Tuesday, October 16, 2007


Christopher Nyerges

[Nyerges is the editor of Wilderness Way, and the author of Guide to Wild Foods, How to Survive Anywhere, and other books. He has conducted wild food seminars and field trips since 1974. For information on his books and classes, contact Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, or www.ChristopherNyerges.com]

Back in high school, my friend Rocky and I ran together on our school’s cross country team. Often, when doing a longer practice run, we’d run back to our school in the Arroyo Seco wash just north of the famous Rose Bowl. Though the wash was once a wild stream bed where the local Native Americans lived, it was now a paved irrigation channel. But in spite of the cement, there were still spots where you could find cattails, watercress, and other water plants. Rocky and I learned about watercress during our running days.

Watercress was by far the most prolific low-growing plant in the wash. We both shared an interest in edible wild foods, but there were not as many resources 35 years ago for identifying plants as there are today. When we first began wondering about the plant we thought could be watercress, we each took a sample home and compared it to the pictures in the various books that we each had. We also showed samples to the school’s botany teacher, who confirmed it was watercress.

After that, we would pinch a little of the watercress plant each time we ran through the channel, and take it home to cook. We never ate that watercress raw in salads because the purity of the water was very questionable.

Learning about wild foods was an adventure, and it required a bit of a Sherlock Holmes persistence. There simply weren’t very many people around who could answer our questions about wild plants, and there were just a handful of books that we could use. Today, there are books, videos, on-line sources, and many more people who are able to answer questions about wild food identification.

Back then, I worked after school at the Altadena Public Library and would always check out every book they had on wild foods and botany. I regularly used Euell Gibbons’ "Stalking the Wild Asparagus" and Bradford Angier’s "Free for the Eating."

After I thought I’d identified the wild mustard plant, a friend in my math class, John Ball, showed me a line drawing of the wild mustard from one of Bradford Angier’s books. It looked nothing like the plant that I had assumed was wild mustard. It took us a few weeks to learn that we were both correct. I was looking at the young lyrate mustard leaves, and John was showing me a picture of the older mustard plant that had grown tall and gone to seed.

But it took us several weeks to ask other people, and go collect plants, and to all the footwork required to learn one plant! And this is why you can never wholly depend on books and videos alone in order to positively identify wild foods. You must see the actual plant in the field and you must have an expert point it out to you.

This means you must seek out classes and field trips wherever they may be offered, and be the best student.

During high school, I went on an all-day desert field trip to learn about desert plants. I was told that I was privileged to be in the presence of the botanist, since he knew more than anyone about the desert plants. OK, good, I was hyped up. So Mr. Botanist shows a plant and tells us about it. He goes to the next plant, shows it to us and talks about it. I break his stride and ask him to tell me again the name of a plant, and I try to test myself by asking about similar plants I saw along the trail. I was apparently upsetting Mr. Botanist’s program, and it was made clear to me very quickly that I should listen and take notes, but to not ask him to repeat things. Wow! What a non-education! I came away from that desert outing learning nothing. So, yes, you to find real teachers-in-the-flesh, but keep in mind that some may be less dynamic and engaging than others.

Some very distinctive plants can actually be positively identified by a picture in a book alone. John Ball and I studied pictures of miner’s lettuce during a break in our math class, and we both felt that it would be an easy matter to identify such a very distinctive looking plant. The miner’s lettuce has a round saucer or cup-shaped leaf with a flower stalk that grows right through the middle.

On a following weekend, John had been hiking up in the local mountains and he told me discovered a patch of the miner’s lettuce, and he ate some. He told me about the patch the following Monday. After school, I bicycled over to the base of the mountains and hiked up a steep incline about a half-mile in the chaparral-covered hillside. Sure enough, near the top, I found the delicate miner'’ lettuce plants, looking just like it does in the pictures. I carefully studied it, pinched some leaves, and slowly savored the delicate flavor. I pinched off enough leaves to fill a small bag, and headed back down the hillside and bicycled home.

That night, I had my first watercress salad and cooked watercress greens. To me, it was the culmination of a long adventure and mystery, all mixed up with the tales of the California 49ers, and California Indians. I let my brother and father taste a little, and I expected them to share my excitement. "It’s OK," was all they blandly responded after their cautious taste.

