Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Plants Gone Wild: a look at "Nuts and Berries of California."

about my "Nuts and Berries of California" book 
[Nyerges is the author of “Nuts and Berries of California,” and several other foraging books. Information about his books and classes is available at www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance, or Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041.]

In my “Nuts and Berries of California” book, I describe native nuts and berries that have long histories of use by Native Americans throughout California and North America. 

Many generations of rural Americans grew up collecting nuts and berries as a family tradition: going out to collect black walnuts, hickory nuts, pine nuts, blackberries, wild strawberries, and other foods from the forest.  These are some of the foods that people from just a few generations ago took for granted.
I also include many of the introduced ornamental plants in my book which  seem to have firmly established themselves in California.  They are not natives, but they are everywhere anyway.
I wondered, what should we call these plants?  We thought of calling them FUN  plants, for “Feral Urban Neighborhood” plants, but that seemed to convey a misleading message, that introducing non-natives is somehow fun or good or desirable. 

HIP VS. “hip”
HIP seems to be the best term, for Horticulturally Introduced Plants.  The thing is, when these introduced exotics were planted, it was often because the gurus of horticulture of the day were pronouncing them as the greatest new thing since sliced bread.  Grow these bushes and  trees and you too will be hip!  Really!  And lots of people fell for that idea. This is the “in” plant to grow this season, and then yards and backyards fill up with new “hip” plants with great colors and much to talk about at dinner parties. Sometimes the new hip and HIP plants are edible and useful, sometimes not – as in the case of oleanders.

And just like the idol-worshippers who adore the newest rock star of the season, when a new one comes around, the old one is forgotten. Maybe forgotten, but all the HIP “hip” plants are still here, hip or not, and often they expand their habitat into wild areas.

And since we’re calling these plants HIP, it’s worth commenting on the “rose hip,” which is the common way of referring to the fruit of a rose. I am not sure how the term “hip” came to mean fruit, but one theory is that the ovary of the flower become the fruit, and the enlarged fruit might seem visually similar to a woman’s hips.  Hmmmm.  If that were the case, why isn’t every fruit called a hip?

Regardless, the rose is one of the unique plants in this book since there is a native rose (and so we included it with the native plants) but there are also many HIP roses.  HIP roses are probably in everyone’s yard, which are the commercial hybrids with multiple petals of all  hues of the rainbow.  Our wild rose is not a HIP!

The plants in the HIP section of my book are not what we’d call “wild” plants.  These are bushes and trees that have been widely planted for landscaping, street, or yard trees, which sometimes survive well when they are no longer tended.  All of these are commonly used as ornamentals, though the fruits are typically allowed to fall to the grown and then discarded as if they were just trash. 

I have observed every one of these plants in wilderness areas where cabins once existed. After the cabins were destroyed by  fires or floods, these plants survived for years and decades with no human intervention.  These are survivors. And, that means that if we grow these plants, they can provide us with food with very little work and care.  Furthermore, they are probably already growing in or near your neighborhood, just waiting for you to discover and to appreciate them.

Some cultivated plants, which can also survive on their own, are just so common that we decided not to try to include all of them.  Such as citrus, for example.

Rather, we’re including many of the ornamentals which are common, but are either not commonly known, and not commonly used for food.  They are HIP, but not necessarily hip…….
 Some of the very common HIP plants included in the book are ficus trees (figs), loquats, mulberries, pyracantha, olives, ginkgo, and others. 
Watch this space in the coming weeks, and I’ll talk about many of these individually.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

NETTLES: all about this valuable herb


An excellent food, medicine, and fibre source

[Nyerges is the author of “Guide to Wild Foods,” “How to Survive Anywhere,” “Foraging California” and others.  He has led Wild Food Outings since 1974, and he lectures and writes on natural sciences and ethno-botany widely. His website is, or he can be reached at School of Self-Reliance, Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041]

This year, our rains came late, and many of the early spring natives and exotics hardly grew up at all. There was an abundance of chickweed, various mustards, mallow, and nettles this year, all non-natives and all very nutritious.

At one of my hiking spots, I noticed last week that there were contract city workers around our parks with their weed whackers beginning their annual decimation of the useful foods and herbs that have sustained millennia of people, just for the picking.  This is part of our culture’s current schitzophrenia – we talk “green” and how we want to be healthy and save ourselves and save the earth, yet, the very plants that can save us are weed-whacked, sprayed with Roundup, and tossed into the trashcans.  I can’t change the world, but I did tell my friends to collect all the herbs they are able to get before they are all cut down. 
city workers weed-whacking chickweed and nettle

Of course, I understand the other side – city officials don’t want nettles growing around parks where children might sting themselves.  Never mind that the sting can actually be a benefit to offset future arthritis --- the city doesn’t want the liability.  So, at this time of the year, vast acreages of nettles and other useful wild plants are cut down and unceremoniously poisoned and killed. Did I also mention that these very plants can be purchased in decorative boxes in the herb section of Whole Foods and other such markets?

This year, I have collected large volumes of chickweed, mallow, hedge mustard, and nettle.  Most of it I dry.  I used the powdered chickweed in an insect repellent, the mallow for a mild cough remedy, and the hedge mustard makes a spicey powder to add to other dishes.  But the nettle is the one that I can never get enough of.
nettle in the field
washing the nettle
drying racks

some chickweed too!

Often during this time of the year, I get an allergic reaction when I’ve been under and around the trees that produces lots of pollen and cottony-fluff, like willows, and cottonwoods, and cattail, and oak.  I’ve tried numerous remedies over the  years to combat the allergy, but all with limited success. It just won’t work to stay out of the woods.

Here are some of the many ways I used the nettle greens:   I make an infusion of the nettle leaves (dried or fresh) for allergy, and I drink it pretty regularly in the evenings.  It has helped to relieve congestion and improve my ability to breathe.  It seems to work even better than my old standby, Mormon tea.

