Thursday, August 18, 2016

How I Earned an Income, and Learned to Spend Less

[Nyerges is the author of various books including “Extreme Simplicity” and “How to Survive Anywhere.”  For information about his classes and books, go to www.Schoolof, or Box 41834, Eagle Rock CA 90041]

From 1977 until 1979,  Nyerges was a squatter in an abandoned house in Los Angeles. The following is adapted from a book he wrote about that period called “Squatter in Los Angeles,” available as a Kindle book.

I had no regular job during this period, though I earned $5 each week by writing an outdoor column for a local paper. It wasn’t much money, but it seemed to add up when I got a check at the end of each month. It also got my name out there, and I began to get requests to give talks to local groups and to lead walks for schools.

Even though I paid no rent, I did have a utility and phone bill to pay, so I needed a bit  more than $5 a week.  I sought out part time work here and there which would still allow me to attend the various small classes offered by the non-profit during the week.   I found work doing such tasks as roofing, framing, writing magazine articles.

I landed a part-time job doing typesetting, which also led to my writing for that little newspaper, the Altadena Chronicle, owned by Sue and Rich Redman.  I thought I was on top of the world with that income and my $5 a week income from the local paper. I also ended up doing some framing and painting at the newspaper office when they remodeled. 

In reality, I was on the edge of poverty financially, and yet I felt good, at peace most of the time, and loved to try new things and experiment.  My primary source of mental stimulation was through my classes and involvement with the non-profit next door, and I believed this was the most important work I could do.  In fact, there was no reason why I could not have gotten some full-time job like all my friends, or enrolled back into college full-time and gotten a degree that would enable me to earn a reasonable income. But somehow I convinced myself that  -- for better or worse – my  lifestyle was more important for the solace of my soul, and for the salvation of the planet.  Still, my soul wasn’t always solaced by my “lifestyle” because I always had a nagging fear anytime anyone came up the driveway. Furthermore, I constantly wavered between confidence and doubt that my way of life had any effect whatsoever on the direction the planet was taking.

My time was divided between my work, my studies and research with the non-profit organization that brought me to Highland Park in the first place.  I drove a Honda 90 motorcycle at the time that got 100 miles to the gallon so my transportation costs were very low. 

I derived great pleasure from experimenting and learning all the ways I could provide for my daily needs, and even my wants, using things that I made, grew, found on the property, or obtained from discards.  Had I been married with children, I believe this would have been an impossible pursuit, for obvious reasons. But I was essentially alone.

I read Thoreau’s Walden Pond for the first time during this period, and found  my state of mind frequently resonating with the basic themes in the book.  Remember, Thoreau wasn’t a bum, or a drop-out, or an alcoholic.  Actually, for that matter, he was no squatter either, for the land where he was given permission to do his “experiment” was owned by fellow writer and friend William Emerson. He built for himself a little house (a “shack” by most accounts), and did a lot of his writing there.   It would be accurate to say that Thoreau – like me – was profoundly interested in the very meaning of life and wanted to discover the point of all the rushing about to get somewhere.  Unable to discover these answers in his town, Thoreau built and moved into his little shack in the woods and learned how to grow the food that he ate, and found it nourishing and satisfying.  Indians and trappers would visit and talk, and somehow through this unprejudiced intercourse, he found that all people were more alike then different, and a life lived for purely material reasons is a life wasted.

Now I found myself in a similar setting, though it wasn’t in the woods but a ruralish part of Los Angeles.   I  had no pond nearby, but I did manage to get over the Arroyo Seco which was as close to my personal Walden Pond as I felt I would get.

At night, thinking over the day’s classes and studies, typing up my notes and insights, I often ruminated over how life should be lived, and wondered why we take up so much time and waste so much of life on trivial pursuits. 

I did learn some years later when Thoreau was mentioned by the academics he was regarded as a brilliant intellectual who discovered the simple reality that was right in front of  everyone. Be here now. Imagine. The kingdom is within. Which is why I naturally assumed that his own peers would have regarded him as a saint and savior.  Wrong!  I have actually spoken to descendents of Thoreau’s peers and they said that in the day, Thoreau was by no means universally respected. Rather, many regarded him as a bum, an outsider, someone who had rejected society to hang out with the Indians in the woods.  I was starting to see that there were more parallels with me and Thoreau than were originally apparent.

