Thursday, December 27, 2012

Carel Struycken

Leaning Towards the Paleolithic

[Nyerges is the author of “Self-Sufficient Home,” in which Mr. Struycken is featured in one chapter. “Self-Sufficient Home” is available wherever books are sold, and at]

            Carel Struycken has long been interested in the principles in Permaculture not only as it relates to growing fruits and vegetables but also in the perspective he takes on most human activities.
            Struycken, who lives in Southern California, is an actor who played Lurch in the Addam’s Family, as well as roles in Star Trek, Men in Black, Witches of Eastwick, and others.  He was born in Holland, and grew up in Curacao in the Caribbean, and moved back to Holland at age 15.  We met at his home to discuss home food production and permaculture.
            He shows me the Bible of Permaculture, Bill Mollison’s “Permaculture: A Designers Manual” which details a way in which we can grow food and live with the land in accord with nature’s principles.  (“Permaculture” is a coined term meaning “permanent agriculture.”) 
            “The whole idea of permaculture is to put in as little work as possible, and allow nature to find its balance,” says Strucken, who produced all the vegetables for a family of 5 for many years using these principles.
            “I’m also a big fan of Fukuoka, author of ‘The One Straw Revolution.’  If I had the time, I’d love to go to Japan and work on his natural farm, and work there and learn about his methods,” says Struycken.
            Both Mollison and Fukuoka are advocates of natural farming, which means planting what is appropriate for the area, tilling as little as possible, letting all the leaves and old plants serve as fertilizer for the new plants, and using natural methods for bug control. 
            Using permaculture methods, Struycken grew lots of Asian greens, mostly those members of the mustard family that had the highest nutritional value.  He grew herbs, tomatoes, yard-long beans, and 14 fruit trees.
            His yard is terraced with cement rubble, pieces of old cement walkways that have been neatly stacked to form impressive and long-lasting walls using a material that is normally discarded. He also experimented with raised beds because the soil in his garden area was so bad. 
The smaller the plot, the harder it is to practice permaculture methods. Still, Struycken never raked up and discarded leaves.  Under his avocado tree, he allowed the leaves to accumulate into a thick layer of mulch.  “The layer of avocado leaves is well over a foot thick, and when you look into the bottom of the pile, it is all naturally producing rich soil,” he explains. 
            All the kitchen scraps are recycled in many compost heaps, and he worked at cultivating the earthworms that naturally occurred in his yard so that they would do the tilling that farmers ordinarily do.
“I didn’t go out and purchase those redworms that many gardeners use, but rather I worked at cultivating the natural earthworms and keeping them happy.  Sometimes, I would use this device with long tines that I would step on and it aerates the soil without actually tilling,” he explains.
            He purchased ladybugs years ago since they eat the “bad” insects, and he found that the ladybugs like the fennel plants. So the secret to keeping ladybugs around is to grow fennel, explained Struycken.
            Permaculture does not involve raking away leaves or garden scraps, but using them for the next generation of fertilizer.  Although Struycken has tried to produce all of his needed fertilizer from his own back yard, he has found the need to occasionally bring in chicken and horse manure for his crops.  “I stopped using the horse manure, though,” he says, “since I found that it produced too many weeds.”
            “I was always amazed that I never had to do anything to my lettuce, and it was always perfect. The ecosystem took care of itself,” explained Struycken.  He said that though there were many spiders and bugs in the garden, whatever bugs that ate his lettuce got eaten by some other bug.  This is one of the basic principles of permaculture – that nature, largely left alone, will find its own balance.  In this case, rather than use insecticides (which would kill all the bugs), mulching and providing a home for all life forms means that the desirable bugs will deal with the undesirable bugs, and Struycken will still have food.
            Struycken advises beginning gardeners to start small, and to select plants that are appropriate to their environment.   He explains that there are sustainable agricultural communities throughout the world which can be emulated.  For example, he gives the example of the traditional Hopi garden where the “three sisters” are planted.  Blue corn is first planted, and then squash planted. The squash shades the ground so less water is evaporated. Then after the corn is a foot or two tall, desert beans are planted at the base of the corn. The corn serves as a pole for the beans, and the beans add nitrogen to the soil via their roots. 
            Struycken, who has been in the movie business for about 30 years, wants to do a series of documentaries where he shows sustainable communities throughout the world so that the principles can be preserved for others to learn from.
            “The Amish are the most successful sustainable farmers and they are using early 18th Century technologies,” he says with a  smile.
            Struycken pauses to explain the difference between paleolithic and neolithic in order to make a point. 
            “Humanoids have been around for at least a million years,” he explains, “and modern humans have been here maybe 500,000 years.  The paleolithics were the hunter/gatherers, and the neolithics were those who were settled in one place and who began agriculture,” says Struycken. 
            “When we settled, we had to make the effort to force ourselves into the new mindset, but our true nature is paleolithic,” Struycken explains.  He then shares a few comparisons to make his point.
The paleolithics lived in the here and now, they were more primitive by our standards, but they controlled their populations, had fewer taboos and laws, had less possessions, and managed to live on what the forest provided.  He cites the Bushmen of the Kalahari as an example.
“Now, when you had agricultural and cow-raising people who lived adjacent to the primitive people, the Bushmen would rarely die of hunger, though the agricultural people would die of hunger. This is because the agricultural people learned to rely on, and expect, much more. When cattle died, due to drought, for example, the agricultural people suffered far more than the Bushmen.  The farmers also had to work a lot harder, usually 7 days a week, whereas hunter/gatherers worked maybe 3 days a week.”
Struycken cites the Bushmen and many others to illustrate that one of our “problems” is that we are so advanced that we have lost our primal paleolithic nature. Today, systems for gardening, farming, commerce, building, etc., are all essentially neolithic and therefore unsustainable into the future, according to Struycken.
In this sense, Struycken believes that the details of our very survival can be gleaned by looking to the past at the details of  sustainable societies.  
Struycken mentions a great essay that he read, “Agriculture is the Engine of Destruction” by John Zurzon, as an example of what’s wrong with the path our society is taking.  Struycken is optimistic, idealistic, and believes that the solution to our problems is to properly understand the living principles of  (so-called) primitive peoples.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Searching for the Real Meaning of Christmas