I also add the fresh, dried, or frozen nettle greens into my evening soup.   The soup is  enjoyable and tasty.  In fact, nettle is one of the tastiest wild greens out there, and widely under-rated.

Sometimes I just cook nettle greens like spinach, and I even drink the water because it is so flavorful. I add it to various soups and stews, egg dishes and omelettes, and even burritos.

Sometimes, if I want a quick meal, I’ll make a package of ramen noodles, and add lots of nettle and onion greens.  I’ve also added the dried or fresh leaves of nettle to spaghetti sauce.  Powdered, I’ve added nettles to pancake batter to increase the protein content and improve the flavor or the pancakes.  I’ve not yet tried making pasta with nettles, but a friend of mine routinely dries and powders various wild greens, mixes it 50/50 with flour, and runs it through a pasta machine to make some unique pastas.

Years ago, I would periodically meet people who survived the hardships of World War II, and among other things, they spoke of how nettles saved their lives.  Usually, they would say that nettles and cattails, two widespread common plants, had enabled them to make meals. Until recently, I thought they were exaggerating because I hadn’t been aware of the versatility of nettles, and how it’s really a nutritional powerhouse.



Stinging nettle (Urtica dioeca) is a fairly common plant throughout most of North America, as well most of the rest of the world.  It is one of the plants that you always see on the charts of “noxious weeds” published by companies such as Ortho and others, letting you know that their product will effectively wipe out these “worthless plants” in your gardens.

The reason why so many people dislike stinging nettles is because when you brush up against it, you break off the tips of tiny hollow needles that are filled with formic acid, and you get a stinging reaction. This reaction is short-lived, and can be remedied by rubbing the skin  with chickweed or curly dock, or even wild grasses.

Nutritionally, nettles is a good source of Vitamin C and A.  According to the USDA’s Composition of Foods, 100 grams of nettle contains 6,500 I.U. of Vitamin A, and 76 mg. of Vitamin C.  This amount contains 481 mg. of calcium, 71 mg. of phosphorus, and 334 mg. of potassium. This amount also contains 5.5 grams of protein, a lot for greens, though not complete protein.

Herbalist Michael Moore, author of Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West, describes nettles as a diuretic and astringent, and he advices the tea for use in cases of internal bleeding. 

In general, nettles are found growing in the wild near streams, in moist soil, in rich soil, and often near raspberries and blackberry vines.  And in the urban areas, it seems to grow everywhere: along roads, in fields, backyards, gardens, and at the Highland Park Farmers Market, I’ve found it growing in the cracks of the sidewalk.

If you cannot yet recognize the wild nettle plant, most gardeners or landscapers should be able to show you one. Or go to a nursery, where nettles are often growing in their pots and soil.  

Friday, April 13, 2018

Life on the Navajo Reservation During the Depression


A book by Shiyowin Miller

One of the books that came out of my family was “The Winds Erase Your Footprints,” written by my wife Dolores’ mother, Shiyowin Miller.  Shiyowin, who was part Osage, was immersed in Native American culture. I remember visiting her home in Temple City, which seemed like an Indian museum with a full library, drums, pots, and artifacts from all over the country.  Shiyowin had been a music and dance teacher, and was a professional dancer. She knew Iron Eyes Cody, and worked with Luther Standing Bear, a Lakota Sioux who wrote “My People the Sioux” and other books. Luther adopted Shiyowin, and let her act as his agent for his various books and other legal matters. It brought the past alive to me when I was able to see and feel the pipes, sandals, robe, and other materials that Standing Bear had given to Shiyowin.

Shiyowin also had many friends from the Navajo lands. In the 1930’s, Shiyowin’s best friend, Juanita, fell in love with a Navajo man, Luciano, who’d been working as an extra in Hollywood.  Juanita and Luciano got married, and moved back to Luciano’s Navajo lands in New Mexico. Shiyowin kept in touch with Juanita, and wrote about the experiences that Luciano and Juanita underwent on the reservation, during the Depression when there was so little work.

To write the book, Shiyowin had interviewed her best friend to write this true story of the harsh life in the Navajo lands during the 1930s. It's a wonderfully-told story, written mostly during the 1950s and ‘60s. Shiyowin died in 1983, and when Shiyo’s daughter, Dolores (my wife) showed me the manuscript in the late 1990s, I was amazed at the quality and depth of the story, and could barely believe it had not been published. To me, it was like reading a Tony Hillerman novel, except it was true!

Everyone said that the book accurately depicted life on the Rez during that time, mixed in with some accounts of Navajo witchcraft.  With some editing, Dolores and I got the book published in 2002 by Naturegraph Press, which features many Native American titles.  If you do an internet search with the book's title, you'll see some of the reviews that have been published about this book. 

The story was descriptive, compelling, and you feel as if you are re-experiencing the harsh winds, the life in the Hogan making coffee, the search for work, and all the ceremonies and gatherings that were a part of the Navajo way of life.  The books, which was 335 pages when published, also contained hints and clues in the backdrop about Navajo witchcraft, and the ma-itso, the wolf clan which was feared by most.

The freak death of Luciano was generally attributed to the work of the ma-itso, and Shiyowin gives the clues in bits and pieces, in the way that Tony Hillerman so masterfully slowly revealed his mysteries.

The following excerpts from THE WINDS ERASE YOUR FOOTPRINTS are Copyright  and may not be re-printed without permission of the publisher.

from chapter 7: The Sing

And then Shimah was telling him about the yellow pollen. Juanita could almost follow the story by her mother-in-law's excited gestures. Shimah's face was strong and tense, no room for gentleness, and her voice carried a new undertone--like fear. Only her hands seemed natural, although excited, as she gestured. Strange that Shimah should tell about the yellow pollen, rather than ask the rider about himself, about news which he was surely carrying. Of what interest could the yellow pollen be to him?

