Sunday, November 24, 2019

"SEIKEN WAY" -- a new book by Barton Boehm


“Lessons from a 21st Century Samurai.  SEIKEN WAY.  Completing the Circle, A True Story” by Barton Boehm with Don Howell.

[“Seiken Way” is available as a paperback from, or as a Kindle download].

In the late 1970s, when I first moved into Highland Park,  I could count on one hand the three individuals who “knew everything,” mentors who I could go to with questions, concerns, problems.   Two of them have since passed away.

The third is Barton Boehm (pronounced “beam”).   I met Boehm through my association with the non-profit WTI. Boehm was introduced as a friend of the non-profit’s founder, and as a martial arts master.   

After the Korean War, Boehm found a master living in Japan, and moved into the master’s home and became his full-time student for five years.  His story is remarkable!

As I got to know Boehm better, I became his student, taking classes in his home dojo. There, during my private evening classes,  I learned about holds, and getting out of holds, and falling, and punching, and all the ways to quickly avoid a fight, or to never start it in the first place.

“You don’t want to fight,” Boehm would tell me in his gregarious voice.  “People get hurt when you fight.  You want to end a fight as quickly as it begins. You want to dispatch your opponent as rapidly as possible, and get out of there.”  Needless to say, Boehm was not a fan of the martial arts movies where fights go on for 30 minutes, with actors flying from rooftop to rooftop, breaking bricks, and continuing the battle in every possible position.

When we discussed the popular Kung Fu TV series with David Carradine, Boehm pointed out how “Caine” often had many opportunities to avoid a fight, and when he did fight, it often went on way beyond what was necessary to end it.

We had many discussions every night after our practice sessions.  I particularly enjoyed the stories Boehm shared about his training with his master, Peter Kiyoshi Suzuki.  I taped many of those conversations because they were so full of insight. Plus, they were highly entertaining: Some were funny, some deeply profound, and all had a highly pragmatic nature.

I taped all my conversations with Boehm, with the goal of working with him to one day produce a book of his experiences and insights.  I knew it would be a book like no other, for Boehm’s five years of daily training, living with the Master, was unlike any I’d ever heard.  But we never finished the book project. Then I got divorced, moved, and re-married.  Years went by. My second wife and I sponsored stick-fighting classes with Boehm in our backyard where he shared the psychology of the Samurai, and ways to stop the fight before it gets started.   More years went by. My second wife died, and that was 10 years ago, and Boehm now lived too far away for regular lessons.

Imagine my great happiness at receiving a package in the mail with Boehm’s book!  He did it!  The book is an incredible introduction to his Master’s system, Seiken. The book’s full title is “Lessons from a 21st Century Samurai: Seiken Way, Completing the Circle, A true Story.”

During my off and on training with Boehm, I got glimpses of how Boehm met his Master after the Korean War, Peter Kiyoshi Suzuki, and how Boehm then lived with the master for about 5 years, sleeping barely more than 4 hours a night, 7 days a week, and losing 50 pounds after his first two years.  It was a story of a man desiring “Power,” but, as Boehm told me, “I didn’t know what that meant at the time.”  Boehm’s stories to me were filled with how Suzuki trained Boehm to repeat endlessly until a new technique was mastered, and to always “feel” what you were doing, and focus on the goal, so you don’t get lost in roteness. Boehm’s stories were also filled with fascinating stream of people that he met through his master, who was blind.

“The Seiken Way” fills in a lot of the gaps in Boehm’s training that I never heard, such as the early days of meeting Suzuki, and how Suzuki’s wife and two children responded to having a hakujin, or white man, living with them in their small barracks-like home in a low income part of the town. 

“The Seiken Way” points out that the full system taught by Suzuki is not just training the body, but also training the mind and the spirit.  Boehm’s book explores all the major aspects of his training, and how a blind man developed and mastered several entire systems; this book focuses only on Seiken, meaning “kind hand,” the system taught to Boehm.  The full name of the system is Wado Goshin SeiKen Jitsu, the wide, deep, kind hand system.

If you’re looking for a how-to book on martial arts systems, this is not that book.  (In fact, no one learns martial arts from a book – you must learn directly with a teacher).  But this book shows how the dedication of one man led him on the path of his own self-awareness, where he realized that he could and would even kill for his Master. Eventually, Boehm saw that his relationship with Suzuki was unhealthy, and he came back to his home in the United States.  He realized that he’d become a Master in his own right, and his book is one of his ways to pass along that hard-earned knowledge that he gained through his unique and painful experiences. 

Boehm is now 71 and retired from an engineering career, and continues to teach the few students who’ve stayed with him.

His book is highly recommended to anyone seeking an insight into the world of Japanese martial arts.  I regard the book as both a standard, and a classic.  Interestingly, in a disclaimer in the beginning of the book, Boehm states that the writing is biographical based on real events “but is a work of fiction” because the actual conversations and details of the interactions were necessarily re-created from memory or imagination in order to re-tell the story.  This admission does not diminish the quality or the significance of this work.

[Nyerges is an author and teacher, and can be reached at]

Friday, November 22, 2019

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]

I was at a local coffee shop and met a man who had read something I previously wrote about the historical origins of Thanksgiving, and what happened, and what didn’t happen.