So I did my best – though usually unsuccessfully – to not be seen as a freeloading bum who chose not to work and who just sat around listening to the birds and who saw secret messages in the clouds.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Free Garden Fertilizers from Items you Normally Throw Away

[Nyerges is the author of “Extreme Simplicity,” “How to Survive Anywhere,” “Foraging California,” and other books. You can learn about his classes and books at, or Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041].

We always gardened because we can produce better quality food and a low cost, without participating in using any of the destructive chemicals which ruin the fertility of the soil.  And there are at least two very common household discards which are ideal for many of your garden plants.

You’ve heard of liming the garden and lawn, right?  Many gardeners buy a bag of lime (calcium carbonate) every few years and sprinkle it throughout the garden.   Were you aware that eggshells are 93% calcium carbonate?

Calcium is an essential plant nutrient that plays a fundamental part in cell manufacture and growth.  Most roots must have some calcium at the growing tips.  Plant growth removes large quantities of calcium from the soil, and so calcium must be replenished.  In addition to calcium, eggshells contain about 1 percent nitrogen, about 0.5 percent phosphoric acid, and other trace elements that make them a practical fertilizer.

We saved all our eggshells in a pan in our oven, including shells from the eggs from the farmers market, as well as the shells from our own chicken eggs. The pilot light temperature of the oven was sufficient to dry out the shells. Then, when the pan was full, we either crushed them by hand, or reduced them to a fine powder in the blender. Then we placed the crushed eggshells around fruit trees, roses, and potted plants, and also just broadcast them throughout the garden.

We learned that snail problems could be reduced with the helped of recycled eggshells. Using the hand-crushed shells, with plenty of their rough edges, we’d scatter these around those plants that the snails were eating.  Snails did not usually cross the barriers made with these rough eggshells, presumably because they cause discomfort to the snails.

Another common kitchen discard is coffee grounds. Used coffee grounds contain about 2 percent nitrogen, about a third of a percent of phosphoric acid, and varying amounts of potash, generally less than one percent.  Analysis of coffee grounds shows that they contain many minerals, including trace minerals, carbohydrates, sugars, some vitamins, and some caffeine.  They are particularly useful on those plants for which you would apply “acid food,” such as blueberries, avocados, roses, camellias, and certain fruit trees.

Sometimes we use scatter the used coffee grounds in the garden, and sometimes we dry them first. We scatter them as a light mulch around those plants that we feel would benefit the most. We don’t scatter them too thickly, however, especially in wet weather, because the coffee grounds will have a tendency to get moldy.

Because most plants need calcium for root growth, most can be beneficially stimulated by adding both ground up eggshells (lime) and dried coffee grounds.

Smile the next time you drink your morning cup of coffee, and eat those breakfast eggs, because the by-products of that meal are ideal for your urban garden and no longer need to be thought of as “waste.”

I sought to include many of these low-tech, low-cost ideas in my “Extreme Simplicity” book, which recorded all the methods that my wife and I actually practiced.  We always figured that if we could do all that we did with low-income, anyone anywhere could practice these same methods to become self-reliant.  You can get “Extreme Simplicity” from, or from the Store at

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Free Fertilizers for the Urban Backyard

[Nyerges is the author of “Extreme Simplicity,” “How to Survive Anywhere,” “Foraging California,” and other books. You can learn about his classes and books at, or Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041].

In my “Extreme Simplicity” book, my wife Dolores and I outlined our efforts to live lightly and self-reliantly in the city,  a path that many more are pursuing these days.

We shared all our experiences with gardening and producing our own food.  Some friends told u that they do not garden because it is “an expensive hobby.”  That always made us laugh. There was a time not that long ago when nearly everyone gardened because homegrown produce was not only better from the produce you purchase at a supermarket, but also cheaper.

Before WWII, before agricultural chemical came into widespread use, everyone knew that to produce healthy plants, you had to improve the soil.  Weak soil means that the plants grown there will be weak, and subject to insect infestation, and more susceptible to both drought and freezing.  Insects tend to eat the weakest plants, and insecticides would rarely be necessarily if the soil provided all the nutrients needed by the plants.