In 1976, I was asked to conduct a Christmas event for the non-profit I’d been a part of.  My job: “Find the real meaning of Christmas.”  Even after I agreed to do this, I wondered to myself later:  How can I do that?  How can I be sure that I’ve really got it?  How will I know whether or not I’m right?  

I was told by Ms. Hall, the then-president of the non-profit, to make a plan, and that I should write out the overall reasons and purposes for the event. I should list all the tools or supplies needed.  Then, I needed to schedule some time for the research.  I was to start collecting all the facts I’d need for my study into the meaning of Christmas. Sounded good, so far.

I needed to discover what all the symbols of Christmas meant, symbolically, to each of us.

“So you need to focus your thinking on all the important details that pertain to Christmas.  Once your thinking ‘opens up,’ you need to write it all down. Your job is to find, and then to convey, that real meaning to the others at the event,” I was told.

I felt even more overwhelmed.  I was not sure I could actually do this and get meaningful results.
So, I did the best that I was able to, in 1976.  I played a “mental movie” of the event, so I could picture the people, the sequence of events, helpers, food, music, the whole enchilada.  But most importantly, I kept trying to discover the “real meaning” of this day.

Finally, the Christmas Eve event took place.  It was half the day of music, movies, and delicious food.  Once it was underway, everyone seemed to fill their role rather professionally.  And there was my presentation on the meaning of Christmas.  I had toiled over my research notes, and done considerable “thinking-into” the subject.  Still, even as I stood there in front of 20 or so people, I had my doubts about whether or not I knew what I was talking about.

I explained how I grew up in a Catholic family, and was taught that Jesus was born on December 25, which is obviously why we celebrate his birthday on that date. But by age 14, I began reading literature from non-Catholic, and non-Christian sources, that pointed out that most of the Christian Holy Days – including Christmas – were pre-Christian, as hard as that was to believe.  These first revelations had the effect of making me even more depressed at Christmastime, since not only did I perceive it as time when the merchants induced us all to buy, it now appeared that Christmas had so-called “pagan” roots. 

I had a few encyclopedias with me, and read passages from them as appropriate.  I also had The Golden Bough, and Manly Hall’s Secret Teachings of All Ages.  I told the small group that was gathered there that day that I was amazed to discover that Jesus was not the only god or savior of world history who birth was commemorated on December 25, or a few days earlier on the solstice.   Mithra, for example, was born of a virgin mother in a cave. His birthday was commemorated on December 25.  Mithraism was the dominant religion of the Roman Empire during the time of Jesus.  Nimrod from Babylon was also said to be born on December 25, as was Osiris, Quetzalcoatl, and others.  A few members of our gathering were scratching their chins, wondering where this was leading.

“I was very influenced in my early teens by the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the writings from the Worldwide Church of God, who taught that we should not observe Christmas because it is pagan,” I stated.  I explained that it was not until the 4th Century when Constantine was attempting to unite his empire that he made Christianity the official religion, and he Christianized all the so-called pagan commemorations.  As a result, the birth of the Sun that was already commemorated by the Mithra-pagans was now going to commemorate the Birth of the Son. 