“I was a little puzzled after I read it,” Burt told me.  “I understand that the first historical Thanksgiving may have not happened the way we are told as children,” he told me, “but how did we get to where we are today?  What I understood from your writing that there are historical roots, and that we today remember those roots and try to be very thankful, but the connection was unclear.”  Burt and I then had a very long conversation.

A newspaper column is typically not long enough to provide the “big picture” of  the entire foundation of such a commemoration, as well as all the twists and turns that have occurred along the way. But here is the condensed version of what I told my new friend Burt.

First, try reading any of the many books that are available that describe the first so-called “first Thanksgiving” at the Plymouth colony that at least attempts to also show the Indigenous perspective.  You will quickly see that this was not simply the European pilgrims and the native people sitting down to a great meal and giving thanks to their respective Gods, though that might have occurred.  In fact, both the indigenous peoples and the newcomers had thanksgiving days on a pretty regular basis.

As you take the time to explore the motives of the many key players of our so-called “first Thanksgiving,” in the context of that time, you will see that though the Europeans were now increasingly flowing into the eastern seaboard, their long-term presence had not been allowed – until this point. Massasoit was the political-military leader of the Wampanoag confederation, which was the stronger native group in the area.  However, after disease had wiped out many of the native people, Massasoit was worried about the neighboring long-time enemies – the Narragansett -- to the west. The gathering of the European leaders of the Plimouth Colony and Massasoit and entourage had been more-or-less brokered by Tisquantum (aka Squanto) who spoke English. 

Yes, there had been much interaction between the new colonists and native people for some time, and this gathering of 3 days in 1621 was intended to seal the deal between the colonists aligning with Massasoit.  The exact date is unknown, but it was sometime between September 21 and November 9.

Yes, historians say that a grand meal followed, including mostly meat.  The colony remained and there was relative peace for the next 10 to 50 years, depending on which historians were correct in their reading of the meager notes.  The historical record indicates that the new colonists learned how to hunt, forage, practice medicine, make canoes and moccasins, and much more, from the indigenous people. Even Tisquantum taught the colonists how to farm using fish scraps, ironically, a bit of farming detail he picked up during his few years in Europe.

Politicians and religious leaders continued to practice the giving of thanks, in their churches and in their communities, and that is a good thing. They would hearken back to what gradually became known as the “first Thanksgiving” in order to give thanks for all the bounty they found and created in this new world, always giving thanks to God!  But clearly, the indigenous people would have a very different view of the consequences of this 1621 pact, which gradually and inevitably meant the loss of their lands and further decimation of their peoples from disease.  Of course, there was not yet a “United States of America,” and it was with a bit of nostalgia and selective memory that we refer to this semi-obscure gathering of two peoples as some sort of foundational event in the development of the United States. And it is understandable from the perspective of a national mythology that the native people were forgotten and the “gifts from God” remembered. 

My new friend Burt was nodding his head, beginning to see that there was much under the surface of this holiday. I recommended that he read such books as “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus” by Mann,  “Native American History: Idiot’s Guide” by Fleming, and others.

As I still believe, giving thanks is a good thing – good for the soul and good for the society.  Just be sure to always give thanks where it is due!

Eventually, in the centuries that followed, Thanksgiving was celebrated on various days in various places.  George Washington declared it an official Thanksgiving in 1789.  However, the day did not become standardized as the final Thursday each November until 1863 with a proclamation by Abraham Lincoln.

The gross commercialization of Thanksgiving is a somewhat recent manifestation of the way in which we have tried to extract money from just about anything.  One way to break that cycle is to just choose to do something different.

When I used to visit my parents’ home for annual Thanksgiving gatherings, I disliked the loud arguing and banter, the loud TV in the background, and the way everyone (including me) ate so much that we had stomach aches!  I felt that Thanksgiving should be about something more than all that.  I changed that by simply no longer attending, and then visiting my parents the following day with a quiet meal.  It took my parents a few years to get used to my changes, but eventually they did.

These days, most holidays have a whole host of diverse symbols, and Thanksgiving is no different.  And like most modern holidays, their real meanings are now nearly-hopelessly  obscured by the massive commercialism.  Nevertheless, despite the tide that is against us, we can always choose to do something different.  Holidays are our holy days where we ought to take the time to reflect upon the deeper meanings.  By so doing, we are not necessarily “saving” the holiday, but we are saving ourselves.  As we work to discover the original history and meanings of each holiday, we wake up our minds and discover a neglected world hidden in plain sight.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Poor Man's Quinoa

Learn to recognize and use this valuable plant

[Nyerges is the author of “Foraging California,” “Nuts and Berries of California,” “Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants,” and other books on self-reliance. He has led foraging walks since 1974.  He can be reached at]

These days, everyone wants to eat the hip “new” nutritional foods: kale, chia, quinoa, and many of the others that are found in the latest chef’s restaurant where all the beautiful people go. 

Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa)  is a seed that has been used for centuries in Mexico and S. America, and it’s a great food. The seeds and leaves have been used in countless recipes and the plant was highly revered.  The use of the quinoa seeds took on a near-religious quality during the height of the Maya empire centuries ago.