But he was interested. He leaned forward as though better to hear her words; his eyes narrowed and his face looked very grave. He asked many questions. Shimah answered and sometimes Yee-ke-nes-bah. Through their conversation one word seemed to repeat itself until it began to echo and re-echo in Juanita's mind: ma-itso . . . ma-itso.

...And then Lorencito began to talk seriously to Luciano; Juanita heard the work ma-itso repeated

again and again. Shimah sat nodding her head as her oldest son talked, occasionally adding a word to what he was saying. Luciano turned to Juanita; his face was marked with gravity as was his older

brother's. "Lorencito says that it is not safe to keep this from you any longer; I should tell you now."

Juanita waited. Her mouth and throat felt suddenly dry. She could not have spoken. Her thoughts

raced: this is in some way connected, ma-itso and yellow pollen. Perhaps it's all connected, all of the puzzling and unexplained things that have happened. And somehow, the looks on their faces, Shimah's and Lu's, Yee-ke-nes-bah's and Lorencito's, are a little bit frightening.

"Before we came here," her husband began, "when I tried to tell you about everything which might seem strange to you, I didn't tell you about ma-itso--the wolf clan. One reason, it no longer seemed as believable to me as it once had; perhaps all the years in school did that; anyhow, in Hollywood I seldom thought of it. When we came here, my mother told me the wolf clan was still strong in CaƱoncito. I didn't tell you then because I could see no reason why they would try to harm us. But to be sure you were safe, my mother and sisters watched you every minute.

"There were times when I almost told you, those times when you were upset about things you didn't understand. And yet I hated to frighten you needlessly. Already there was so much for you to worry about. It seemed better to wait until I had a job, until we were living in town and then tell you. "But now two things have happened which make me sure the ma-itso is for some reason after us. I found yellow pollen in an X mark on my hat brim, and today my mother found pollen on our clothes. That is their warning. Lorencito thinks you will be safer if you know about this evil thing."    A hundred questions sprang to Juanita's lips, but her husband went on talking, interrupted now and then by Lorencito or his mother.

"The wolf clan is as old as the Navajo tribe. From the beginning some men turned certain powers, which should have been used for good, toward evil things. Corn pollen, used for blessing, is used by the ma-itso as a warning to a person marked for death. And death does not come in a usual manner; it comes in a round-about way which cannot be easily traced. The victim sickens suddenly; sometimes his mind leaves him. No Medicine Man can cure him. Sometimes the victim meets with a mysterious and fatal accident.       

from chapter 13: Wolf Tracks

Juanita had hung up two diapers when she became suddenly aware of something across the arroyo. When she looked carefully nothing seemed unusual; in the dim light she could see the sharp banks of the arroyo, the clumps of juniper in dark patches on the other side. Then gradually, two of the dark juniper patches began to take on the indistinct forms of dogs sitting on their haunches.

That was what imagination would do for you. She even thought now that she could see the large

pointed ears. Juanita smiled to herself. This must be what Lu had seen, the queer-shaped juniper

bushes. They looked surprisingly like coyotes, only larger. The likeness had even startled her for a

moment and her mind had certainly not been on wolves or wolf tracks. She pulled her eyes away and began resolutely to hang up more diapers.

A sudden movement, one dark figure detaching itself from the other and moving farther down the arroyo, a third form appearing almost directly across from her on the opposite bank. Juanita stood absolutely still. There was no sound except the flapping of the clothes on the line.

When Juanita reached the kitchen door, she called to her husband to bring the shotgun. "Those

figures that you saw are out there again." This couldn't be her voice, tight and choked.

Two of the dark forms were loping off down the arroyo when Luciano reached the bank, but the

third sat directly across from him like a very large coyote on its haunches. Luciano raised his gun and fired directly at it. The animal seemed to gather itself into a ball and plunge down the bank of the arroyo--across the wide, sandy bed.

"Lu! Watch out! It's coming for you."

He raised the gun to fire again ...      

from chapter 20: The Wolf Hunt

"What do you know about this wolf hunt?" Juanita finally asked.

"Something has been stealing lambs this spring; the dogs bark but when the men get out to the sheep corral there's nothing around." Alice paused to consult Pah-des-bah.

Now that she thought of it, Ginger and Bob had been restless for a few nights. The dogs had

awakened them once, howling, and Luciano had gone outside to look around.

"There's nothing out there," he had said upon returning. "Bob must have started baying at the moon and now Ginger's doing it."

Alice began to cut potatoes into chunks; they fell plop, plop, plop into the pan. "Richard Platero

heard something around his corral last night and took his rifle with him when he left the hoghan. He saw what he thought at first was a shadow. When it moved he fired at it. It got away. He couldn't trail it last night so he started out early this morning. The tracks were wolf tracks. When he met Pah-des-bah's husband, they talked about it and decided to get some of the other men to go with them."

Juanita cut the stew meat into small pieces and dropped them into the boiling water of the stew kettle. Coyotes ran near CaƱoncito. Early mornings she had heard the weird yelping cries of coyotes from the direction of Apache Wash. They could have been stealing lambs. ...

Alice listened for a moment. "They've been following the wolf tracks, and the trail doubled back

several times but always went ahead again. Then they lost it on a ledge of rock on one of the mesas." She pointed north with her lips. "One of the men found a spot of blood below the ledge."

Alice paused to listen again, and then the women began to talk in low voices and move away from the doorway as the men separated and went back to their horses.

"The men said the nearest hoghan was Wounded Head's on that same mesa. They rode up there to ask him if he had seen anything or anyone that morning."

Juanita started back to the washing machine, a frown puckering her forehead.

"Wounded Head's wife met them at the door of the hoghan; her son stood beside her. The men could not see past them. She would not let them in. She said her husband was very sick. A horse had kicked him."

Excitement spread through the whole community. Some of the men began to carry guns--rifles across their saddles or old revolvers in their belts. The women who gathered in the day school kitchen or sat outside around the back door talked together in low voices. But no one rode again to Wounded Head's place on the mesa.

