Monday, August 20, 2018

How Eric Sloane Influenced my Work

Lessons for Artists from Eric Sloane

[Nyerges is the author of “Guide to Wild Foods,” and nearly two dozen other books.  He also teaches writing, self-reliance skills, and ethnobotany. He can be reached at]

Eric Sloane is one of my favorite artists.  His work is primarily line-drawings, and he’s authored such books as “A Reverence for Wood,” “Eric Sloane’s Weather Book,” “Our Vanishing Landscape,” and “Age of Barns.”  And many others.

Sloane is also a thinker and philosopher, not merely sharing old timey things for their antique value, but constantly trying to share that there was a living character of self-reliance that we have all but lost due to our penchant for modern devices and letting other people do our work for us.

As a would-be artist, I have used Sloane’s images to practice my line art.  I figured, I’m not trying to become another Sloane, but if I could get my level of artistry closer to his, my skill will have increased.  I am still no where close to that level, probably because I simply don’t practice as much as necessary to become a master.

My very first book was “Guide to Wild Foods,” which took me more or less 4 years to write and then another year for the artist to illustrate it.  I knew that my skill was insufficient for that early book, but 10 years later by the time it was revised and revised, I undertook to draw the plant images for that fourth edition.

Though I have had scant few art lessons, I learned from Sloane that drawing is not so much about the technicalities of drawing, as it is about seeing.  As I drew each plant for my revised book, I had collected a sample of that plant which I set before me.  I would move the leaves and stems this way and that, in order to show all the significant parts of the plant that would help in identification.

Then I would begin the hours-long process of penciling each plant, where I was able to show  both the character of the plant, as well as the essential details.

Once I was happy with the pencil drawing, I went over it in black ink, and these nearly 70 images became the latest book. 

I have always liked that version of the book the best, because not only did I entirely produce the book – from typesetting to layout to printer – but it’s my personal art gallery, which contains much of my work in one place.  I would have been proud to give a copy to Eric Sloane should I have ever met the artist.

But as technology improved and prices for color printing dropped, no one really cared for a botanical book with simple black and white drawings. “Guide to Wild Foods” is currently published in full color by Chicago Review Press, and sells more widely than my line-drawing version ever did. 

I began to think about the artist’s eternal conflict after reading Eric Sloane’s “Legacy” book.  The conflict is how to retain your impeccability as a true artist, and how to reconcile that with the business world and the need to stay solvent financially.   It was a good business decision for me to turn my “Guide to Wild Foods” book into an all-color book, because far more people are learning about ethnobotany from it now.  Still, it makes me happy to see that my all-line drawing 1995 version can still be occasionally found on Amazon and ebay for the collector who likes folk art.

Though I have always purchased Sloane’s books for the art first, and the writing second, I want to share some of his ideas about writing.

In his chapter “The Adventure of Writing” in “Legacy,” he writes, “Writing is an apparatus for the conveyance of thoughts. Some writers write because they have something to say; others write just because they want to say something. The writer who writes for the purpose of making money should forget it; there are easier ways to make a living. When you chase money, it becomes elusive, but when you ignore it for the love of hard work, money seeks you out like a neglected lover: Payments will come in from stuff you had even forgotten about. Writing shouldn’t be a commercial occupation, because it is a religion and a calling that should never be treated sacrilegiously.”

That’s quite a sentiment, though I doubt those who write (anonymously) copy for web site and advertisement and city brochures will lose sleep over the fact that they are writing for their income, as factotums.  Even I have done plenty of writing such as ghost writing, editing, brochure writing, and web-content where you’d never know it was me doing it. It was honest work that paid the bills.

Still, I think every beginning writing student, whether journalists or those seeking literary careers, should read and study Sloane.

Among his other advice to writers, from his long life of experiences, Sloane adds “Writing to compete (like writing to make money) is both bad manners and bad thinking:  Being yourself and enjoying your writing is paramount.  Nowadays competition is the major philosophy of business, the backbone of the national economy, and the essence of sports.  Competition is the spark of the American way.  Yet, no doctor, inventor, painter, or writer ever reached greatness by means of competition.  The only person that any kind of artist should compete with should be him or herself.  Always trying to do better work used to be the rule of old-time writers, but that was when there was such a thing as indecency and four-letter words were considered crude or rude…. Writing has become a competitive industry instead of an art and a way of life.”