We taught ourselves about the whole spectrum of fertilizers that were once common-knowledge.

For example, we learned a lot about the beneficial properties of seaweed from professional gardener Ernest Hogeboom.  He would collect several large trash bags of kelp from areas along the Pacific Coast.  He’d empty the kelp into a 55-gallon drum, fill it with water and cover it.  As the seaweed began to decompose, the water turned brown.  Within about two months, the seaweed was full decomposed into the water.  Hogeboom used the liquid as a concentrate, which he would dilute with water before spraying it on, or pouring it around, his clients’ plants.

Dolores used this for our own landscaping and gardening clients, with the addition of fish emulsion.  Approximately a quarter cup of fish emulsion was used for each gallon of seaweed elixir.  Plants sprayed with this mixture also seemed to repel insects, and generally showed renewed growth..The only pitfall is the fishy, oceanic odor that is detectable for a day or two after the application. 

Seaweed is rich in potassium, up to 12 percent by volume.  Though seaweed contains many beneficial trace elements, it is relatively poor in nitrogen and phosphate, which is why the addition of fish emulsion creates a nearly perfect fertilizer.

We didn’t use the bulky metal 55 gallon drum that Hogeboom used, but rather we purchased a 30 gallon plastic trashcan at a building supply store for about $10. 

If you live in a coastal area where seaweed rotting on the beach is readily availably, you’ve got a great potential fertilizer available only for your labor of hauling it.

Monday, July 18, 2016

MUGWORT -- A versatile herb

MUGWORT:   A versatile and common herb with many survival uses

[Nyerges is the author of Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants, How to Survive Anywhere,  and other books. His schedule of outings is available from School of Self-Reliance, P.O. Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041 and can be viewed on-line at]

Mugwort is an aromatic plant with species found all over the world.  It is perhaps one of the few herbs widely steeped in lore and mythology. Mugwort (Artemisia douglasiana and other closely-related species) is a multiple use plant, having been used for  food, medicine, fire-starting, dreaming, and more.

I have known people who ate the raw mugwort leaves in salad and added to sandwiches, in much the same way as you’d add a pickle or a piece of lettuce to a sandwich. However, I have always found it too bitter for my taste to eat raw. But once simmered in water and cooked like spinach, its appeal is greatly increased.  If you’re really hungry and there’s nothing else, this will be acceptable.
Southern California Indians gathered the mugwort seeds and ground them into meal to make bread products.   And in Japan, the dried and powdered mugwort is often used to flavor and color rice cakes.  Still, the food value of mugwort is not its greatest asset.

As an infused tea, mugwort is used by herbalists to improve the appetite and digestion, and to relieve stomach pains and fevers. The dried herb is commonly sold in Mexican herb shops under the name “estafiate.”  

An infusion from the dried leaves is applied externally for inflammatory swellings. Bruises are reputed to heal quicker if bathed with a mugwort infusion. As a bath additive, it's used for tired legs and feet. Plus, in the bath water, mugwort gives the bathroom a pleasant aroma!
In areas where poison oak grows, it’s a very old custom to mush up the fresh leaves of mugwort and rub the wet poultice over exposed portions of the body before entering poison oak areas in order to prevent the rash.  Some western Indians used the fresh leaves externally as a cure for poison oak and wounds.
Before I immunized myself from poison oak, I have used the freshly crushed leaves of mugwort rubbed over newly-developing poison oak rash with good results. Aloe vera is the best treatment for poison oak that I have found, but you don’t usually find aloe in the wild.

Mugwort gets its name from the English practice of putting a leaf of it in their mugs of beer to improve the flavor. ("Wort" is an Old English word meaning "herb.") This is still practiced in London pubs.
Mugwort is also used by home beer-brewers, such as Pascal Baudar in Southern California. The results depend on the recipe, ranging from a mead-like beer, to a very crisp, light beer.