A fascinating glimpse of Navajo life during the depression through the eyes of one woman. The Winds Erase Your Footprints is available from the store at, or from Amazon.

Monday, March 26, 2018

In Search of the Historical Jesus

"Easter," and the man behind it....

In Search of the Historical Jesus

[Nyerges is an educator, and author of such books as “Extreme Simplicity,” “Enter the Forest,” and “Self-Sufficient Home.”  You can learn more about his classes and activities at]

Jesus!  What a man he was!  Perhaps the most amazing thing about Jesus – a man who is known and worshipped by at least a third of all humanity, and around whom our system of reckoning time revolves – is that there is still so much debate about who he was, what he did, how he lived, and what he believed.  Hundreds of differing sects are stark testament to the fact that though Jesus might have had “one message,” that message has been widely interpreted over the centuries.

Let’s work through some basics. As an historical person, he can be placed in a specific time and location.    All historians concede that they do not know the birthday of Jesus, but it’s not Christmas day.  Most scholars suggest that Jesus was born in either April or September, in 4 B.C. or 6 B.C.

“Jesus” was not his name, just the English rendering of Yeshua. Did he have a full name? Yes, of course, and it was not “Jesus Christ,” which is a title, meaning Jesus the Christ, or Jesus the Annointed.  Historians say that the actual name was Yeshua ben Josephus, that is, Jesus son of Joseph.  Another version says it is Yeshua ben Pandirah, Jesus son of the Panther.   In Indian literature, he is referred to as Yuz Asaf, in the Koran he is Isa (or Issa).   


Ethnically, culturally, and religiously, he was Jewish.  But occasionally, a writer will suggest that Jesus was actually black, with such evidence as the preponderance of the “Black Madonnas” found throughout Europe.  The only Biblical evidence on this are the two lineages of Jesus provided, which uncharacteristically include women.

The key genealogies of Jesus listed in the Bible are Luke 3: 23-31, and Matthew 1:1-17.  In these lineages, we are told of at least four of the women in Jesus’ genealogical line.  These are Rehab, Ruth, Tamar, and Bathsheba.  Rehab (also spelled Rahab) was a Canaanite.  Tamar was probably a Canaanite.  Bethsheba, often referred to as a Hittite, was more likely Japhethic, that is, not a descendant of Ham. (However, this is not clear).   Ruth was in the line of Ham. Now, who was Ham?  Who were the Canaanites and Hittites? 

According to Genesis 9:19, all mankind descended from  Noah’s three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth.  Ham’s descendants became the black people who settled in Africa, and parts of the Arabian peninsula.  His sons were Cush, whose descendants settled in Ethiopia, Mizraim, whose descendants settled in Egypt, Put, whose descendants settled in Libya, and Canaan, whose descendants settled in Palestine. The descendants of Cush were the main populace of the Cushite Empire, which extended from western Libya to Ethiopia and Nubia, all of present day Egypt, and the Arabian peninsula into the mountains of Turkey.  They spoke several languages and had skin pigmentation ranging from dark black to medium brown. 

It takes a bit of study to ascertain who these people were – and there were other possible African women in Jesus’ lineage as well – but, in general, when we are speaking of Cushites, Canaanites, descendants of Ham, etc., we are speaking of Africans.  It is entirely possible that this wasn’t a big deal when the scriptures were written since Jesus’ racial background was common knowledge.

So, although Jesus had some African ancestry, his physical appearance was such that he fit right in with the Jews of that era, based on  several passages that indicate that Jesus not only looked like every one else of the day, but was also very average and normal looking Middle-Easterner, not sticking out at all. 


The Bible speak of the young Jesus talking to the Rabbis in the Temple, sharing his youthful wisdom with the elders to the surprise of his parents.  Then there is no Biblical record of what he did as a teenager, and during his 20s.  We don’t hear from his again in the Bible until his appearance on the scene at about age 30, where he turned water into wine at a wedding feast, and is depicted as a healer, prophet, and fisher of men. 

His religious observations would have been the regular observations for Jews of the day, and quite different from the observations of most Christian sects today.  The reasons for this are well-known.  The early Christians were known as Judeo-Christians (Jews who followed the Christ), and as the new religion became more and more encompassing, it eventually became Christianity by the 4th Century. In order to attract ever-more followers, Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Kingdom, and Christianized all the popular Mythraic (so-called Pagan) observations and turned them into Christian Holy Days.  Catholocism, after all, means Universalist.

Growing up as a Catholic, I studied Jesus, and wanted to be holy like him. I wanted to be like Jesus -- but what did that really mean?  There was so much about this person that was beyond my ability to research.  For example, what Holy Days would Jesus have observed? Was he an Essene?  Was he a Nazarene? What did these groups believe and practice? Did he have any Buddhist influence?  Who were his closest followers, the apostles?  What did he actually teach his close followers, beyond what is known from his various public talks?  Were his miracles and public healings actual events, or were they symbolic stories?  These and other questions have always swirled around this man called Jesus.

As a student of the real and historical Jesus, here are just a few of the many books I have found to be useful.

Garner Ted Armstrong of the Worldwide Church of God in Pasadena, wrote a book about the “Real Jesus,” and Jesus was described as a hard-working, athletic, health-food eating powerful man, a sort of health advocate Gypsy Boots of the past. But certainly Jesus was much more than that.

Holger Kersten in his “Jesus Lived in India” book presents a very different Jesus, one who is depicted on the Shroud of Turin, and one who traveled to India and studied from the Buddhists. In fact, the way in which the holy men of the Bible sought and found the baby Jesus is very much of the pattern of the holy men of Tibet seeking and finding the next Dali Lama, and Kersten puts Jesus in that very same pattern. 

Manly Hall, who founded Los Angeles’ Philosophical Research Society, writes that the patterns of all historical saviors (he cites at least 16) include more or less the same elements.  But Hall is less concerned about historical facts than he is in demonstrating that there is an extant prototype of human spiritual evolution.