It turned out that nearly all of the Christmas symbols pre-dated Christianity, and were called pagan by some. 

“But what is a pagan?” I asked the group.  “It turned out that the pagani originally referred to anyone who lived in the country.  Only later did the term take on the meaning of a non-Christian, since it was harder to convert the people who did not live close to the cities of the day.”

During the next 45 minutes, I discussed the meanings of the wreath, evergreens, lights and candles, the giving of gifts, the virgin birth, and birth in a stable.  It turned out that Mary wasn’t the only mother of a god or savior who was said to have had a virgin birth.

“It’s correct that many people have been turned off when they learn of this hidden history of Christmas.  And it’s also correct that many religious and non-religious people use this time to take a break, to get drunk, and to engage in very unbecoming behavior.  I do not believe that one should eliminate the Christmas holiday.  What we need to do is find the practical meanings of these symbols and take the time to find a way to live a better life.  After all, what is the essential point of this time of year that has caused people for four or five millenia to commemorate it?”

Timothy,  who was a guest that night, described the importance of the winter solstice to ancient people.  “That’s why there are so many stone structures and shadows and drawings that tell people when it’s the day of least light.  Not only did the farmers want to know when the days would get longer, but it was also highly symbolic.  There in the deep of winter, when the days were darkest, suddenly the days started to get longer. That’s where the birth of the sun idea came from.  It’s highly symbolic, as you’ve been saying, and just about everyone throughout time has taken note of it.”

You could hear a pin drop when Tim spoke.  He had a deep voice and a very thoughtful tone.  

Tim had actually brought along two books on the astronomical significance of ancient sites both in Europe and the Americas.  He passed each around for the participants to examine. 

When it was over, I felt that I – and the guests – had come just a bit closer to finding this real, inner meaning to this special day.  But I knew this was not a matter of just collecting facts, like some college research project. 

Can I even say that today I know the “real meaning”?  I have come closer to experiencing the “magic” of Christmas in my personal life, year by year, and for that I am thankful. 

[Note: I eventually produced a booklet on the meanings of the Christmas symbols which I have used as the basis for lectures.  The booklet, called "Whose Child Is This?" is available at the Store at]

Friday, December 14, 2012

How TV Distorts Reality. Example: Mayan calendar.

[Nyerges is the author of “How to Survive Anywhere,” “Self-Sufficient Home,” and other books, available at bookstores, or  He can also be reached at Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041]

This week, I got a call from a popular TV “news magazine” show.  I was told that they were planning to air a program the following day about the December 21, 2012 end date of the Mayan calendar cycle.  They were aware that I teach survival skills and they saw my name associated with the Mayan date.

“We’d like to talk to you about the Mayan prophecies,” I was informed.

“Which Mayan prophecies are you referring to?” I asked.

“You know, the end of the world prophecies,” she casually responded.

“I’d be happy to talk to your viewers about the Mayan calendar,” I said, “and I’d let them know that there are no Mayan prophecies of doom-and-gloom that anyone knowledgeable is aware of.”  I explained that I studied in Mexico and Guatemala with Mayans.  “Are you aware of specific prophecies?” I asked.

"No, just in general that the world is going to end.

I explained that all the Mayan end-of-the-world hype was media fabrication.  What would be happening on December 21, according to most scholars, is that a large cycle of the Mayan calendar – 13 Baktuns lasting 5,125 years – will end, and another cycle will begin the next day. I told her that I’d be happy to ease her viewers’ fears, and explain that zealous media pundits somehow confused “end of a calendar cycle” with “end of the world.”

The TV show representative explained that she’d seen me on the National Geographic’s “Doomsday Preppers” show, and said she’d really like to see me with my survival gear.  (I was offered no compensation for the time I expected to give.) I explained that I was driving to work (yes, I do work!) and that I only had the minimal gear that I always carry, but not my full wilderness pack.    

“I’d still be happy to share with your viewers how knowing survival skills is a good thing all the time,” I continued, “considering all the very real problems that we all have to contend with, such as earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, economic disasters, terrorists, diseases, and so on.”

“Actually, we’re really looking for someone who is seriously preparing for the December 21st date.  We really want something more dramatic and sensational,” I was told.

It was becoming clear that I would not be on their show.