Sloane is forever the idealist, and for better or worse, he lived what he believed.

Again, students of journalism, English, and literature should all be required to read, study, and discuss the Sloane doctrine.

He concludes, “A writer is not someone who writes as much as someone who thinks, and the writer’s prime reason for being is to help others think.  Teaching people to think is the highest calling of civilization.”

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Old School Knife Sharpening: Meet Julio Toruno



[Nyerges is the manager of the Old L.A. Farmers Market every Tuesday in Highland Park, at Ave. 58 and Figueroa.  For information about Nyerges’ classes and books, he can be reached at]

Julio Toruno is intimately involved with knives everyday.  But he’s not a survivalist, a knife collector, nor a cutlery dealer.  He doesn’t live in a remote compound, and he’s never heard of all the TV survivor actors.  Toruno is a quiet man who’s found his peace through the art of knife-sharpening.

Many times a week, including Tuesdays at the Highland Park Farmers Market, he sets up temporary shop from the back of his truck.  He’s a peripatetic knife sharpener; “have stone, will sharpen,” seems to be his motto.

Toruno got started with knife-sharpening because of his background in cooking.  He’s worked as a prep cook, and as a cook at a private school.  He knew that a sharp knife was a necessity in getting the job done.

For the last four years, Toruno has been a peripatetic knife-sharpener, driving to various locations where he sets up shop and does his trade. 

When I recently approached him as he was sharpening a large kitchen knife, I could see that he was very focused, and I didn’t know at the time that he was counting his strokes.  His concentration was completely on each strokes of the knife on his wet stone. I watched him evenly stroke the knife back and forth, and occasionally put some water onto the stone.  I waited until he finished, after he wiped the knife clean, and set it to the side, before I began to ask questions.

The stones are mounted in a vice that Toruno made, which allows the stone to sit atop a large stainless steel rectangular pan filled with water.  This makes a very neat system, so that the water he continually adds to the stone drips right into the pan.

I gave Toruno one of my carbon steel sheath knives so I could watch the process from start to finish.  He mounted the coarsest wet stone onto his vice, which had a grit of 120. (The smaller the number, the coarser the grit of the stone). He tells me that he first examines my knife to see how many strokes it needs, and to see if there are any particularly bad spots on the knife. He decides to take my little Russel skinning knife through his five stages of sharpening.  He lays the knife onto the wet stone, matching the angle the cutting edge to the stone. He then gives it about 70 even strokes. “The number of strokes changes as I move from stone to stone, and depending on the knife,” he explains. “The further along the process, I use less strokes, but on average it’s about 160 strokes total per side, from the coarse to the fine stone.”

When he was done with the 120 grit stone, he moved to finer grits of stones.  He proceeded to stroke my knife with a 220 grit stone, then 320, then 1000, and finally the finest work was done on an 8000 grit stone. 

Toruno looked at my knife’s edge carefully, and sliced through a piece of glossy paper to show how sharp he’d made it.

For a beginner just getting started in knife-sharpening, he suggests going to any woodworking store and buying a stone with a different grit on each side, such as a 500 and 1000 grit stone. 

Locally, Toruno can be seen Tuesdays at the Highland Park Farmers market at Avenue 58 at Figueroa, and at the Altadena Farmers Market at Loma Alta and Lincoln.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Antigua of Highland Park: Doing Little Things to Help the Environment



[Nyerges is the manager of the Old L.A. Farmers Market, every Tuesday from 3 to 8 p.m. at Ave. 58 and Figueroa. He is the author of “Self-Sufficient Home,” “Extreme Simplicity,” and other books. He can be reached at]

As I was walking from the Old L.A. Farmers Market to get my usual cup of coffee-chocolate at Antigua’s, I noticed a new flower bed in the back of the coffee house.  Where there was once trash and dead weeds, now there was now a beautiful wood-framed garden bed with colorful flowers and even some vegetables.  But there was something different about this approximately 6 by 6 foot garden space. There was a wooden pole sticking out of the middle, and a plastic bucket was strapped to the pole with some sort of tubing leading to the roof.

I went inside to talk with the owners, Dennis and Miguel Hernandez. The Hernandez brothers were both born in Guatemala City, Guatemala, so they named their coffee house after their home town. (Antigua is the name of the “old” Guatemala City.)  They both moved to Los Angeles in 1999 as teens, moving to the U.S. with their father. They both worked at similar jobs, including food industry jobs which got them interested in starting their own coffeehouse.

