received a phone call at a timely moment about another lesser-known company that provided the same service at half the cost.  Indeed, this phone call saved “us” a thousand dollars.  I am sure that Dolores would have been happy to save money on her own cremation.  In fact, she and I often lamented the fact that we couldn’t (legally) just be buried in our own backyard, or set up a funeral rack or cremation rack like the Indians of the Plains did a few hundred years back.
            I made all the arrangements with this more economical company, and explained that Dolores had died on Tuesday and was still at home.  They told me that they would not do anything until after the County Coroner was called, following all legal protocol.  So, I planned to have as many friends at the house as possible once I called 911 – which was how the procedure started.  I wanted to have good support once the police and the others arrived.  I was told that I should also be prepared for the possibility of being arrested, this was definitely not the legal protocol for dealing with death.  Before noon, Marilyn, Prudence, Julie, and Victor assembled.  I called 911, and explained the situation.  My heart was pounding.  I said, “Please do not come with sirens blaring.  Dolores has been dead three days.”  “OK,” I was assured.
            Within 10 minutes, the circus began as paramedics and police arrived. I had propped open the front gate and door so they could all just come in and out at will.  A female police office stood around and observed while five or six paramedics filed in and out of the bathroom to examine Dolores.  Marilyn represented herself as my minister, and she took a lot of pressure off of me as I was being questioned.  It turned out that Marilyn actually knew the police officer’s commanding officer through some of her community work.   Marilyn was incredibly helpful. 
            The fire department investigator first spoke to me for about 45 minutes, trying to fit my responses into the boxes on his form.  “This is very unusual,” he kept saying.  “We haven’t seen a case like this for a very long time.”  But he was very interested in what we all did to preserve the body.  “How did you know how to do all that?” he asked with genuine curiosity.  “Was it some sort of Egyptian thing?” he asked, apparently referring to ancient Egyptians’ practice of mummification. 
            “We just did it,” I told him. “We just proceeded step by step, trying to fulfill Dolores’ wishes in the best way we knew how.” I told him that we had never done anything like this before, but we knew about the preservative qualities of Aloe, and we just did what made the most sense, and watched the results.
            Next, the police officer asked me the same questions, but she seemed a bit more suspicious than the fire department investigator.  But after awhile, she told me that foul play had been ruled out and they decided there was no need to remove Dolores’ body to the coroner downtown.  There was no need for an autopsy.  I was free to call the mortuary to remove Dolores’ body for cremation, and they all left by 2 p.m. 
            Prudence and Marilyn were stunned by this, pointing out how unprecedented that was to not remove the body for some autopsy, especially under such unusual circumstances.  And yet, we also knew that Dolores’ wishes were being fulfilled as there would be no unnecessary cutting up of her body.
            Interestingly, Dolores’ death certificate says day of death is December 12, which is the date the coroner inspected the body, not the day she actually died.
            I then called the mortuary that I’d arranged to do the cremation.  Within 30 minutes, two very polite black-tied men arrived and carefully removed Dolores from her three-day resting place “shrine.”  They placed her on a gurney and wheeled her away as I said my last tearful goodbyes, with Nellie by my side wagging her tail.
            Nellie ran around pensively, and I wondered what Nellie was aware of and if she sensed Dolores’ passing.
            Suddenly the house was empty.  I was exhausted and I wasn’t going to jail.  Dolores was gone.  I sat for awhile and stared out the window at the tall dead lamb’s quarter plants that attracted sparrows who ate the seeds.   I felt tired, empty, but I liked looking at the little birds who found food where there appeared to be none.
            I wondered to myself, now what?  What will I do with the rest of my life?  I ‘d grown so close to Dolores as a friend.  I had developed so much respect for her, and saw her as a near-saint, and I had felt absolutely honored to work with her, to assist her, and to be a part of her life.  Now I stared into the void.
            After awhile, Fikret came over and offered to drive me to the post office, one of my well-known daily rituals.  He sensed that I could use a rest, and he said I shouldn’t be driving.  We talked about mundane things and occasionally about Dolores.  I could tell he wanted me to be happy. 
            Fikret drove to the post office so I could get the daily mail, and then we drove over to the Taco Spot in Eagle Rock.  We had a delicious lunch, though it was less than satisfying for me.  I ate slowly and thoughtfully.  I know my body needed the food, but the simple act of eating reminded me of all my days with Dolores where I could barely find the time to make a meal for myself. Dolores, on her deathbed, had to remind me each day to eat.  I didn’t want to cry in front of Fikret, so I talked about what he’d do when he returned to Germany.
            Time took on a different element.  I realized I was eating slowly because once I finished eating, I would have to get up and make some decisions about going somewhere else and doing something else.  That sounds ridiculous now, but time took on a wholly different nature.  I wasn’t sure who I was.  I was no longer sure what was my driving force in my day to day world.  In fact, I looked around at things a lot that day. It was the first time I’d been out without the pressure of worrying about Dolores’ well-being.  The world was a different place.  Everything was the same, but everything was different.....

Thursday, October 01, 2015


[Nyerges is the author of “How to Survive Anywhere” and has led wilderness trips since 1974.  He can be reached at Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, or www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com.]