According to Harold Percival in his “Thinking and Destiny” book, Jesus succeeded in re-uniting his Doer and Thinker and Knower, his internal trinity, which put him in touch with his divinity, which made him, effectively, a God.  Though Percival’s terminology is unfamiliar to most Christians, he is less concerned about the historical details of Jesus and more concerned about what Jesus did, and became, that made him a focal point of most societies on earth over the last 2000 years. According to Percival, the virgin birth, the miracles, and the resurrection should all be studied to find the inner meanings for our own individual evolution.

There is also a silly but interesting book that purports to show that Jesus was never a person but actually a hallucinogenic mushroom.  Don’t bother reading it. Another book suggests that there was no Jesus, that he is just a made-up person as a metaphor of astrological principles. Really?

I believe it is unwise (and incorrect) to suggest that a Jesus never existed because of the way his followers centuries later chose to remember him, and continued to overlay so many symbols onto the historical person.

Jesus lived, and it is not reasonable to assume that the stories of such a great one arose from mere myth or fabrication. Such a person lived, and his influence of what he did and said affected many people.

Regardless of your religious background or belief, you are likely to be richly rewarded by delving deeply into the nuances of who Jesus was.  When everyone’s mind is upon Jesus and the Mysteries during the Easter season, I have found great value in viewing the “Jesus of Nazareth” series, and I even find value in such depictions as “Jesus Christ Superstar.”  Unlike so many who purport to follow in his path, I find the real Jesus one who was not dogmatic, but one who knew that only when we recognize each other’s humanity do we rise up into our own divinities.

 According to Holger Kersten, “Jesus did not supply theories to be ground in the mills of academia, about his path and message – he just lived his teachings!  Tolerance, unprejudiced acceptance of others, giving and sharing, the capacity to take upon oneself the burdens of others, in other words, unlimited love in action and service for one’s fellow human beings – this is the path which Jesus showed to salvation.”

                                    30  --

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Wild Food Man Peter Gail -- GOODBYE!

[Nyerges is the author of “Extreme Simplicity,” “Self-Sufficient Home,” “How to Survive Anywhere,” and other books. He has known Gail for nearly 30 years.]

Wildfood Man Peter Gail died on Valentine’s Day, 2018, in Cleveland.  This is my story about Peter.
(Peter Gail's books on wild foods and the Amish are available from

It was a grey winter day driving eastbound on US 422 in northeast Ohio with Peter Gail. The clouds made it difficult to see very far into the rural countryside.  The sound of the windshield wipers provided a steady background tempo to our conversation. 

The temperature was in the high 30s, and it was about the same temperature inside Peter's  van. I was tense from the cold, hunched a bit, trying to stay warm.  I'm  from California. Peter was relaxed, smiling, pointing out each feature as we drove  along.  He's a Cleveland resident and used to the cold. On this day he was my tourguide to the Amish countryside of Ohio.

Peter Gail's most famous business associate was Euell Gibbons, who authored Stalking the Wild Asparagus and starred in Grape Nuts cereal commercials  in the 1970s, making him  the butt of comedians jokes about eating  everything from old tires to freeway overpasses. 

That was a long time ago. During those years, Gail edited Gibbons' articles for Boys Life magazine, and worked with him and others to develop the National Wilderness Survival Training Camp for the Boy Scouts. Together they developed and taught a foraging course at Rutgers University in New Jersey. When Gibbons had become nationally famous from the commercials and Johnny Carson's jokes, and was overbooked, Gail occasionally substituted for him on the lecture circuit.   

Gibbons died way back in 1975 -- no, not from eating a poisonous plant! -- and Peter Gail  has tirelessly carried the torch for wild food enthusiasts.

Though Gail has made no cereal commercials, he has appeared on such national TV shows as Good Morning America, Lifetime TV's "Our Home Show,"  Food TV Networks "Extreme Cuisine, has authored numerous books on the subject of wild foods and related topics, and he continued to lecture about the virtues of the ubiquitous wild plants and those people who still use them as  a part of daily life.

While Gail was best known on the national circuit for his "Dinner Underfoot" and "Healing with Weeds" lectures and workshops, locally he was even better known for his work among the Northeastern Ohio Amish community, the 4th largest in the world. As a Ph.D. ethnobotanist and anthropologist, Gail studied the Amish for over 50 years to discover the lessons their simple life style has to teach us.  He interpreted that knowledge in books, articles, and his tours for those interested in learning more about these people who seem firmly  rooted in the technology of a century ago.

Perhaps  Gail's most popular book is his "Dandelion Celebration", a book  which tells you everything you'd ever want to know about dandelions.  He's also authored the "Delightful Delicious Daylily", "Violets in Your Kitchen," "The Messy Mulberry and What to do with it", and "The Volunteer Vegetable Sampler", which profiles the culinary and medicinal values of  41 of the most common backyard weeds.

The least known of Gail's pursuits outside of Northern Ohio were the educational field experiences he provided for people curious about the Amish and what they have to teach us.  Several times a month in spring, summer and fall, he would load up a bus or van, and  take people into the heart of the Northeastern Ohio Amish community.  These were day-long affairs, where his  people were treated to a lunch at an Amish home,  told the history and beliefs of the Amish, and then taken to their stores to look at and buy Amish goods.

On one cold day in December, it was just me and Peter.  We turned off the main freeway while it was drizzling, onto a secondary road.  Occasionally I’d spot an Amish farm house -- painted white, neat, orderly.  Even though it was drizzling and December, nearly  every farmhouse has a long outside clothes line full of clothes blowing  in the breeze. 