“Well, if you’re looking for a nut who’s frightened about the Mayan calendar and who is taking radical action based on panic and fear, then I’m not your man,” I told her.  “Still, I’d be happy to talk to you to give your show some balance.”  I continued, telling her that there is no special planetary alignment associated with December 21, no comet that we know of that’s about to hit the earth, no mysterious planet about to show up, and no heightened sun spot activity.  I again explained that we never really know what might happen, but we shouldn’t listen to the fear stories about things that have no relation to the Mayan calendar.  She politely listened.

“I tell people that whenever you act out of fear or panic that you nearly always make bad choices,” I added.

“Yes, well, we really want something more dramatic.  We want to show people who are very concerned about this December 21 date and who are doing something about it.”  She told me she would talk to her producers and might call me back for a taping later in the day for a show that was already planned for the following day. 

To no surprise, I never got a return call.

This taught me a lesson I’d experienced many times.  The modern media are all too often so focused on ratings and sensationalism that they will twist and distort (or ignore) the facts if this helps maintain viewers.  Though many of us might view the “quest for truth” to be a high ideal, not everyone does.  In this case, it was clear that the producers of this TV program were not concerned about whether or not there were in fact any Mayan “prophecies” at all. 

It is not just distortion and lies that we should protect ourselves against.  We also need to be equally concerned about that the reporters and journalists do not tell us. 

Sadly, TV, despite its vast potential, has increasingly become a wasteland.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

"Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays"?

"Merry Christmas!” said my Jewish friend when he greeted me with a smile. “Merry Christmas,” I replied.  I asked him if it ever bothered him that nearly everyone greets with “Merry Christmas” during December.   “Not at all,” he told me.  “I mean,  I recognize that 90% of Americans are Christians.”

“What do you think about people saying ‘Happy Holidays,’” I asked.

My friend laughed. “When people say that, I ask them, ‘What holiday are you referring to?’ Most say nothing, but some say, well, it’s New Years too.”

It was refreshing that my Jewish friend was OK with the “Merry Christmas” greeting.  In fact, he liked it.  “I don’t expect the vast majority to conform to me,” he explained.

Fair enough.  Then why are we so afraid in our political correctness to say “Merry Christmas”?  Are we really worried that it might offend someone?  Yes, there are other holidays: the secular Kwanzaa invented by a Long Beach State College teacher for African Americans, New Years (though most Chinese celebrate not January 1 but the Chinese New Years which usually falls in early Februrary), pagans who simply celebrate the solstice, and the month of Ramadan which sometimes falls near December, but not often as it moves forward through the calendar.  

 On the radio, a Christian man told the radio host that the didn’t celebrate Christmas, that it was a lie. The host was shocked.  What is the lie, the host asked.  The man said that he didn’t like the tale of Santa Claus, and that Jesus wasn’t born on the winter solstice.  The host, in so many words, called the man an idiot. 

But the conversation brought back memories of my researching the roots of Christmas back in my teens, when I discovered that Christmas is essentially a pre-Christian holiday.  Initially, I found myself disenchanted with that social norm of Christmas celebrations.  If this isn’t really about the birth of Jesus, I wondered, why should I participate in this pagan practice.  But over the years, I have had a different point of view about how to regard this odd Christmas holiday which is really a mish-mash customs from all over the world from various times. 

First, a bit of history.  Yes, it is true that the so-called “pagans” observed the solstices and equinoxes as their high holy days. In fact, nearly all religions in the past did so.  “Pagan” originally referred to the country people who lived outside of Rome-proper, but gradually became a derogatory term for non-Christians.

We do not know when Jesus was born. The scriptures provide clues but no exact dates and no indication that this followers ever made a big deal about the birthday.  And who was Jesus?  He was a Jewish rabbi, probably an Essene, who observed the Jewish holy days.  His followers changed their holy day to Sunday, in part to attract the “sun worshippers,” and also to separate themselves from the Jewish Saturday Sabbath.   

Remember, early Christians were killed and tossed to the lions.  But by the 4th Century, Constantine had a vision and declared Christianity the official religion of the kingdom.  He Christianized all the “pagan” holy days, which is how The birth of the Sun was turned into the Birth of the Son.  In fact, the observation of the winter solstice has been regarded with great reverence for as long as we can tell.  During this winter’s deep, the sun was in its lowest part of the sky as it rose each day.  Four days after the solstice, the rising sun appears to rise further north on the horizon – the sun has risen!  This astronomical event has long had great metaphysical and personal value to the millions of people who have observed and celebrated it for millenia.  

Though you may have many opinions about whether or not it was fair and square for the church to have stolen and renamed the pagan holy days, that does not make it inherently wrong.  In  fact, there is no inherent wrongness to it at al.  As with most things in life, its value is wholly up to us, to use the timing for spiritual upliftment and evolution.