One of the most effective wilderness "punks" is made by gathering the mugwort leaves that have dried and browned on the stalk. Slide your hand along the lower stalk to gather the dried leaves and then roll them into a cigar. By lighting the end of this "cigar" and then wrapping the entire cigar in larger fresh mugwort leaves, you can effectively carry fire over long distances. This was the technique practiced by Southwestern Indian tribes for transporting fire from camp to camp. It can still come to the aid of today's campers where matches are scarce or unavailable. In fact, I have tested dozens of tinders using both natural and man-made materials, and mugwort has consistently proven to be one of the best natural tinders.  [Note: Survival Seeds (Box 41-834, L.A., CA 90041) sells bags of mugwort for tinder, for $7 a bag. ]

When we teach and practice the art of fire-making with the hand drill, or the bow-and-drill, we nearly always have a good supply of the mugwort leaves on hand. It is the ideal tinder to shape into a birdnest, and to drop your ember into it.  By gently blowing on this ember, it slowly gets larger and larger.  Dried grass or pine needles are then added around the mugwort, and one continues to blow until it bursts into flame.

Sleeping on "pillows" of dried mugwort leaves is said to induce wild, vivid dreams and visions of the future. To test this, I placed several of the fresh leaves around my pillow. Those nights, I had very colorful dreams, though they were not what I would describe as “lucid” nor did I ever receive visions of the future. Nevertheless, some enterprising folks have begun to sell “dream pillows” which are small pillows stuffed with mugwort leaves.

Folklore from various parts of the world states that a leaf of mugwort in the shoe will enable you to walk all day without leg fatigue.
Nathaniel Schleimer of Pasadena, California, a student of acupressure, pointed out to me that there may be some factual basis for this "folklore." Schleimer told me that there is an acupuncture point on the bottom of the foot which is said to "regulate fatigue." The mugwort leaves which have naturally dried on the plant are collected and used in a therapeutic technique called acupressure. These dried leaves, when rolled into small balls or into a cigar-shaped cylinder, are called "moxa." A Chinese species is said to be the best, but all species can be used in the following fashion, described by J.C. Cerney in his book Acupressure -- Acupuncture Without Needles:   "On the outside of the lower leg, below the level of the knee, is the head of the fibula. Just below and slightly in front of the head of the fibula is what the Japanese refer to as sanri or S-36. This is an important vitality-stimulating zone. It's a point where weary Oriental foot travelers applied a burning ball of moxa and with energy restored, traveled on."

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Survival? Get to Know Your Neighbors

[Nyerges is the author to “How to Survive Anywhere,” “Foraging California,” and other books. His schedule of classes is available at]

Real Survival is not a sport. It is not a computer game. Survival is not a “reality” TV show.  Survival is not a concept that intellectuals discuss over latte. Nor is it a topic for science fiction novels.

Real Survival is that live-or-die feeling that emanates from our deepest desire to continue our life.  It is the deepest instinct of human kind and the entire animal kingdom. 

We joke about “the apocalypse” and zombies and “the end of the world,” and yet, due to our ability to adapt and to condition ourselves, we live all the time with factors that threaten our very survival.  But we continually address those factors, and we modify and change, and we survive.  

Human society stands as a testament to human ingenuity, adaptability, and the desire to survive. Our growth, and our ability to harness and utilize nature, all arose from our desire to survive.  Now, the main threat to our survival as a species seems to be – ourselves.

We know the natural threats to our survival: earthquakes, mudslides, tsunamis, volcanoes, hurricanes, tornadoes, and maybe even occasional millennia where a comet hits the earth. 

The so-called “acts of God” will be contended with when they happen, and it seems they will always be with us.

But as our urban centers grow ever-larger, we wonder if we will ever turn into a Bladerunner-type world, where we’re all cramped into ever-tighter quarters. 

We have to be concerned about the “acts of man” that continue to threaten our survival:  terrorism, war, bombs that nations point at nations, crazy leaders, economic chaos that drives our lives into the dirt, rampant plague and disease from poor hygiene, and so many other preventable crises.

Some of these “acts of men” we can do something about, and most we cannot.  But we can inform ourselves, and we can organize with like-minded individuals.  This is perhaps the most important step we can take, since as our society has grown ever larger, and vastly more technologically-oriented, and “leaders” that seem ever-distant, we realize that it’s important to try to take control of whatever we can of our individual lives. We realize that knowledge is power, and my increasing our personal sense of responsibility, and awareness, we can at least move our lives in the right direction.