If you’re unfamiliar with the Amish, they use no electricity and shun  most modern so-called conveniences.  This means no electric lights, no electric refrigerators, no television, no CDs--very few  of the modern devices that most folks take for granted.  They  have managed to live their lives, and produce most of their needed  items,  by simple old-fashioned ingenuity.  Wood stoves, oil lamps, use of ice, horse-drawn tractors, building houses in such a way to take advantage of the heat of summer,  and be protected from the cold of winter, large windows near the work areas,  hand tools, and the use of diesel and small gasoline engines to generate power. 

The light rain had let up just a bit, and we turned eastward on a smaller road.   We were in a completely rural area, where the roads were lined by shallow ditches, where  the houses have enough space between them to put an average city block,  and no traffic lights, no street lights, no offensive neon. 

"Have you ever had really good, natural beef jerky?" asked Peter.

"I'm sure I have," I responded.

"I mean, really good, really  natural?"

"Well, just what I purchased at the market."

"Wait 'til you try what they sell  here," smiled Peter.  "There's nothing like this."

Before we get to market, we note a farm house with lots of junk  and rusty  tools and cars piled about. 

"That's not Amish," Peter said matter-of-factly, nodding towards the rust and the tallish weeds that nearly obscure them.

"One of the major contrasts between the neat, clean Amish places and the 'Yankees,' as they call all us non-Amish in this region -- is that the Yankees live in that kind of trash -- old rusty cars, junk all around their houses.  You won't see that around the Amish  homes.  We, by the way, are called "English" in most other Amish settlements -- it all  depends who the non-Amish settlers were who the Amish encountered when they got to different regions.  Here, they encountered Connecticut Yankees."

We arrived at the market, a small white store set back just a bit from the road.  It was a very low-key setting.  We get out of the van, put on our coats, and entered the small store.  It was a meat market, and it smelled really good. In the deli counter, I saw varieties of cheeses, and lots of cuts of meats. Peter talked with the bearded Amish man wearing a white, blood-stained apron, as if they have known each other for years. (I later learn that in fact they actually had known each other for 20 years)  They exchange a bit of news, who's gotten married, who died, how's business. I stand there quietly, listening, taking it all in, considering how out-of-place this simple conversation would be in any  of today's jam-packed modern supermarkets.  But it is all very simple, very natural, the  way people were meant to interact. 

"It's over there," instructs Peter, towards me. "The beef jerky."

David Kurtz, the Amish butcher, pulls out the container of jerky from the cooler and puts it up on the far end of the deli counter. Peter rummages through the container, picking out several choice pieces and fills a bag for himself, and I do the same.  A lady behind the counter weighs it, prices it. We pay for it and begin eating.  It's fresh, succulent, not rock-hard, and contains an old-world flavor.

“It's really good," I tell Peter.  In fact, it's great, but I'm cold, I'm the outsider, I'm just the observer and I don't want to act overly-enthusiastic for fear of seeming silly. 

"Yes, quite good," I repeated, with a mouth full of the jerky. It turns out that this lady behind the counter was one of Peter's former "tourists," who became so fascinated with the community that she  ultimately moved out there, and got a job working for the Amish. They then engaged in another conversation, discussing her experiences over the years since they have seen each other,  while I look around at the wall decorations, the products I'd not seen in years, such as the blocks of laundry soap, balm for cows' udders, and candies I hadn't seen since childhood.

I was still chewing on a bit of the jerky as we headed up another rural road,  encountering not a single other car the entire way. 

"That farm over there belongs to Nora Miller," explains Peter, "who runs a wonderful bakery out of her home."

I'd already begun to hear some of the same names repeated and so I  asked  Peter for clarification. 

"There are some 1600 Amish families in this community.  Of them, some 600 are Millers, some 300 are Yoders and some 150 are Bylers.  Almost 2/3 of  the families have one of those three surnames.  It makes it really difficult for the mailman!!"

"Are they all related?" I asked.

Many are, but not necessarily very closely,"  he replied. "These names go way back, and a name like Miller originally was a description of an occupation.  A guy with that name ran a flour mill or a saw mill or whatever, so people can have such names and not have any blood relationship at all.  This settlement was started by a Miller back in 1886, and back in the 50's, one of the local Miller's made the Guinness Book of World Records by having 489 living descendants.  That spawned a bunch of  new Miller families in this area!  For that matter, "Beil" in German means axe or hatchet,  so a "Beiler" could have been a logger, or firewood supplier, one who went to the woods with his axe and made lumber. In this area they have Anglicized the name to Byler"

 There was a light wind, and the rain stopped. It was still cold and foggy. I enjoyed looking at the countryside, and anywhere in any direction would make a beautiful postcard. It was that sort of place.   

"This cabinet shop is really going to blow you away," Peter warned me,  as we  pull into a long driveway up to a white farm house.  There is a little sign that says  "Custom Wood products."  Peter leads the way, not knocking, but simply entering the shop.  He explained that he would never enter a home without knocking but that this was a business entrance.  It all looked the same to me.

We entered the public front for the wood business and no one is about.  Peter showed me the various wood works around the room -- intricate wall carvings,  toys, benches and chairs, bowls, book shelves, and beautiful inlaid stools. All the work was beautiful, artful, with  an attention to the finest detail.    After about 15 minutes of looking about, Peter led the way to the cabinet shop. 

"Remember, they make all this without electricity," he told me.  "This is really going to blow you away."

We entered a large airy woodshop with plenty of windows.  At first, it seemed empty. There were no lights on, no radio blaring, no TV in the  corner.  It was quiet.  But there was a lone white-haired man off to one side working on an inlaid stool, one of  those which we had just seen in the finished state, and Peter walked over to him. The man was polite and deliberate as he spoke to Peter.  I highly admired his stool, but he said nothing.  Among other things, you'll discover that the Amish eschew self-importance, and to indulge in my admiring words would be regarded as prideful.  He chose silent acknowledgment, and then Peter and he talked casually about community  activities, dogs, and the upcoming tour schedule.  And then we left.