Oh, well, I was still thrilled to have learned and tried a new wild plant. I experimented with different miner’s lettuce recipes for the next two weeks before going on to learn another new plant.

"Wild Edible Plants" by Donald Kirk, Naturegraph Publishers [Box 1047, 3543 Indian Creek Road, Happy Camp, CA 96039], 1975. Though largely focused on western plants, this includes more plants than most books. The pictures are generally not sufficient for positive identification.

"The Forager’s Harvest" by Sam Thayer [W5066 Hwy 86, Ogema, WI 54459]. Clearly, this books leads the pack of the many wild food books available. Though focused on eastern plants, there are clear photos of the sequences required for identifying, harvesting, and processing wild foods. A must!

"Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants" by Christopher Nyerges [Chicago Review Press]. Though written in the west, most of the plants can be found throughout the U.S. Each plant is described in detail, along with edible, medicinal, and other uses. Photos are too small. Excellent appendix on edible plant families. [available from www.ChristopherNyerges.com]

"Stalking the Wild Asparagus" by Euell Gibbons. A classic read, though you may need another source to positively identify the plants. Commonly available new or used.

Friday, October 12, 2007


Finding Lessons in The Lord of the Flies

Christopher Nyerges

[Nyerges is the editor of Wilderness Way magazine, and author of "How to Survive Anywhere," and other books. For more information about classes and books, go to www.ChristopherNyerges.com or Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041]

Several of us were sitting around a table at Swork in Eagle Rock, drinking coffee, and discussing the problems of today’s world. We were discussing the challenges that parents have with out-of-control children, the Iraq war, terrorism, and other issues.

We began our discussion by analyzing two somewhat misleading questions often asked by Sunday morning pundits: One, why does God allow all the trouble and evil in the world? And Two, will we ever experience a world in harmony, in peace?

The first question is easy to deal with. God has nothing to do with the trouble in the world.
Period. Why do we blame God (or Universal Consciousness, or whatever we call God) for the results of our own ignorance and hypocrisy and preferences? We are agents of free will, are we not? We are the architects of our future, though most of us create our future in a willy-nilly, accidental way, not realizing that every inner secret choice and desire, and every word spoken, and every action, is creating destiny and the "future." But we choose to pretend that this is not so, and when we experience the worst nightmares of our own making, we blame God. As Fred Renich wrote, "We must become increasingly aware of our ever present tendency to use the mercy of a loving God, and his readiness to forgive, as an excuse for careless living."

Question Two is a little harder. Will there ever be peace on earth? Not just cessation of hostilities, but actual harmony among nations and people, and mutual respect that creates an environment of growth (inner and outer), real prosperity, and upliftment.

To answer this question, we have to ask ourselves, What is the obstacle to this harmony? Perhaps the best way to get a handle on this question is to look at all the ways in our own personal lives where disharmony exists. In our relationships, among our work peers, among our family members, among neighbors, among the differing members of our community.

All too often, we find that our problems are caused because we choose to think limbically, we make choices subjectively, based on who we like, and preferences to my family, my people, my religion. We have not been taught or trained to focus upon universal principles or objective reality. If we make decisions in familial or group disputes simply by choosing my side, my group, my religion, rather than upon what is objectively right, then we foster disharmony.

It is nearly always wrong to have a blind adherence to defending "my group." I strongly recommend you read and study Eric Hoffer’s classic book "True Believer."

And this is where the way we train our children to think comes in. If we have been trained to "take sides," and "defend my family" and to filter all our judgements through subjective ideas, we become inept as community and national leaders. If we rise to national leadership with all our preconceptions about other people, we become part of the problem. We become Democrats or Republicans, believing our side is right and the other is wrong. We become Sunni or Shia, knowing we are right and the other is wrong. We think as black or white or brown or red, and we believe that the others are wrong. We think as Catholic or Protestant and consider the other beliefs wrong. Etc.

It is our very belief that keeps us in our limbic brain, thinking primitively, mentally residing in a Dark Age.

It is not as if "answers" are not abundant. But we filter the answers through our subjective minds, and the typical human response is to kill off, imprison, marginalize, or ridicule to obscurity all the world’s great answer-givers.

Perhaps the greatest "answer" to the many problems of human existence is the command to Love your neighbor as yourself. Or, the command to do unto others as you’d have them do to you.