But did you know that there is a close relative to quinoa that grows wild just about everywhere today in Southern California, and throughout most of North America? In fact, it grows pretty much everywhere in the world these days, and is more often regarded as a weed to be pulled and discarded.  It’s probably growing in your yard right now!

I’m speaking of lamb’s quarter (Chenopodium album), a European native that is today found  world-wide. Though this spinach relative is an extremely common cosmopolitan plant, it rarely gets the respect it deserves.  In fact, it is typically regarded as an agricultural pest and an urban weed.  Gardeners pull it up and poison it and throw it into the trash can.  This is another example of our culture's chosen ignorance, because lamb's quarter is possibly the most nutritious green plant you can eat! It’s a true “superfood.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 100 grams of lamb's quarter leaf contains 4.2 grams of protein, 309 mg. of calcium, 72 mg. of phosphorus, 80 mg. of vitamin C, and a remarkable 11,600 International Units of vitamin A. 
Another analysis (Duke and Atchley) shows 684 mg. of potassium per 100 grams of leaf.  And 100 grams (1/2 cup) of the seed contains 1,036 mg. of calcium 340 mg. of phosphorus, 64 mg. of iron, and 1,687 mg. of potassium. The small black seeds are also an excellent protein source, used just as you’d use the quinoa seeds sold in many markets.
Even if you're not concerned about the vitamin and mineral content, you'll find that lamb's quarter is a delicious, hearty plant that can be used in many dishes.

Generally, you use lamb's quarter in any way that you'd use spinach.  Lamb's quarter leaves can be picked and added to green salads.  The flavor is similar to spinach.  The leaves can also be steamed as you'd steam spinach, and then seasoned with butter or herbs.  Most of your guests won't detect that they're not eating spinach.

Lamb's quarter leaves can be added to soups, stews, omelettes, bread batter, and even quiche.  The leaves can be steamed, and cheese grated over the top before serving.  The tender stems can be steamed, and served as you'd serve asparagus or string beans.

Lamb’s quarter is a late spring and summer weed, and so I use all that I can during the season. I also dry some which I then can store and reconstitute later. However, for storage, I prefer to blanche and then freeze as much as I can, which I then add to soups and stews throughout the year when the plant has died back.

As lamb's quarter goes to seed and dies back, you can easily collect the seeds.  I generally rub my hand along the stem and collect the seeds into a large salad bowl.  When all the seeds are dry, I rub them all between my hands, and blow off the chaff until I am left with only the black seed.  These seeds are then added to bread batter, pancake and biscuit batter, and soups.

This is such a common urban plant world wide that no hobo or homeless person should ever go hungry where lamb's quarter is found.  It grows all over Pasadena and nearby areas  in parks, in back yards, in fields, in vacant lots, along railroad lines, and often in the wilderness areas along trails.  When I harvest lamb’s quarter, I just pinch off the tips and never uproot the plant. This way, it lives longer and I have an extended supply of the greens.

When I first learning ethnobotany in the 1970s, I once spent a week in the Angeles National Forest and my only food was lamb’s quarter, making just about every dish possible with this plant. 


Lamb's quarter is easily recognized by its roughly toothed leaves that are somewhat triangular in shape.  The leaves are covered with a fine white mealiness which causes water to bead up on the leaf surface.  The older stems often have red stripes and red in the axils. 

If you’re not sure of the identity of a wild plant you intend to eat, don’t eat it!  Take the time to send someone a picture of the plant, or take the plant to a specialist.

DESCRIPTION: An annual plant which generally grows up to three or four feet tall, but much taller in ideal soils.  The leaves are roughly triangular in shape, with a white filmy coating to each leaf which causes water and raindrops to bead up.  The leaf shape has been described as similar to a duck’s or goose’s foot, hence another common name, goosefoot.

The stalks are typically streaked with red, and there is usually a bit of red in the axil of each leaf.

The green flowers are inconspicuous.

WHEN TO HARVEST/ AVAILABILITY: Lamb’s quarter is an annual plant which sprouts up in late winter or spring, depending on the rain fall and temperatures. You can harvest the early leaves by pinching off the tender tops, and leaving the plant to continue its growth.  Since the leaves do not go bitter, you can continue to pinch off the leaves through its growing season.

Seeds are harvested in the late summer when the plant has finished its growth and is dying. It’s best to wait until the plant is browning before harvesting the seeds so you know they’ll be mature.  Seeds can be harvested en-masse, allowed to dry, and then winnowed in a shallow bowl.

FOOD:  Think of lamb’s quarter as a wild spinach which can be used raw or cooked in any of the dishes you’d use spinach.  The young leaves are tender enough to be rinsed and added to salads.  The leaves can be cooked like spinach, and served plain, or with butter or other seasoning. The broth from this cooking is delicious.  Lamb’s quarter leaves and tender stems can also be added to soups, stews, egg dishes, stir-fries, and any dish where you might add spinach.

The mature black seeds, winnowed, can be added to bread and pancake batters, and to soup dishes, akin to the use of quinoa seed (a close relative of lamb’s quarter).