 Though I was born in California, and have lived most of my life there, I did live in Chardon, Ohio when I graduated from high school in 1973.  One of my jobs was working as  a pressman's helper and printer in Middlefield, Ohio, where I worked among the Amish.  However, I never entered any of their homes or places of  work in all those months I lived there.  Now I was able to enter into this other-world of the Amish, via my guide Peter Gail.  I was visiting Peter as a friend and colleague.  Peter wasn't "on," performing  as it were, as he might for a regular tour bus. It was just he and I, and so he had the chance to talk with his Amish friends while I listened in and looked around. 

Here was a  people, self-reliant, not relying  as much on "the machine" as we do, and they were living well.  It took just a bit for an outsider to penetrate into their  lives and to see that their lives were not  dark and dreary, but bright and cheery and full.

We drove on to another wood shop where we met one of Peter's Amish friends who works with a scroll saw, making fine Victorian fret and scrollwork decorative clocks, puzzles, wall plaques, intricate shelves and wooden candy dish/ trivet combinations.  A small nearby gasoline engine powered the scroll saw.  The man, Harvey Byler, stopped his work and chatted with Peter.  How's business, who's moved, who's started another line of work, who got married, who died.  The man showed some of the work that his 10 year old son had done.

 Of course these craftsmen would like Peter -- he brings customers to them. But as I looked around the Amish wood shop and listened to their conversation, it was clear there was great mutual respect here, two men from wholly different cultures, finding the best  in each other, realizing that they are each valuable links to the other’s culture. They chatted and laughed and Peter discussed a wood carving he wants to buy.  Peter suggested that the lighthouse would be great with a lamp in it, but Harvey didn't know how to respond. After  all,  the Amish don’t  live with electric light bulbs, so putting a bulb into the  lighthouse would not be easy,  and I could see by the expression on Byler’s face that he was not inclined to do such.  Peter changed the subject.

"Harvey, you should come with me to the Columbus Gift Mart in May, and show off your work.  You'd really enjoy spending the day there."

Harvey is silent momentarily, and responded that he might not enjoy spending the day with crowds of people, and he said it with a smile in a way that I assumed Peter should already know this.

We all bid adieu, and Peter and I headed down the road towards Mesopotamia to the shop of Eli Miller.  This shop has a more obvious sign, and it is clearly a store front, even though it is just as clearly located right next to his home.  No neon, no obnoxious billboards, just a modest sign reading "Eli Miller Leather Shop and Country Store." 

 We entered the dark store that seemed empty at first.  Remember, this is December indoors.  Walking into the store is like passing through a time machine.  My eyes saw oil lamps, butter churns, farms tools, cow bells, wood stoves, cast iron utensils -- all that is needed for self-sufficient living apart from the grip of the utility companies.  My eyes were still adjusting to the relative darkness, and exploring row upon row of  "old fashioned" tools, while Peter was yelling to the back, "Anyone home?"       

Way back in the rear, back beyond all the leather goods such as belts and saddles and footwear, there was an answer.  Peter motioned me to follow him and we met Eli, working on a leather saddle.  Eli was regarded as a more progressive Amishman -- one who didn’t mind if his picture was taken, and who was very involved in community activities. Peter explained to me that Miller was one of the most respected leather crafters in the United States, with saddle and tack on mounted police units all the way from Dade County, Florida to Portland, Oregon.

They then chatted a bit.  Who died, who changed professions, who got married, who moved -- the usual stuff, and then Eli started discussing and showing some of the leathers he works with, and some of the special requests he gets. Hanging behind him was a set of three leather belts crafted from English bridle leather which he had custom-made for a man from Cleveland who had been on one of Peter's tours the previous fall. 

"Do you have a custom belt for my friend from California?" Peter asks on my  behalf.  I'd told Peter earlier that I could use a good belt, but I silently wonder how much a "custom" belt might cost.  Eli responded that he had  many  good belts on the rack that he’d recently finished making.  I looked and found a good black one that fit me, and I paid Eli his ten dollars asking price – a bargain.

Eli then showed us a new stamp he just received. It was a makers’ stamp for marking leather, though he'd not yet used it. 

"Where do you think I should put my mark on the belts?" he inquired of  Peter.  We looked at belts, considering front side or back side, buckle end or leather end. 

"Put it where you can see it," responded Peter.  Eli clearly did not want to be prideful, and wasn't certain.  I took off my new black belt and asked him to stamp it  right on the front, just beyond the buckle, which he did.

Eventually, Peter and I departed, and investigated an old pioneer cemetery back behind Eli's shop. It was built  atop a hill as the last resting place for one of the families who settled Mesopotamia back in the late 1700's. The most recent gravestone is dated 1868, 18 years before the first Amish settler set horses hoof on Geauga County's clay till soils.

The rain had completely stopped, but I kept my coat on.  The last we checked, the temperature was 38 degrees, and rising.  We traveled down a two-lane highway, where trees lined the road in places and where the rolling fields showed  that the work of the summer was over.  Some fields were green, some were brown,  some were specked with the common tall weeds of this part of the country, such as curly dock, or teasel, or milkweeds.

As we drove to our next stop, the Amish farm houses always caught my attention.  In nearly all cases, there were clothes out on the line.  Often the clothes lines were attached by a pulley wheel to a room at the back of the house, and would run all the way out to a barn.  There were also gourds suspended in an array like a  television antennae, which serve as birdhouses for Purple Martins, which are birds which like to live in colonies and consume tons of mosquitos each season.       

We turned onto a paved primary road and quickly turned into the parking lot of a modern building.  This was the Middlefield cheese factory.  I purchased some fresh cheeses, which were delicious, and looked through the large window in the storefront down on the workers making and processing the cheese.  It was quite a sight. The factory and the milk are owned by the Amish but since they can't have electricity, they have contracted with a cheese company in Wisconsin to bring in the electric equipment and make the cheese, and they hire Amish people to work for them.  It is an interesting accommodation which seems to work very nicely.