After lots of work, they started Antigua at 5703 N. Figueroa in September of 2007.

I saw Dennis and asked him to explain the unique garden out back.

“Oh, you need to talk to Miguel,” he told me with a big smile. “It was Miguel’s and his daughter’s idea.”

So the next day, I met with  brother Miguel, and we discussed the ecological garden.

Miguel told me that he had wanted to do something with a little bit of space in the rear of the coffeehouse, a somewhat ugly little spot where trash would accumulate.  So, with encouragement and help from his teenage daughter Kathy,  he built the little sturdy-framed garden out back.


“You know we throw a lot of coffee grounds away, right?” Miguel asked me. “Well, we filled that little raised bed garden with lots of our coffee grounds.  It’s a really good way to recycle the grounds.”  Miguel pointed out that they still end up tossing some used coffee grounds away, because they use so much.  They do give some away to gardeners and mushroom growers, and they plan to continually find a home for their used grounds.


“But what’s that plastic bucket up on the post?” I asked Miguel.  He broadly smiled and he told me that he realized the air conditioning for Antigua constantly drips out water.  “I ran a tube from the AC to that bucket, and the water from the bucket drips down and waters the garden.  Why not put that water to use?,” he asked.  

Miguel wasn’t sure if the AC condensation would be sufficient to water the garden, but to his surprise, he found that the water from Antigua’s AC system filled the five gallon jug at least three times a day, and up to five times during hot weather.  “There is so much water coming off the AC,” explained Miguel, “that I run the tube to fill those overflow bottles, and I actually take water home for irrigation.”


The little garden also has a little   solar lamp, and a bird bath for the birds.  It’s a great example of what anyone – even in the urban environment – can do to help save and recycle resources.

The Hernandez brothers also recycle as many of their used cans as possible, in which they receive certain food items. And during very hot weather, they put out a jug of water and cups on the front entrance for passers-by to get a drink.  “A lot of people, even homeless, really need a drink and sometimes they are a bit too embarrassed to just ask for water,” explains Miguel. They also put out a water dish for dogs.

“We’re just trying to do the right thing to give back to the community,” explains Miguel. “And if we do this, maybe others will do so also, and we’ll all make a difference to our community.”


Water dripping from air conditioners: Is it sanitary?

Answers to your questions about the news.

July 15 2013 3:02 PM

Ever wonder about the water that drips down from air conditioners as an unwelcome sidewalk surprise when you’re walking to work? In 2011, Forrest Wickman looked into the reason why ACs are so leaky, and if there’s anything unsanitary about the water that’s dripping down on you. The original article is reprinted below.


Air conditioner water: Is it good enough to drink?

Walk down any city sidewalk on a hot summer day, and you're bound to get wet—and not just when it's raining. Water drips from window AC units, especially on muggy days, and this unpleasant drizzle can fall into your hair or even onto the lip of your morning coffee cup. Is all that dripping water sanitary?

Yes, as a general rule. Most of the dripping from air conditioners is just condensed water vapor that comes from the air inside the building. Window air conditioners are designed to drain this water from the back, raining it down on any unsuspecting pedestrians below. In most ways this water is exactly like rain (which also forms from condensed water vapor) or the moisture that collects on a cool can of soda, and it's typically no more harmful. However, in rare cases small amounts of water can be left to stagnate inside the air conditioner, making it a breeding ground for bacteria.

On a hot and humid day, a window unit can drip up to 2 gallons of water, which accumulates on its evaporator coil as it cools and dehumidifies the air. (Very little condensation gathers on the exterior side of an AC, which tends to be warmer than the air around it.) This coil, like many plumbing pipes used for drinking water, is made of copper (which is also what makes air conditioners so heavy), and it's much cleaner than you might expect from looking at a dusty AC filter. While copper can be unhealthy in high doses, the condensate from air conditioners seems to be low in minerals and dissolved solids.