            A friend and I were talking, and he said, “I’d really like to see a book that tells you how to survive with next to nothing, as if you had just survived a hurricane or a tsunami.” 
            “Really?” I responded. “Well, I wrote that book, and it’s called ‘How to Survive Anywhere’.”
            “Oh, that’s right,” my friend responded. “I forgot that it tells you how to start again if you’ve lost just about everything.  And I’d also like to see a book that just tells you how to live more reliantly, and be more self-sufficient.”
            “Really?”  I said. “Well, I wrote that book too. It’s ‘How to Survive Anywhere’.”  My friend laughed, and told me that he had my book on his shelf for 6 months but hadn’t actually read it.
            “Yeah, George,” I told him, “the book is worthless if you don’t read it. You want the information in your head, not in the pages.”
            So the reason that “How to Survive Anywhere” can be useful in the city when you’re trying to be more self-reliant, and in the wilderness where you have nothing, and in a rural environment, is because I grouped the book by major categories,  not specific scenarios.
            I address the major concerns with water and how to store it and purify it. I address wild food in nature, how to grow food and what to grow, and how to store food. I deal with shelters, clothing, electricity, fire, weapons, tools, and more, always focusing both on high-tech as well as primitive.
            I began to quiz my friend with some of the material in my book. Here are some of the questions I asked him:
Q: What is the Water Purification “Rule of Three”?
Q: What is the universal method of water purification?
Q: What is the most widely ignored “water source” for urban dwellers?
Q: If your car breaks down in a remote area, what are four EASY ways to make a fire?
Q: Aside from a butane lighter, what is the best single device you can carry for making fire?
Q: How do you make a fire from reading glasses?
Q: How can you sterilize water in the sun?
Q: If you have no water and no soap, what is the best way to “stay clean”?
Q: What are the two items everyone should ALWAYS carry?
Q: What is the single worst item of “men’s clothing”?
Q: What is the single worst item of “women’s clothing?”
Q: What is a simple ways to make a pack for carrying things?
Q: What are the 3 common kitchen foods that are fantastic first aid medicines?
            We had a great discussion with these and several more questions, and it’s really the same material that I teach in my college course.
            Yes, I hope you get the book and read the answers, but here they are in a nutshell:
Filter, settle, and boil.  Boil. Rain. Use the battery with jumper cables, the cigarette lighter, the flare, and the reflector around the headlamp.  A magnesium fire starter. Use them like a magnifying glass. Put a quart of water in a glass jar for four hours in the sun.  Do a dry wash with a soft brush.  Knife and fire-starter.  The tie. High heels. Tie up a pair of long pants so that the legs become the straps. Lemon, garlic, and vinegar.  OK?

            If you have questions or comments, please write.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Squatter In Los Angeles: An excerpt

Here's another short excerpt from "Squatter in Los Angeles," my e-book which is available on Kindle, or from the Store at www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com as a pdf.  I'd love to hear your comments.


Part of the underpinnings for my philosophy of what I did stemmed from my reading of the Plain Truth magazine back when I was still living with my parents. I’d read about subjects such as agriculture, and various social ills. I’d have long discussions with Nathaniel Schleimer.  We were high school buddies, inseparable, and we’d go into Eaton Canyon at night, and sit and talk. We were both hikers, backpackers, bicyclists.  We both had a love and respect for the natural world, not as nature-worshippers exactly, but from the standpoint that our life is dependent on the life of the planet.

We knew without having to earn a PhD that to stay in radiant health, you had to exercise, and drink good water, and eat good food, and think good thoughts. Neither Nathaniel nor I were optimistic about the state of the affairs of the world. We didn’t have to look far to see that the system was constantly being stretched beyond its limits by too many people, all needing to eat, and the growers and deliverers and processors of food all finding ways to take shortcuts to feed the masses.  That’s why we got interested in wild foods. We didn’t think we were particularly special, but we knew that a step in the right direction was to learn the skills of self-reliance, one by one, little by little. 

We were still young, and still living with our parents, but we seemed to work out the general and most sensible path for survival.  We saw dark clouds looming for this country, and though we hadn’t yet risen to the level of being concerned about our fellow man, we wanted to survive ourselves. 

By the time I’d graduated from high school, I wanted nothing more than to live this life, and living on a farm made the most sense.  I moved to Chardon, Ohio and lived on my grandfather’s farm with my brother and my uncle for 7 months.   

Still, since I didn’t have the tools and resources to actually live the life I wanted to live there, I came back to California.  My interests coincided with the non-profit WTI of Highland Park, a small group of people who had taken up roots in a ruralish-seeming part of Los Angeles.  They were sometimes described to me as people who were trying to live country in the city, an ideal that appealed to me. As Nathaniel and I often lamented, why do so many of us backpackers go into the wilderness and practice their high degree of concern for the land and water and resource-use, but then return back home and practice the same tired wastefulness as everyone else?  Why not “be here now,” and “be the example of what you want to see in the world,” as others have said?

So when I was in the unenviable position of being a squatter, these are many of the ideas that ran through my mind each day.  Here I am, now, and I can live and practice these principles, more or less unfettered.  Just do it!  I was still in the position of having few monetary resources, but lots of ideas, sufficient time, and good health so that I had no excuses for not living what I believed.

I have many times thought back to my friend Joe who I’d invite to my high school to speak about ecology and natural living. Joe had the words, and the ideas, and the concepts.  Yet, once when I visited Joe and began to ask him some questions about what he personally did to be a part of the solution, he disappointed me by asserting that “nothing will change without government intervention.”  I found that absurd, and still do.  Of course, I am writing this decades later, and I have a greater perspective now. I remember reading about the “re-education” camps of  the North Vietnamese, and of Pol Pot.  In those extreme cases, “government intervention” simply meant “do it the way we tell you or we kill you.”  Is that really what’s required to change the world?

Well, to be fair, Joe did have a point, to a degree.  However, I have slowly come to the realization that no one can change the world, you can only change yourself, and your habits and behavior. Now, that  might affect others who see your example. Maybe. They see “something better,” something that rings true and they try it in their own way in their own life. You’ve affected one person by changing your behavior.  Then, the idea catches on. Why didn’t we think of this before? It become almost the norm, and then little by little, further refinements in our thinking and in our actions.