ADVICE FOR GROWING:  Lamb’s quarter is one of the easiest wild plants to grow.  They will grow simply by scattering the seed in a garden area, or along paths.  You can also plant the seeds in flats or pots.  If you allow a few to go to seed, you’ll find that you have a continual supply of the lamb’s quarter plants.

SOURCE:  If you’re still uncertain what this looks like, you can obtain the seed and grow it yourself.  Each seed packet with instructions is $3.99 from Survival Seeds, P.O.Box 41834, Los Angeles, CA 90041.

CAUTIONS:  Though lamb’s quarter leaf can be eaten raw, it is best eaten in a salad with a dressing.  If you simply pick a leaf from the plant and eat it, the high mineral content of the leaf can cause an irritation in the mouth and throat.



2 quarts lamb’s quarter leaves

1 pint sour cream

Garlic powder

            Steam the lamb’s quarter leaves and tender tops until tender.  Strain and chop fine.  Stir in the sour cream, add a dash of garlic powder and serve warm.


3 cups lamb’s quarter leaves and tender stems, rinsed, diced.

1 onion, sliced

Butter, as needed

Seasonings to taste (Suggestion: use a dash of paprika and kelp)

            Warm the butter in a cast iron skillet.  Add the onion and cook until tender.  Add the lamb’s quarter and cook until tender. Add seasonings and serve.


1 cup lamb’s quarter seed

1 cup flour of your choice (try acorn, or wheat, or amaranth)

3 tsp. baking powder

½ tsp. salt.

3 Tbsp. honey

1 egg

1 cup raw milk (can substitute almond milk)

3 Tbsp oil.

            Mix all the ingredients well, and bake in an oiled pan for about 30 minutes in a 350 degree f. oven. You can also thin the batter with extra water and make pancakes.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

The Richness of Las Vegas


[Nyerges is the author of such books as "Foraging California," "Testing Your Outdoor Survival Skills," "How to Survive Anywhere," "Extreme Simplicity," and others.  He has been leading survival skills classes since 1974.  He can be reached at ]

Back in the late 1990s, when everyone knew the world was about to end in the Y2K meltdown, I spoke at many survival and preparedness conventions, including a few in Las Vegas.  My first such visit to Las Vegas was in March of 1996, where I was invited to the Preparedness Expo in North Las Vegas to promote my books, and give talks about the many practical reasons to learn about wild foods.

I gave talks from the stage and was at my booth all day talking with people.  Interestingly, most of the people I spoke with were residents of the Las Vegas area who expressed skepticism with my message. They told me that they didn't believe any wild foods could be found in the large desert flatland which made up their city, pointing  out that I’d brought all the plants that I talked about with me from my home in the Los Angeles area. I explained that in the few times I'd driven around the outskirts of their town, I'd seen at least a dozen common wild foods from my car. Cattails, for example, were very common in shallow waterways, and there are at least six good foods that can be prepared from cattails.

Still, these local residents didn't think they could survive in the wild outskirts of Las Vegas if that was their only food source. I agreed with that sentiment, because the desert alone doesn’t provide enough for today’s burgeoning population.  Before I ever visited Las Vegas, I'd read that the Indians who once lived throughout what is now modern Las Vegas survived eating such things as white sage leaves and seeds, grasshoppers, yuccas, cacti, creosote bush, willows, acorns, many seeds and nuts, and countless other desert foods. They hunted too, and their numbers were significantly less than today’s population.

I didn't meet a single Las Vegas resident who knew the meaning of "Las Vegas" in English. The fact that it means the "fertile lowlands" indicates that this sprawling valley has long been a very special desert locale where native people once found their entire sustenance.

One man who I spoke to still wasn't convinced that I had anything meaningful to share. He went home, collected a large bag of all the wild plants in his backyard and neighborhood, and brought them back for me to identify on the following day.

As I emptied the bag and identified each plant and told of its uses, a small crowd gathered to hear about each plant. He had collected sow thistle, a dandelion relative whose leaves are edible raw or cooked, and whose root can be made into a coffee substitute. He found filaree, a common desert plant that somewhat resembles carrot tops. The leaves and stems of filaree are sweet and tasty in salads, juices, and soups. The plant is sometimes called heron's bill or scissors plant. The man had found hedge mustard, a relative of our common mustard, but with a tangier flavor somewhat like horseradish. Several people stepped forward to taste the hedge mustard leaves after I ate a few and declared them delicious. He had also found desert dandelion, two wild buckwheats, pepper grass, and two or three plants which I didn't recognize. The man and his companions were convinced that food was abundant, even in that most unlikely desert city of glitter, lights and gambling.

I was aware of the Indian traditions of the Las Vegas area, and so I knew that there were resources to be found. Given enough time, I'm convinced I could have found  at least some of my food along the canyons and waterways that surround the flat valley where Las Vegas sits.

One man told me that he was certain I could not survive in the "wilds" of the hills and canyons surrounding Las Vegas. "There's no water around here," he told me. I had to agree with him that the current population is far too large for the desert to provide all the needed water -- which is why water is piped in today. Still, there is a lot of water in and around Las Vegas. This Las Vegas man did not know that Las Vegas was originally an Indian village, where they had springs and a few streams for water.