In a properly functioning air conditioner, the water drips down from the coil into a condensate pan and then exits the unit through a drain or tube. However, a clog in this drain or tube can leave a puddle to accumulate inside, which is an ideal environment for many types of harmful bacteria. In particular, a 1976 outbreak of Legionnaires' disease was caused by bacteria that spread out of the air conditioning system at Philadelphia's Bellevue-Stratford Hotel. (That's how the disease got its name: Many of the victims were attending an American Legion convention.) While Legionella is known to thrive in the cooling towers of large air conditioning systems like the one at that Philadelphia hotel, it does not seem to grow in smaller units. Furthermore, dripping water isn't really stagnant, so it's extremely unlikely that the water raining down on pedestrians would be infected.

The water that drips from air conditioners is probably even safe for drinking. (It's certainly more potable than the drinking water in many countries.) Still, for the reasons mentioned above, it's best not to tilt your head back for a draft. If you're looking for a better use for your air conditioner's condensate, the Explainer recommends using it to water your plants.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Douglas T. Reindl of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Mark Sobsey of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Friday, July 20, 2018

"The Winds Erase Your Footprints" --Life on the 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 Standing Bear adopted Shiyowin, and let Shiyowin 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. (After Shiyowin’s death, I donated most of Standing Bear’s personal possessions to the Crazy Horse Museum in South Dakota).

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.

Shiyowin edited and revised and rewrote her book many times over the next 30 years, and she died in 1983 before it was ever published.  I married Shiyowin’s daughter Dolores in 1986, and when I saw the box with hundreds of pages of manuscript, I asked Dolores if I could read it.  In fact, Shiyowin had hired Dolores to type many of the revisions over the years, and so Dolores was familiar with the content.

Once I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down. It was amazed at the quality and depth of the story, and could barely believe that it had never been published. Shiyowin had actually received an advance from a publisher some 20 years earlier, but since she kept rewriting and revising, it never got published.  

Shiyowin Miller, who had been adopted by Luther Standing Bear (author of "My People the Sioux" and other books) 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.

From chapter 3: Pentz's Trading Post

Juanita stood, head forward, her hair long and black in the sunlight; she shook it, the drops of water flying. She ran her fingers through it, the pale, yellow shreds of fiber falling lightly to the ground. Luciano was washing his head now, in water that his mother had prepared. Juanita began to comb her hair carefully, the comb snagging and tangling in the still-wet strands. She stopped and disentangled the combings, rolling them into a little ball. The wind caught it and tumbled it over and over across the ground.

"Ah-yeeee!" Shimah exclaimed and went running after the ball of combings. She brought it back and placed it carefully in the fire, watching as the flames consumed it, talking rapidly to her son. I am guilty of some small breach of custom, Juanita thought, and then was surprised at the gravity of her husbands' face. He sat back on his heels, his hair dripping unheeded.

"You must always burn your combings," he told her seriously.

"My mother says never to let any of your hair escape like that."

"I'm sorry, Lu," she began. "It was a bit untidy. But out here in the open I thought the wind would carry it away."

"That's it: the wind might . . ." He stopped abruptly.

Juanita was puzzled. It was such a little thing for him to get upset about, and she had said she was

sorry. "Is there some tabu connected with hair-combings?" she asked gently, trying to smooth the

troubled look from his face. "If I knew it I'd observe it--you know I would." Shimah stood by gauging the conversation by their voice tones. Luciano was still disturbed. "It isn't exactly a tabu, but just don't be careless." It wasn't like her husband to speak so. He'd always been patient about explaining even small things. She turned away to hide the hurt.

Shimah plucked at her sleeve, speaking gently, soothingly, as though to erase the hurt, the alarm.

"Tell my daughter-in-law to give me her jewelry so that I can put it into the soaproot suds. That will be good for the silver and the turquoise."

Juanita resolved not to mention the incident of the hair-combing again. Lu was moody, preoccupied with looking for a job. It wasn't anything important, only puzzling, and it wasn't worth a misunderstanding if she never found out. There was so much she didn't know, it would take forever to explain in detail everything she asked.       

From Chapter 5: Wild Duck Dinner

Wounded Head greeted them with warm words, but his face remained impassive--cold. His son

extended his hand for a limp handclasp. Juanita and Luciano were given a comfortable place to sit at the back of the hoghan, but Juanita wasn't comfortable. She was conscious of her hair being disheveled from the race up the canyon; she tried to smooth it, putting one hand to her head unobtrusively. She wished that she had worn a skirt instead of Levis. Somehow she could feel Wounded Head's disapproval without seeing his face.