Self-sufficiency and neighborhood cooperativeness is the path to sustainability and survival.

An associate of mine who told me he hates his neighbors, said that his ace in the hole in the event of a major disaster is his uncle in Minnesota who has a self-sufficient farm and home, and produces his own power.

“Really?” I mocked. “And how do you expect to get to Minnesota after some major catastrophe?” (My friend lives in urban California). 

Like it or not, we’re all in this same boat. In an emergency, your neighbors are your family. Get to know them, now, not later. Get back to our roots of neighbors helping neighbors, and learn to share and support among yourselves.  That is our tradition, and that is what made this country great.

There is no threat that stout-hearted people working together cannot overcome.

There are no simple answers to life’s many problems, but it’s a step in the right direction to always learn new things, and get to know your diverse community. 

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Re-learning the "Lost Art" of Survival

Christopher Nyerges

[Nyerges is the author of “How to Survive Anywhere,” “Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants,” “Extreme Simplicity,” and other books. He teaches urban and outdoor survival skills. See the schedule at]

“Survival” is a broad term that ties us all together.  In fact, in the broadest sense, just about everything we do is about survival.  Well, maybe not today because we’ve grown so technologized and specialized that we take everything for granted as we’ve forgotten our roots.

Think about it.  The rise from foraging to agriculture, and then farming, and food storage and processing.  That’s all about food, a basic of survival.  The development of villages, towns, cities, was all about pooling our resources so we could all work together for our mutual survival and upliftment.  With towns, and many people packed together, you need some sort of guidelines, thus, the development of government, and police, and fire departments, and even the building and safety departments of most cities.  The building industry with all its aspects is all about our mutual survival.  At its very essence, the large hardware stores are all about our survival from the little things to the big things, like fixing roof leaks.

So much has been developed over the last few hundred years for our basic survival that we tend to forget that someone or someones had to DO all those steps to make survival possible, and easy.  We have traveled a long path down the road from our grand parents who were still rural, and who knew how to live in the woods, and who knew how to use a rifle and an outhouse and raise food.  And the further we traveled down the technology path, the less we seem to know how to do the most very basic tasks that ensure personal survival and strength. 

What does one do?  How should you go forward in this ever-more complex and ever-more dangerous world.  You begin by educating yourself: Reading the books, and the magazines, and watching the Youtube channels, that cater to this specific interest.  And you should join like-minded groups of individuals who are working to learn these lost arts and forgotten skills.

And yes, obtain the gear and supplies that you need, just in case you can’t get to the store after an emergency.

Most important is to expand your perspective and raise your awareness.  I want you to read just a few books and try to grasp the deep message that each contains.  Consider their messages “survival tools” for your future.  I am only suggesting a few books here, but each is a valuable tool in understanding the world we live in, and understanding our future.

“The Twilight of American Culture” by Morris Berman  is a thoughtful look at the decline of western civilization, and what can be done about it, if anything.

“Language in Thought and Action” by S.I. Hayakawa is perhaps the single best book about how the words we choose affects our reality, and how we can improve our ability to think and communicate.  And isn’t communication a major “survival tool”?

“True Believer” by Eric Hoffer is perhaps the quintessential book on mass movements and cults, and teaches you “how to believe.”  Though written decades ago, this provides unique insight to today’s terrorist movements, and other forms of mob mentality.

“Democracy is Self-Government” by H.W. Percival is a must-read if you are to grasp what is wrong with modern politics. The author shows that individual self-government is the only path to real democracy.

And last, “The Art of Loving” by Eric Fromme shares how love is the answer to the problem of human existence, and he attempts to define the many real and counterfeit forms of love.

Yes, have your knife, gear, and pantry of food, but don’t stop there.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Grid Down! Now what?

[Nyerges is the author of “How to Survive Anywhere” and other books. He has taught foraging and survival skills classes since 1974. He can be reached at]

There are any number of possible reasons why the electrical grid could go out, anything from an accident, to sun spots, to terrorism.  How would that affect our life?

Even 50 years ago, temporary blackouts were not all that disruptive to everyday life. Indeed, to children, they were exciting times when you got to use lanterns and candles at night. Phones still worked, since most phones were simple rotary style.