While we drove, Peter explained that he got interested in wild foods at an early age in San Gabriel, California after his father died.  Peter collected "goosefoot" – the common lamb’s quarter -- to help feed the family.  Lamb’s quarter is arguably one of the most tasty and nutritious greens in the world.  He eventually named his company Goosefoot Acres, an enterprise which his family still operates to sell his books and dandelion products.  (See

We headed north, out of Amish territory, towards Chardon.  We visited my grandfather’s old farmstead – the barn and house had long since been bulldozed, though the small “Indian mounds” was still prominent behind the old orchard.

After a short visit, we drove on into the darkness to Cleveland.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

In Search of Saint Patrick


[Nyerges is the author of several books, such as Enter the Forest and Extreme Simplicity: Homesteading in the City (co-author), and How to Survive Anywhere.  He has led wilderness expeditions since 1974.  He can be reached at Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041 or via]


            There’s a lot of green right now in our town.  Saint Patrick green: shamrocks, leprechans, beer. But who was Saint Patrick?  Was he a real person?  Children are told  "Saint Patrick wore a green suit, talked to leprechans (he was probably drunk at the time), and while trying to convert the pagans with a shamrock, he marched all the snakes out of Ireland."  Will the real Saint Patrick please stand up?

            His real name was Maewyn Succat, born around 385 A.D., somewhere in Scotland, or possibly somewhere else, as there is conflicting historical data on his exact date and place of birth.   His baptismal name was Patricius. 

            Around age 16, he was sold into slavery in Ireland and worked for the next 6 years as a shepherd.  Keep in mind that human slavery, as well as human sacrifice, was considered normal for those times.

After his six years in slavery, he believed that an angel came to him in a dream, prompting him to escape and seek out his homeland.  He actually walked about 200 miles to the coast, where his dream indicated a ship would also be waiting for him.  He successfully escaped, and spent the next twenty years of his life as a monk in Marmoutier Abbey. There he again received a celestial visitation, this time calling him to return to the land where he’d been enslaved, though now with a mission as a priest and converter.

            Patrick was called to Rome in 432, where Pope Celestine bequeathed the honour of Bishop upon him before he left on his mission.

            Patrick returned to Ireland not alone, but with 24 supporters and  followers.  They arrived in Ireland in the winter of 432.  In the Spring, Patrick decided to confront the high King of Tara, the most powerful King in Ireland. Patrick knew that if he had the King's support, he would be free to take his Christian message to the people of Ireland.

            Patrick and his followers were invited to Tara by the King of Laoghaire. It was there that he was said to have plucked a shamrock from the ground as he tried to explain to the Druids and the King that the shamrock had three leaves just like the idea of God’s   three aspects - The Father, The Son and the Holy Ghost. This was called the Trinity. 

Of course, triads and trinities were a common concept among the Druids.  In fact, one could argue that the trinity (a term not found in the Bible) was a concept given to Christianity by the Druids, rather than the other way around.  Nevertheless,  King Laoghaire was very impressed and chose to accept Christianity. He also gave Patrick the freedom to spread Christianity throughout Ireland.

            When Patrick returned to Ireland, he treated the "pagans" with the respect implicit in his dream. Part of this respect was attempting to communicate with the Druids on their terms, which is why he used the shamrock as a teaching tool.  He also blended the Christian cross with the circle to create what is now known as the Celtic cross.  He used bonfires to celebrate Easter, a Holy Day that Christianity supplanted with the already-existing spring equinox commemoration. In fact, he incorporated many of the existing symbols and beliefs into his Christian teachings.

            He spent his last 30 years in Ireland, baptizing the non-Christian Irish, ordaining priests, and founding churches and monasteries. His persuasive powers must have been astounding, since Ireland fully converted to Christianity within 200 years and was the only country in Europe to Christianize peacefully. Patrick's Christian conversion ended slavery, human sacrifice, and most intertribal warfare in Ireland.

            Patrick was also unique in that he equally valued the role of women in an age when the church ignored them. He always sided with the downtrodden and the excluded, whether they were slaves or the “pagan” Irish.

            According to Thomas Cahill, author of How the Irish Saved Civilization, Patrick's influence extended far beyond his adopted land. Cahill's book, which could just as well be titled How St. Patrick Saved Civilization, contends that Patrick's conversion of Ireland allowed Western learning to survive the Dark Ages. Ireland pacified and churchified as the rest of Europe crumbled. Patrick's monasteries copied and preserved classical texts. Later, Irish monks returned this knowledge to Europe by establishing monasteries in England, Germany, France, Switzerland, and Italy.

            When the lights went out all over Europe, a candle still burned in Ireland. That candle was lit by Patrick.

            Veneration of Patrick gradually assumed the status of a local cult.  He was not simply remembered in Saul and Downpatrick, he was worshipped. Indeed, homage to Patrick as Ireland's saint was apparent in the eight century AD. At this time Patrick's status as a national apostle was made independently of Rome.  He was claimed locally as a saint before the practice of canonization was introduced by the Vatican. The high regard in which the Irish have held St Patrick is evidenced by the salutation, still common today, of "May God, Mary, and Patrick bless you".

            Patrick was not Irish, had nothing to do with leprechauns, almost certainly was not a drunkard, and didn't drive all the snakes out of Ireland.  In fact, there were no native snakes in Ireland, though this story is believed to be an analogy for driving out the so-called “pagans,” or, at least, the pagan religions.

            Patrick was one of the "greats" of history who nearly single-handedly preserved the best of Western culture when much of Europe was devolving into chaos and ruin.  He deserves far better than remembering him in the silly ways we do today, such as wearing green, pinching each other, and getting drunk.  Rather, he deserves an accurate memory, and our emulation.  Unfortunately, like all true Saviors of history, they are either killed off, or relegated to the closet of ridicule. 

            Perhaps it's time for all of us to re-think how we commemorate this special man, and his vast contribution to world culture.