"But how would you get water today if you were out in the wilds around here?" he insisted. I explained that if I lived in Las Vegas like he did, I would have found out long ago where all the natural sources of water are located.  Later, I learned that Las Vegas gets approximately 40% of its water from its own underground sources. That’s not bad when you compare it to a place like Los Angeles, which gets only 26% of its water locally.   Plus, I told the man that the abundant prickly pear cactus would provide me with water, and the young cattails would provide me with needed moisture. If I could find cattails, I'd know that water would be found by digging not too deep. I also explained that in the desert you stay in the shade during the day and come out when it's cooler. I then explained how it was possible to collect dew from rocks, to set up catchments for the rain, and to dig and construct a solar still.

We had a lively conversation before I finally left his desert home and drove back to my home in the City of Angels.  As in most cases, resources from nature and from other people are everywhere, and it is only our pride and our ignorance which keeps us impoverished.

Monday, October 14, 2019

At the Monastery: Peyote Memories in Sierra Madre

How Drew and I Bonded, and

How A Night With Teresa brought back this Memory

[an unpublished section of a book that Nyerges has been working on about his childhood]

In 2008, I was sitting on the wide open field of the Passionist Monastery in the foothills of Sierra Madre.  My friend Teresa and I were sitting there in the darkness of the new moon, considering some key decisions before us.  We sat there on a large blanket which we had to move and arrange until we found a spot free of the ubiquitous gopher holes. It was dark and quiet, and we spoke little, but looked southward at the vast expanse of lights that made up the Los Angeles County sprawling urban expanse.

I didn’t perceive that I was in a state of crisis, though by the true definition of the word – a fork in the road where a decision must be made – my current state was indeed a crisis.

A decision needed to be made.  But why Teresa and I were there that night, and the decision I needed to make, is not what this story about.

Being there on the broad open field of the monastery brought back a flood of memories from approximately 1974, when I found myself facing another personal crisis of sorts.

Back then, my friend Drew Devereux told me how he researched where he was likely to find peyote in the wild.  He then hitchhiked down to Texas, along the Rio Grande, nearly to the Gulf of Mexico.  He carried just a little canvas pack. I admired Drew’s apparent lack of fear, and his ability to go where no man has gone before – well, at least to go where he hadn’t gone before, and certainly where I had never gone before.

He told me that in a little U.S. rural town which seemed far more Mexican than U.S., he got dropped off  by his ride and then he hiked into the nearby fields.  Drew described the type of trees that were out there, and how they grew in gullies in the slightly undulating landscape.  In some cases, lichens hung from the lower branches of the trees, indicating that the area is often in the shade, or that it was sometimes underwater. 

Drew wrote to me, “I remember the trip to Texas, of course.  But I almost gave up because I didn't find any cactus. But I met some people who told me that it grew everywhere, and they actually took me up a hillside and showed me where they grew.”

So Drew made his camp there for the night, comfortably out of view of what made up the small town.  At dusk, he ate some of the raw peyote cactus. 

He wrote extensively about his experience, and I was full of awe at what seemed a magical plant.

“Once I set up camp, I ate one or two and then the buttons took on a bluish glow in the growing dusk, making them really easy to see,” wrote Drew.  He explained that he noticed multiple blue lights glowing in the field in front of where he camped. The lights didn’t appear to be hallucinations, so Drew walked to one of them, and the light was emanating from a peyote plant.  He walked to another blue light, and it was also coming from a peyote plant.  Each blue light in the field was from a peyote plant which led Drew to conclude that there was something special about the plant that could not be explained by botany or biology alone.  He felt that there was an actual entity or presence that resided within or through each small little cactus button of peyote. 

As Drew was leaving on his hitchhike trip to go back home, he said that some cops kicked him out of town.  “As they were questioning me, one of them kicked my backpack and said I probably had drugs in there. I said ‘of course I don’t -- go ahead and look.’ Thanks goodness they didn't or I would probably still be there in prison.”

Months later, I’d driven all the way to Texas to find Drew’s patch.  I didn’t find his, but found another patch nearby, and brought a bag home.  Some time after that, Drew and I got together at my friend Larry’s cabin in Sierra Madre to eat peyote.  I was living with my parents at the time, and probably told them I was going to be camping out.

We sat and began to eat the nauseating cacti, and I eventually found myself staring at things.  I think it affected me more than Drew, but there’s no way to know such a thing.  I became very introvert about my life and the things I was doing or not-doing, and I didn’t talk much.

Drew asked me, with what I perceived to be a tinge of irritation, “Why are you staring at me?” to which I had no answer.  But in fact, when I stared, things were revealed to me, and each thing I looked at, including Drew, became a dynamic scene in motion which told me its past history and a complete story.  Drew’s face changed from one persona to another, to a monster, to a god, back to Drew.   It was best that I didn’t stare.

Later, past midnight, we walked a block away to the old Pinney house, which locals called a haunted house.  At the time, it was divided into numerous apartment rentals, and Rolf, a friend of mine from Pasadena City College, lived in one of the apartments.  Drew and I went in, walked up the stairs to his door, and let ourselves in.  He didn’t lock his door.  I went over to him where he was sleeping and touched his shoulder to wake him up.  He didn’t move. I pushed him a bit and all of a sudden he began to violently shake and shake and mumble, and he finally sat up, saying that we’d scared the hell out of him.  I said I was sorry. He said he wasn’t mad, but it took him a few minutes to compose himself and to calm down to where he could talk with us.