In my household, we still had hand-cranked coffee grinders, wheat sifters, mixers (for batter), and can-openers. We had very few electric food processing devices, and we got by just fine.  We had no electric yard tools then, all manual rakes, brooms, clippers, edgers, lawn-mowers. None of the insane blowers and weed-whackers. All our tools were manual too: hammers, saws, pliers, levels, etc. 

Today, you can get an electric model of just about anything, and computer chips are everywhere.  The up-and-coming generation knows nothing else, which is perhaps one of our greatest dangers. 

Most folks, even if they grew up in the city, understands that there should be a backup for when the power goes out.  But too many young folks know no other way of life but the all-electric driven lifestyle, controlled and powered by the all-powerful, all-seeing I-God (oops, meant I-pod), with all of its minions through it’s spider-like Web.  There is even the chief high priest of this new world, ready and waiting to answer your every question: Rev. Google!

If the grid goes down, for whatever reason, the world of Eagle Rock and beyond will be a very different place, maybe temporarily, maybe long-term.  There really no way to predict what would happen, but there are various ways to prepare ourselves, mentally and physically.

Just walk through your home and look at everything that is controlled by electricity. What would your day be like if there was no power?  Some things would be hard, or impossible, to replace without electricity. But many other electrical functions could easily be handled with manual tools, or “old-fashioned” technology.

Lights are easy.  My mother always had a good supply of candles, lanterns, and flashlights, and whenever there was a blackout, the house was fully lit! 

You should never be unable to process your meals if the power goes out.  Go to any kitchen supply shop and make sure you have manual can openers, juicers, coffee grinders, egg beaters (hey, a fork works fine!), grinders, slicers, etc. Whatever it is you do in your kitchen, you should be able to do without power.

A refrigerator won’t work without electricity, so unless you have some solar panels on your roof, you’ll want to store plenty of non-refrigerated food. This means pickled, dried, and canned.   This is also one of the big pluses in having a backyard and neighborhood garden, as well as backyard chickens.  Your food is fresh, and local, and not dependent on transportation systems. 

Home heating and cooling is a big topic, and if all houses were built with thicker, more insulated walls, and white heat-reflecting roofs, and big overhangs, etc., much of the cost of heating and cooling would be unnecessary.  I spent considerable time discussing this topic in my “Extreme Simplicity” and “Self-Sufficient Home” books, both of which can be reasonably obtained on Amazon. 

I spent a year and a half back in the late ‘70s as a squatter, and practiced a lot of the ecological-living methods that are becoming very popular today. We recycled everything, cooked on a wood stove, grew a lot of our food, recycled all household water, and even used (for a part of the time) a compost toilet.   Had the grid gone done during that time, it would have been just an inconvenience.  I wrote a book about that experience, called “Squatter in Los Angeles,” which is available as a Kindle book, or download from the Store at

During my time as a squatter, I had the advantage of living in a house that had been built with thick walls, a flat south-facing roof, and large overhangs.  Due to its position in a wind path, and its good construction, we never used any heaters or coolers. Well, we didn’t have any anyway, but that’s beside the point. The roof, once painted white with a liquid rubber roofing product, made the place about 15 degrees cooler in summer.

I grew much of my own food, sent the bath water out into the garden, and even experimented with a composting toilet.   I raised some ducks, grew corn, bean, squash, and tomatoes.  I used a wood stove that a neighbor let me borrow, and I fertilized with the wood ash. 

I learned on the job how to live better for less, and discovered that I could live well by looking to the past. We did have a used refrigerator, though it barely worked, so we learned to buy most of our food in a form that didn’t require refrigeration.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for most people in a grid-down world will be that the infrastructure around them will not work, or will change rapidly into something that does work. There will be barter, and things will get very localized.  How could you ever prepare for such an eventuality? One way to prepare is to always read American Survival Guide, as well as staying alert to local and world events that could impact your way of life.

You should also learn pioneer and survival skills, and  get to know any of the various groups who practice one or more of the many survival skills. Find them on-line, or at Meetup.  And there is no shortage of Youtube videos and books to help you along this learning path. 

Let me know if you have questions.