Will there ever be harmony on earth? Must the human condition continue to worsen? Perhaps it is time to think about saving and improving our self, and being less concerned about "saving the world."

As his sipped the last of his coffee, and looked out the window at the cars racing by on Eagle Rock Blvd., one member of our group, Gary, said that each and every one of us is like the boys stranded on the island in Lord of the Flies. In each moment of our daily life, we make choices. We can choose to be uplifted and civilized, or we can choose animalistic anarchistic choices. Each choice, and the consequences of those choices, creates the reality we live in. And in that sense, we are each the architects of our future. Once we find harmony within, there will be hope that there can be harmony in the world.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


The Technological Invasion of the Body Snatchers

[Nyerges is the editor of Wilderness Way magazine, the author of How To Survive Anywhere and other books, and an outdoor field guide. He can be reached at Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, or www.ChristopherNyerges.com.]

It was hot – beastly hot – so I went to a local coffee shop to drink iced tea. Maybe I would meet someone and engage them in good old-fashioned conversation. I purchased my iced tea from the new and shiny counter of the new and shiny coffee house. I sat in a comfortable chair and read my newspaper. I hadn’t paid attention to the other patrons in the coffee shop but I noted it was very quiet.

Looking up from my cool beverage, I saw that there was only one person per table, each wholly engaged in their laptop world. There was some light jazz playing in the room, but I seemed to be the only one tapping my foot to the music of Dave Brubeck. Everyone had wires in their ears extending to some hidden source. Everyone was tuned into something else, somewhere else, and no one was tuned into the here and now. A full room of lonely, separated, non-communicating people. No conversation would be possible.

I went outside to enjoy the cool evening breeze and maybe make conversation with fellow sojourners. One man sat alone outside but spoke in hushed tones as he waved his arms. No, not a crazy man, but a man who was elsewhere on his cell phone. The other person outside was a woman, also alone and yelling into the abyss of her phone. I would be making no conversation out here, I realized. Everyone was somewhere else.

I felt disoriented, like a stranger in strange land of techno-toys. I got in my vehicle and drove away.

I went to Trader Joes, did my shopping, and noted that nearly half the shoppers were not here now, but chatted away on their cell phones to people somewhere else. Some had wires extending from their ears.

One man entered with a silver device wrapped around his ear, Star Trek-like, and he was obviously elsewhere as he talked to unseen recipients. I hailed him with my hand, and inquired about the object.

"It’s my I-pod," he said enthusiastically. "I couldn’t live without it."

A friend told me a story about his cousin who plays on a sports team at a local college. The team takes a school bus to the other school, plays the game, and then all the students sit in their own private I-podded musical worlds as they bus home.

"Don’t you all talk?" the student was asked.
"We don’t do that," was the reply.

What a depressing world we’ve devolved into. I can recall bussing home from high school track meets, listening to "Papa Was A Rolling Stone" and all us boys sang along in comraderie, whether we lost or won. How have we descended to the point where it is regarded as better to reside in a safe little podded world.

It would be instructive for today’s over-teched youth to go watch the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and replace "pod" with "I-pod." We are all being podded, and without a fight.
During our recent blackout, I sat outside in the cool darkness of the evening with no cell phone, no lights, no TV, no telephone, no e-mail, no electronic gadget which would pod my mind and rob my time. It was a deep pleasure to be alone with myself, to think about life, and life’s important questions, with no chance for google or wickipedia to presume to know my inner answers.

Though I marvel at our technological advances, I cringe with sadness to realize what we have all lost.

by Christopher Nyerges (with commentary from Castaway)