I told him we’d eaten peyote and we just sat there on his carpet for awhile, talking in the dark, and after awhile, Rolf lit a candle and made tea for all of us.  We talked about our experience, and what was on our minds for two hours or so.

Later, Drew told me “Being in your friend’s apartment, things became very supernatural for me. His cat assumed huge proportions. Then I felt that I was traveling outside my body through his window and looking at the street below. This view was physically impossible as I was laying on his carpet. So I got a bit scared for the first time and was then back in my body.”

Eventually, Drew and I could see that Rolf was tired, so we left and walked back to Larry’s place on the empty and dead-quiet streets of Sierra Madre.


Larry was asleep when we got there, and since Drew and I could barely sleep, we each found a place in Larry’s spacious yard and sat or laid down to rest and think.

I barely slept.  Too much was going on in my mind, and gradually I began to somewhat automatically review the current status of my life’s activities:  my school work with no concrete goals, my part-time teaching through other organizations with no clear agreements, my living with my parents but wanting something more for my life, my feeling of panic that time is racing by, my desire to learn more about many subjects coupled with an uncertainty if  I’d stick to it, and questions of how I’d finance those studies. My mind drifted over my desire for travel, my seeming unorganized life, my desire for spiritual awareness, my interest in writing as a profession but with no degree, my seeming habit of starting many things but not always finishing them, despite the fact that “finishing” is not always clear-cut. 

I lay on the cement sidewalk, my mind twisting and turning with what seemed like a forced life-review.  If there was an entity in the cactus I ate, it was relentless and wanted me to review and examine everything.   Should I buy a car?  What sort of job should I get to pay for that car?  Can I get such a job?  Is that what my life should really be all about?  Should I move back to a farm?  Why don’t I have a girl friend?  Should I have a companion?  Should I go back to college full-time?  Should I find and follow a guru? Have I already found my guru and am too resistant to admit it?  Should I return to Buddhism?  Or Catholicism?  And on and on and on it went, until dawn.

At first, there was an overcast grey-streaked sky, and eventually a mildly foggy morning.  I must have slept at least a little, and I woke suddenly in a frantic panic, asking too many questions, and too uneasy to answer any.  In the cool of the quiet morning, I picked a tiny scab on my arm and it bled.  I felt a psychotic panic and imagined the pain that would come if I were slashed to death by cutting.  I went into a literal cold sweat as I was experiencing both panic and incoherence.  It was very irrational.

I jumped up and splashed cold water on my face from Larry’s hose.  I walked back towards the cabin and Drew was sitting there, awake.

“I was just waiting for you to get up,” said Drew.  I thought I was waiting for him.  So we both used the bathroom, and then we went for a walk.

“Let’s go up to the monastery,” I suggested, and we walked up the streets in silence, hearing only distant cars and the sounds of our own shoes on the street.  We walked through Bailey Park and onto the grounds of the monastery’s expansive “south lawn.” 

It was dry with lots of dry grasses. Just a few plants were green, such as mustard and turkey mullein.  It was an other-worldly spiritual experience to silently walk there, on what seemed at the time very much sacred ground.  Drew got down on all fours and began to examine a turkey mullein plant.  He explained to me the floral parts of the plant, how the male flower is situated in such a way so that the pollen easily drops into the female flower.  He pulled out his botanist’s magnifying glass and had me look more closely.  With the 10-times magnification, it was as if I had entered into a private, rarely-seen world.  Drew had been to this world already and he guided me. 

Then we walked on.

I shared some of my night’s experience with Drew, who didn’t say much.  I told him about my many personal doubts. He was silent, and then he reminded me about the time he’d invited me to go on a trip with him.

“When you say yes, that means maybe, and when you say maybe, that means no,” Drew told me.  “And if you write it down it does no good, because you just lose the note” he explained in a matter-of-fact voice.

I was silent. He was right.  His words were like silent arrows into my heart.  We left the field and went back for a short walk down Carter, and Lima, over to Larry’s.  We talked sparingly, mostly about the night.  But we were both tired and even talking was tedious.  We passed an early Saturday morning yard sale and I began to examine some used archery bows for sale.  I’d long wanted to get involved in archery but hadn’t done so yet.  They had several Bear bows (and others) for sale.  Some were reasonably priced, and others seemed high for a yard sale. I held one of the bows  for the longest time looking at it, thinking about it.  Can I afford this?  Would I use it?  Where would I use it? Can I get something similar at a better price?  What about arrows?  Was there anything else that I’d need to buy?  Would I actually use this, or would it just sit around?  Is there something more important that I should use my money for? All these mental questions filled my mind.   I liked bows and archery, I told myself, or did I just like the idea of bows and archery?

“Well, are you going to buy it?” asked Drew.

I held it a bit and then began to repeat to Drew some of my inner thoughts.  I sensed he was a bit impatient.