Luciano was talking to the two men. No, he hadn't as yet gone to work in Albuquerque.

Wounded Head placed his fingertips together with elaborate care. Was it true that in that Western

place, where Luciano had been, there was great opportunity for ambitious young Navajo men?

Luciano misunderstood. Was his son planning to go there?

A thin ghost-like smile passed over Wounded Head's face and was gone. He shook his head.

The stew was ladled into bowls and passed to them. Juanita cooled one of the pieces of meat on her spoon. That didn't look like mutton. She bit into it. Beef! Wounded Head and his family did eat well. Her husband had placed his hat on the bedroll behind him, and now his dark head was bent over the bowl of stew attentively. He looked up long enough to direct a sidelong glance at her when their host got up, took a can of peaches from the cupboard, and opened it with his knife.

The meal finished, they sat back looking into the fire, the men talking leisurely of unimportant things. Wounded Head's wife asked a few questions of Juanita, through Luciano: did she like it here . . . did she miss her own people?

It was a foolish thing, her imagination was overactive, Juanita told herself, but she wanted to get away. The fire was bright, warming; Wounded Head's wife was pleasant; Wounded Head himself seemed almost friendly as he drew Lu into conversation; but it was a strong feeling that Juanita had--as strong as a cold wind--as dark as a dark shadow. She was relieved when Luciano finally arose to go. He thanked them for the good meal and then the blanket over the doorway dropped behind them. She was first in the saddle and started toward the edge of the mesa.

"Not that way," Luciano called. "There's no trail--only rocks."

Juanita turned and followed Luciano as he picked his way down the other side of the mesa. Halfway down the narrow trail, Luciano took off his hat. Holding it at arm's length from him, he shook it carefully. Puffs of yellow dust scattered on the wind.

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 School of Self-reliance, Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, for $22, or check the Store  at

On Willow...



A lesson in learning how to learn

The wise man of the forest had been hailed by the people of the land, the eager pilgrims, to teach another lesson in the ways of nature. “Speak to us on the ways of the willow, oh kind sir,” asked one of the pilgrims. “The people are in great need, and it would benefit them greatly to learn the secrets of the prolific willow.”

The wise man listened intently, and told the pilgrim that he would teach the lesson on the morrow, and that the pilgrim should bring the families to the spot in the river where the willows grow around mid-day.

“Oh thank you kind sir,” said the pilgrim. “We shall be there, eager and ready to receive your lessons.”

On the following mid-day, the wise man was at the willows early, as the pilgrims began to trickle in.

It was a cool day as the pilgrims gathered around the riverbed area, near the tall and drooping willows.

“Oh, kind sir,” asked the elder pilgrim. “It is so chilly in this area. Perhaps we can build a small fire to warm up before you begin your talk?”

Without speaking, the wise man of the forest collected a long straight piece of dried willow. It was about as thick as a pencil, and about a foot and a half long. He took another dead and dried piece of willow branch, about as big around as his fist and maybe a foot long. As the pilgrims watched, the man of the forest first took his large knife and split the branch in half, and then further split the half so he had a flat rectangular piece of willow. All the pilgrims watched carefully as the wise man made a little triangular cut into the edge of the wood, and then he began to press the pencil-shaped piece of willow onto the flat piece. The wise man pressed hard, and begun to spin the willow drill onto the flat piece of willow, and soon smoke flowed from the friction. The wise man continued to spin thusly, and smoke poured out from the drilling. Soon, there was a red-hot ember in the dust that the wise man created.

The wise man quickly collected a bunch of dried willow bark from a dead branch, and scraped it with his knife to create a fluffy bunch of thin bark. He deftly placed the little ember into his nest of fluffy willow bark, and carefully blew on it until it puffed into a flame. He then placed it into a circle of stones, and added dry willow sticks so that the fire could grow and the pilgrims could warm themselves.

The wise man then began to collect his thoughts for his talk, when the leader of the pilgrims spoke up again.

“Kind sir, I don’t want to trouble you, but we have an elder here with pain in his legs. He cannot stand or sit comfortably on the floor. Is there something we can do for him?