A plane crashes on some remote island, and only the British school children survive. They learn to hunt, to make fire (using Piggy’s specs), to enjoy themselves. Then the battle for power begins. One side is for rules and laws, and the other side wants to live by rule of might.
"Lord of the Flies" has been widely viewed and widely discussed. What does it mean? What does it tell us about our basic human nature? Is our desire to do good and cooperate with others a skill that must be learned and maintained?
The movie (and book) begins with the boys experiencing a sort of innocent paradise, as they swim and cavort and learn about foods in their adult-free world. The obvious need for leadership results in a vote between Ralph, who represents order and the rule of law, and Jack, who represents immediate fulfilment of desires, power, and even savagery. Ralph wins the election.
In the beginning, Ralph and Jack are not depicted as being all that different. Indeed, they are friends. Ralph is set on doing the best for all, helping the weak, making sure that everyone is fed. Jack seems more intent on his own power ambitions.
A conch shell is chosen as a sign of leadership, and an indication of who has the "floor" during meetings. But Jack forms his own band and moves away from Ralph. Jack chooses to disregard the blowing of the conch. That choice leads to further division and animosity. Eventually, the conch is destroyed when a boulder rolls onto it, symbolizing the loss of one of the symbols of their chosen civility.
Jack’s group steals Piggy’s specs to make fire, another strike at cooperation and civility. Jack’s group also lets the signal fire go out, showing that Jack has lost his focus of trying to get off the island.
In analyzing The Lord of the Flies, countless analogies have been used to describe the social dichotomy that it shows, such as users vs. takers, or producers vs. consumers, or urban vs. rural, or primitive vs. civilized, etc. Perhaps it is the same old story of Cain vs. Abel, or the farmers vs. the ranchers. But is it that simplistic?
Jack and his group finally devolved to the point where murder was justified. Jack and his group started to hunt Ralph. Jack’s desire for total power would be solidified with the elimination of Ralph (the last opposing force). As Jack’s group chases Ralph along the beach, they all confront a force they all have to reckon with – the rescuing sailors. A group of men landed on the island and watch in amazement at the behavior of the "children". The look on the children’s faces express their thoughts. Jack realizes his reign is over; Ralph is relieved his life is saved.
We see something in the childrens’ faces: now they have to account for their actions to a higher power. The choices we make in life have ramification that ripple through our lives. "Ralph" and "Jack" are choices we make every day of our life. What legacy will we leave? What actions will we ultimately be accountable for? The amateur film-makers who created the original Lord of the Flies did so during the boys’ summer vacation. They tracked the lives of the boys who acted in this movie, and the boy-actors were all high achievers in their personal lives. They said that making the movie deeply affected them. Even though it was "just a movie," they realized that it was far better to work hard to choose the way of Ralph, rather than to ever find oneself descending into Jack-ness.


Christopher Nyerges

I finally saw the much-discussed Apocalypto movie, directed by Mel Gibson. It was a terrible movie, disappointing in just about every way. Sure, there were great costumes and lots of tatoos and bones sticking out of people’s faces. And the scenery was beautiful. But I watch a movie for some lesson, some point, some redeeming value. I look for a principle of life that I can recognize and hopefully apply the positive aspects to my life. I detected not a bit of that in Apocalypto. The movie consisted of the daily banter among one tribal group, their capture and imprisonment by a more brutal group, and then an unlikely and pointless chase scene.
Mel’s savage leader from the capturing tribe was just the reincarnation of one of the brutal Roman soldiers in the Passion of the Christ.
Apocalypto was a pointless movie and after feeling so disappointed that I wasted two hours, I wondered why Mel took the time to make a movie with no redeeming value, no real insight into human nature, and no particular historical authenticity.
I thought that Mel could have uses the scenario of two factions in a society and the disappearances of societies to make a good point about the human condition. There was the possibility for insight into the Jonestown massacre, and various disappeared societies such as the Moche, and so many others. But there was no such insight provided.
It would be worth while to compare and contrast Mel’s spectacular pointless movie with the original Lord of the Flies, filmed in three months by rookie film-makers with non-actor children. There we saw a classic depiction of the degeneration that occurs when individuals choose to not remain civil, and the two factions that developed as the children followed their respective leaders. The Lord of the Flies not only provided a valuable sociological lesson for generations to come, but it wholly changed the lives of the children actors.
But somehow Mel Gibson missed all the possible lessons that he could have conveyed in Apocalypto. It was simply two hours of great costumes, great scenery, and bodies with exotic tatoos and scars and faces with numerous nose, chin, and ear inserts, all with questionable historical value.
So why should we see Apocalypto? No reason that I can think of.
As an actor, Mel Gibson really has provided us with some valuable lessons in his movies such as The Year of Living Dangerously, the Mad Max series, Signs, and others. He has failed to live up to a high standard in Apocalypto.
A movie should be an open book, a vehicle for upliftment, inspiration, and useful lessons of life. If not, why should we devote our time to seeing it?