“Do you have trouble making up your mind?” he asked.  It was a question whose answer was painfully obvious.  Was it me or was it the drug?  Or a combination?  I put the bow back on the rack and said nothing more about it as we walked back.

We went to Larry’s and eventually we each got rides home.  I was very tired that day and barely managed to do the bare essentials that were required of me.

Some time later, Drew and I talked about our experience that night. Drew wrote,

“Our trip itself was the most amazing ever as I didn't know what to expect. That we did it together was important, and made it more powerful. I felt you were leading us around to witness amazing things, and I would be lost otherwise, and I was very grateful to you.  I was at no time irritated or impatient.  My sense of time and direction had practically evaporated. Everything was new and very beautiful.

“The rest of the night I just enjoyed the wandering-about that we did, and how everything was so beautiful in the moment.  It caused me to pause and realize that my life is quite amazing if I can stop and just simply take the time to notice.

“I ate peyote a few times after, but a kind of wall had been erected because of my fear of losing my body in some kind of out-of-body experience. And because I was looking for and comparing, things did not have the same power or newness that they did on the trip that you and I  took. Later I went to Florida and got spores for Psilocbye cubensis and grew many flats of those and ate them perhaps 10 times.  I had some interesting trips, but none quite compare. Finally, I just gave it all up, but am very glad for doing it. As Alan Watts put it, when you get the message, you can just hang up the phone. I could have simply hung up the phone after our trip since I got the message. But making the call is something some people may need to do, and for that reason I feel it is not helpful to simply advise someone to don't do drugs. We have to find out things for ourselves sometimes.

“I was loving every second of our experience that night in Sierra Madre, and every second was like an eternity,” wrote Drew.

Later that night, and into the next day, I wrote down lists of my “to dos”, all the unfinished and unresolved things that plagued me.  I wrote out some action for most, regardless how simple.

The peyote cactus experience made me deeply introspective, and it was not at all “pleasurable.”  I saw my life as a near-meaningless series of chaotic and unplanned activities, leading nowhere, fulfilling no purpose either for the furtherance of my life’s goals, nor did it seem to fulfill anything in the grand scheme of the universe. 

In the next few days, I not only made the lists, but I finished some tasks, settled agreements and contracts, paid old debts, talked to people I’d always wanted or needed to talk to, sent out Thank You notes, and generally tried to tie up the loose ends of my life. I wanted to feel calm, at peace, and in a position to move forward with whatever my life was about, or going to be about.

In that sense, Father Peyote was a harsh task master who got me off my butt and into action. 

I believe I ate peyote one more time after that.  Was I in need of more punishment?  It was not a pleasant experience, with some very violent vomiting and I couldn’t wait for the effects to wear off.  I never tried it again, though I always felt that I’d seriously consider doing it in the context of a Native American Church tipi ceremony.  Years later, I was invited to such a ceremony but it was not an evening when I wanted to be awake all night examining my life in slow-motion fine detail, in the rain, in the mountains, so I declined.  In fact, during that time in 2002, I didn’t need the help of the Teacher Plant to get into my inner mind and higher Self, to seek the answers to the diverse challenges then facing me.  I needed acute clarity.

Anyway, I say: don’t do drugs!  I know I must sound like a hypocrite.  Still, there are other ways to learn the needed lessons of life, ways that do not endanger your mind or your body or your atmospheres.  Did any of my drug use damage my mind and body?  Though I’ve heard regular marijuana users say that there is no damage whatsoever from their drug use, my honest reply is “How would I know?”  I’m not specifically aware of “damage,” though brave friends have occasionally pointed out my “quirks” and tendencies, and my mostly life-long tendency to be late, and often forgetful.  Did those result from drug use?  Who can say?  I can’t say, since how can a potentially-damaged apparatus objectively analyze itself?  It cannot.

So this old memory flowed though my mind as Teresa and I sat talking about future intentions.  Memory and Intention, past and future, both occupying the same part of the brain, and both intermingling as we sat on the monastery’s vast field.

We sat in the dark for awhile, both of us quiet, thinking, with no need to talk.

While we were sitting there in the dark, we noticed a rapidly moving form passing in front of us, and then doubling back. At first I thought it was a bobcat, but then perceived it to be a coyote, probably examining a possible prey.  An hour later, there were two darting by, growling, and then one doubled back, as if to surround us.  Then a third arrived, so I knew I should make them unwelcome. I stood, and though two had instantly disappeared into the darkness, one remained. 

I said to Teresa, “Watch” and I boldly ran directly at it and it too disappeared. I was thankful that they considered us too big for dinner.  Quickly thereafter, we folded up the blanket and departed. Though I thought we had a good relationship, it did not last, and the reason for it not lasting is an entirely different story.

Friday, October 04, 2019

Enrique Villasenor: Ambassador for the Prickly Pear Cactus

Enrique Villaseñor is at the head of the classroom, extolling the many unsung virtues of the prickly pear cactus.  “It’s often referred to as poor people’s food,” he explains, “but did you know that it contains all the  essential amino acids, and some non-essential amino acids as well?”

Villaseñor is the defacto ambassador of the humble prickly pear cactus, a plant that has been used for food and medicine for millennia.