The wise man nodded, and then proceeded to cut some of the dried and dead willow branches, those that were the straightest. He also peeled some long strands of the willow bark and put it to the side. First, the man of the woods created a square from the willows, and securely lashed the square. He then carefully measured, and then cut, willow branches that he then lashed to the square like legs, and the square because the seat of a chair. Taking a few more thick willow logs, he split them so they were flat, and secured these to the seat of the make-shift chair.

The wise man then helped the elder into the chair, cautioning him to sit carefully.

By now, the pilgrims had warmed some rice and vegetables on the fire, and one lamented to the wise man, “Too bad we didn’t bring forks and spoons.” The wise man whirled around back to the willows, and carefully trimmed pencil-thin twigs about 10 inches long. He passed several pairs of these to the pilgrim, saying only “chop sticks.” The pilgrims eagerly took these and began to eat their vegetables and rice.

By now, much time had passed and the sky was darkening.

As the wise man considered how to deliver his talk on the virtues of the willow, another pilgrim spoke up saying, “Kind sir, I have a terrible headache. Is there anything that I can do to help?”

The wise man nodded, and then carefully peeled off some fresh willow bark. He put the shredded green bark into a metal can, added water, and set it into the coals of the fire. After a few minutes, the wise man poured the tea-colored water into the pilgrim’s cup, and asked him to drink it. “The willow bark is nature’s aspirin,” he explained.

By now, the sky was darker, the children restless, and a cold wind began to pick up. The leader of the pilgrims looked about and decided they should depart for the day. As everyone was packing and getting ready to depart, he spoke up loudly for all to hear, saying, “We are all so thankful that the wise man of the woods came here to teach us about the wonderful willow, but we are very sorry that there was no time for him to teach us anything.”

The wise man tried to conceal his smile as he walked out of the canyon with the pilgrims.

Monday, June 18, 2018

The Wild Cherry

Native Americans processed and ate the pits
of this widespread and tasty summer fruit

Nyerges has been leading Wild Food Outings since 1974.  He is the author of Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants,  Foraging California, Extreme Simplicity, and other books. For a schedule of his classes, and information about his books, contact School of Self-Reliance, Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, or on-line at

Wild cherry is a common, widespread plant throughout North America.  Where I live in Southern California, there are five native species of wild cherry found throughout the Pacific Coast region.  People are surprised because they do not think of this semi-desert area which rarely gets frosts as being able to support cherries. Yet, these varieties are well adapted to this climate, with deep roots, and thick -- almost waxy -- leaves so it can survive periods of drought.

Wild cherries are believed to be the most widespread wild shrub throughout all of  North America.  The Prunus genus not only includes all wild and domestic cherries, but also nectarines, peaches, plums, and almonds. 

One of the first historical accounts of the local indigenous people eating wild cherries comes to us from Father Junipero Serra, who passed through the San Gabriel Valley area of Southern California in July of 1769.  He noted that the local Indians (the “Gabrielinos”) used various fruits, grass seeds and other wild seeds, etc.

Most of the year, the evergreen cherry bushes or trees will resemble holly, and people will often guess that they are looking at holly bush.  I tell my students to take a leaf and crush it and wait a few seconds to get a whiff of that characteristic odor.  Most agree that the odor resembles bitter almond extract used in cakes.  In fact, this sweet odor is from the presence of hydrocyanic acid (“cyanide”).  This is why you do not make tea from the leaves.

If we are hiking around the cherries in late summer, there will invariably be fruit on the bush.  Some will be ripe enough for us to taste.  Most people can look at this fruit, and guess that it is edible. (However, I strongly urge you to never assume any wild berry or plant is edible simply because you subjectively think “it looks edible.”  That can be a quick way to get sick, or die.  Never eat any wild plant if  you haven’t positively identified it as an edible species.)  I typically will sample a wild cherry and let my students taste one before I tell them what it is.  The taste is not identical to commercial farm-grown cherries.  There isn’t quite as much sugar in the wild cherries, and they have a bitter underflavor and a tartness that makes them uniquely enjoyable, especially when you’re in the back country with meager food rations.  After a few bites, someone will guess that they are eating a cherry. 

In wet years, there is a thicker, sweeter layer of pulp around the large seed.  In dryer years, the pulp layer is thin -- even paper-thin in drought years. 

And though the Indian population certainly enjoyed the pulp of these cherries in the past, they considered the seed as the more important food source.  Seeds were saved, and their thin shells removed.  There is a solid pulp inside the pit, just the same as there is with the store-bought cherry pits.  When you chew on the pulp, you’ll find a pleasant combination of that almondy-bitterness and sweetness.  Though it might be OK to nibble on a few, these seeds were always shelled and leached if substantial amounts were going to be consumed. 

The process of removing the hydrocyanic acid is essentially the same as for acorns. You shell the seeds, and boil the pulp for about half an hour, changing the water a few times.  Generally, you will not need to process cherry seeds as long as acorns. In fact, three boilings of cherry seeds are sufficient to render them safe to eat (whereas, acorns might require a much longer leaching time). The final product is then ground into flour, and mixed into breads, pancakes, soups, or other mush-type dishes.  It is good, and is a sweet flour. 

Shelling cherry seeds

Vickie showing the whole seed in bag and shelled seed in bowl

3x boiled seed, ready to eat

The Cahuilla people of the desert in the vicinity of Palm Springs called this plant cha-mish, and today refer to it as a chokecherry.  They did not typically use the leached seed for breads, but almost exclusively for soups or mush.  Sometimes they made the meal into little cakes.  When dried, they were quite hard and black.  They could then be stored a long time, and would be reconstituted in water before eating.   One form of pemmican was also made by adding the fruit of these chokecherries with deer or elk meat. 

There is a great photo essay on making cherry seed atole (and other cherry seed foods) in “Ethnobotany Project: Contemporary Uses of Native Plants” by Ramirez and Small, and published by

Dr. James Adams, co-author of “Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West,” adds applesauce to a cherry seed mush that he makes, and he reports that all his students enjoy it.

The inner bark of the wild cherries was also used for its medicinal value. A tea from the bark was used for diarrhea, stomach inflammations, and -- among the Cherokee -- the tea was said to help relieve the pain of labor during childbirth.  This medicine was also listed in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia in 1820 as a sedative. 

People of the 1800s and earlier would make syrup and soup from the cherries and use it as a medicine for whooping cough. The Miwok Indians of Northern California believed that eating the raw fruit was good for the voice. The bark of the cherries has been used extensively in cough medicines.  The use of cherry fruit or bark in cough medicines was not just for flavor.  But like with so many old fashioned medicinal remedies of the past, the modern counterparts that are now sold in stores are typically all sugar and artificial flavors.  Thus, horehound candy rarely has horehound in it, marshmallows have no marshmallow extract, and even the “cherry” cough medicines do not always have real cherry in it.  The price we have paid for our “advanced culture” is using more sugar, and concomitant health problems -- but that is another topic.

Due to the presence of anthocyanins in cherries, eating about 20 cherries provides the same anti-inflammatory effects as two aspirin, according to Alternatives.

Long, straight branches of the various wild cherries are often used for making archery bows, backrests, baby cradles, and various other crafts. 

The cherry is an attractive plant, somewhat conspicuous in the hillsides because of its somewhat shiny leaves.  The leaf shape of the common holly-leaf cherry (P. Ilicifolia) is very much like a camelia leaf, a simple ovate to round leaf with fine teeth along the margin.  In the spring, many white flowers develop, and as the summer progresses, you will see many small green cherries as they develop.  The fruits turn pink, then red, and then nearly black when they are ripe and at their best. 

Though great as a trail nibble, there are many recipes that you can make from the seeds’ pulp, and the deseeded fruit.  Uses for the fruit include jams and jellies, fruit pemmican, juices, and even ice cream. 

I recall taking a late August hike in the Angeles National Forest up a trail I’d never been on before.  There was no water along the four mile, uphill road that eventually led to one of the old, now-abandoned fire-lookout stations.  Though I foolishly neglected to bring along a canteen, I collected many of the ripe and very sweet wild cherries along the trail, and I ate them sparingly along the way.  I ate them sparingly, because if you consume a lot of the fruits raw, they can have a laxative effect.  I ate about three dozen fruits over the course of about three hours, and suffered no laxative results.

Keep in mind when you are collecting your wild cherries that bears enjoy this fruit also.  We’ve often observed abundant cherries in bear scat.  So be mindful and alert when you’re in wilderness areas during cherry season.

The seed readily sprouts, and I have occasionally kept the wild seeds which had particularly large or tasty fruits, and planted them in my yard or in pots.  I have several that sprouted and are now taller that I am, though I have not yet had fruit crops from these.