After 35 years as a school teacher, Villaseñor recently retired and now actively works as an assistant to pharmacologist  Dr. James Adams, who shares traditional Chumash healing methods.

In the two hour presentation, Villaseñor takes his audience through the fascinating history, and the vast healthful benefits, of the prickly pear cactus, beginning with the fact that cacti remnants were found in jars in Mexico dating back 10,000 years.  He explains that archaeologists have found old jars that contained not only cactus, but teosinte (the forerunner to corn), chili, amaranth, sapote, and mesquite, some of the earliest foods from this continent.

As part of his presentation, Villaseñor shares details from the historical book, “Relacion de Cabeza deVaca,” the account of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca’s journey in the unknown interior of America.  He was one of four survivors of the 1527 Narvaez expedition. From 1527 to 1536, he wandered across the U.S. Southwest, learning from the natives about the local foods. Though he was a slave for the first two years, he became both a trader and a healer to the various tribes. He learned of the value of the nopal (aka the prickly pear cactus) from the natives and used it for scurvy, treating arrow wounds, and for stomach issues. After returning to Spain in 1537, he wrote his account of the journey, first published in 1542. Cabeza de Vaca is sometimes considered a proto-anthropologist for his detailed accounts of the many tribes of Native Americans that he encountered.

“The prickly pear cactus is one of the best immune system boosters,” says Villaseñor, quoting Hippocrates, who said “Let food be thy medicine, and let medicine be thy food.”

Historically, the prickly pear cactus pads have been used for lowering cholesterol levels, digestive issues, edema, wounds, bronchitis, fevers, vitiligo, inflammation, type II diabetes, muscle pain, urinary problems, burns, and liver problems.  Students of Villaseñor listen in awe, wondering why they have always considered the prickly pear just a food to eat when you’re next to starving, rather than the superfood it is. 

Villaseñor explains that because prickly pear was always available in good times and bad, in times of drought and plenty, it was always something that poor people could and did use, but then it came to be regarded as simply a food of last resort.

Today, however, that view is changing. Villaseñor points out that one can find hundreds of products made from the prickly pear on Amazon. This includes food and food supplements, pills for diabetes, as well as various products from the cochineal bug that is often found on the prickly pear plants. The cochineal has historically been dried and crushed to get carminic acid, and a very good red dye for clothing and even food products.

The highlight of Villaseñor’s presentation is when he turns on a food processor and makes a prickly pear drink for everyone to try.

First, he scrapes the young pads to remove the spines and the tiny hair-like glochids. He puts one large pad into the blender, and adds one apple and one peeled orange, and blends it all.  The resultant drink is thick, and so it can be thinned further with water if one prefers. Everyone enjoyed the tartness and sweetness of the drink. No sugar is ever added.


“Agua de Nopales” -- Prickly Pear Cactus Water,  by Enrique Villaseñor:

1 - Prickly Pear Cactus pad (cleaned and rinsed)

1 - Peeled Orange
1 - Green Apple
2 - Cups of chilled water
1 - Ice
1 - Lime

Dice 1 Prickly Pear pad. Place in blender with 2 cups of water. Blend. Dice 1 green apple. Blend. Dice 1 peeled orange. Blend. Add additional water to taste if the smoothie is too thick for you.  Serve chilled with ice. Use lime to taste. Do not add sugar. Suggested serving is 1.5 cups 2X a day. Enjoy! 

According to Villaseñor, this is one of the best ways to get your daily intake of the prickly pear, in a form that is tasty and easy to prepare.  The benefits are that it strengthens your immune system, helps you to lose weight, and lowers your cholesterol and blood sugar.

Villaseñor adds that complete health is really about complete balance, and by “balance” he explains that each of us need to find balance physically, spiritually, socially, and financially within our community and family.  “You should work at this every day,” he explains.

Additionally, Villaseñor points out that the natural immune boosters include sleep, plant-based diet, exercise, not-smoking, having minimal stress in your life, maintaining a healthy weight, minimal alcohol consumption, maintaining healthy relationships, and avoiding infections.  Consuming prickly pear cactus daily is just one part of this overall balance.

Villaseñor shares a little about his background during his presentation.  His mother is still alive at 101 years old, and she taught him Balance in all things. “I was outside all day, always doing things outdoors,” he explains. “And when we had a problem, my mother healed us!”

Villaseñor also shares testimonials from students of his and Dr. Adams, students who have experienced lower glucose levels, improved bowel movements, weight loss, and lower cholesterol levels by consuming the prickly pear cactus drink, and other herbal remedies they teach.  

Regarding the many additives to foods today, Villaseñor advises, “If you cannot pronounce it, do not eat it!”

Villaseñor smiles as he shares an old idiom, which underscores how Mexico’s identity is tied to the nopal, or prickly pear cactus.  “Soy mas Mexicano que el nopal,” he says, which translates as “I am more Mexican than the cactus” The expression is asking, between the lines, what came first, the Mexican or the cactus, affirming the person’s pride in being Mexican.

Enrique Villaseñor can be contacted at

[Nyerges is the author of “Guide to Wild Foods,” “Foraging California,” “How to Survive Anywhere,” and other books. He leads regular field trips, and can be reached at]