The Year of "No Christmas"

When I was perhaps 10, my brothers and I were particularly bad and misbehaving and belligerent one autumn.  My mother gave us several warning and threats and a few “beatings” in her ceaseless attempt to get us to obey.  But I don’t know what was wrong with us that year.  It was as if we were afflicted by some unseen infection.  Or maybe it was what all teens go through when they believe they know more than their parents.  So my mother said, “Keep it up and there will be no Christmas this year.”  Of course, my mother didn’t control the calendar.  She just meant “no gifts.”  That threat did at first affect our behavior,  but then we’d go back to our nonfeasant and malfeasant ways.  There were numerous threats, as November rolled into December, but things didn’t substantially improve.

Now, I was at the age where I began to think about things, and the relative unfairness in the world, and the questioning of authority. But I also wondered why we should  receive gifts at Christmas.  By this time, I was aware that Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus at this time, and that it was primarily a religious holiday.  I just didn’t get the whole gift thing –not that I minded receiving.  But because I lacked an understanding of the whole picture, the idea of “no gifts”  didn’t seem that threatening to me.

Thinking back, our bad behaviour that year was likely the trickle-down defiance from our oldest brother.  David was never a defier, certainly not an open defier, but the defiance of Gilbert the eldest would have trickled down to Thomas, to Richard, to me.  We were not an ideal family, and I am sure I have suffered my entire life due to unnecessary defiance and the disrespect that I showed to my parents.  Did my parents deserve respect?  In retrospect, of course they did, though the question would have been irrelevant then – like the pot calling the kettle black.  

We were not saints, so who were we to point out hypocrisy in our parents?  Anyway, by mid-December, the word was out: No Christmas this year.  We were schizophrenic about this.  “Oh, we don’t care,” we sassed, but inwardly I believe we each felt a deep dismay at our own inability to live up to our household’s very simple standards.  I felt particularly dismayed that I had been no better, and that I was swayed along with the tide of my older brothers’ mob mentality.  No Christmas.  “She won’t follow through on it,” Tom told us with assurance.  But inwardly, I felt my mother had  to follow through, otherwise her word would mean little to us, and she’d gain little by “being nice.”  I don’t recall what my father had to say about this, but it wasn’t much.

So, sure enough, Christmas came, and we went glumly into the living room to a fire and the usual Christmas tree, but there were no gifts.  We went to church and we talked with our schoolmates. When they talked about what they got for Christmas, we just found ways to change the subject.  We had a quiet Christmas dinner.

One of my brothers told his friends that my mother was mean, but I never did that.  I knew we deserved nothing, and I felt a certain euphoric sense of justice in her actions, and I respected her more because of it. 

Interestingly, in certain ways, I felt closer to my mother after that, was more obedient because I simply felt better doing what was expected of me, and I never complained.  Despite a seeming lack, it was actually one of the best Christmas’ ever, where I received the most fitting possible “gift” – the ability to quickly experience that my choices and actions have consequences.

The story about my mean mother gradually got out into the neighborhood, and my mother once again became the topic of conversations, mostly criticizing my mother.  I always remained silent, trying to listen to both sides. But I only heard one side—no gifts – from those who truly lost the meaning of Christmas, whose sole focus for Christmas seemed to be the acquisition of things.  So I slowly was given a second “gift” by my mother’s action – a unique insight into the all-too-common mundanity of most people’s very narrow thinking.

On Gifting

Why give gifts we can't afford to people we don't like?

Another view of Holiday Gifting

“Have you done your shopping yet?,” an acquaintance asked.  I gasped, feeling the despair that descends upon me when I witness the scurry run-around that so many folks engage in during the Christmas season.  Giving is good, yes. Receiving  is good too.  
 Like the ancient native potlatch where tribal members tried to outdo each other in their givingness.  But have we moved too far from meaningful  giving?  Have we accepted the propaganda that the “Christmas shopping splurge” should somehow “save” the retail industry?  Have we lost our resistance?  Have we given in the fiction that it is socially necessary to buy lots of stuff (that we’d not buy otherwise) for people who we don’t particularly like, when we really can’t afford to do so?

The way to end the insanity is simply to end it.  End the pointless buying.

What are we celebrating, after all?  Santa Claus-who-brings-us-toys day?  The Winter Solstice?  The birth of the Sun?  The birth of the Son, Jesus?

Most American Christians say it is the latter.  So then why the gift splurge?  Some say this is because the three Magi brought gifts to the promised One.  The Magi gave symbolic gifts, nothing that was in any way useful to an infant.  They did not exchange gifts among themselves. 

Nor was this Jesus born on December 25.  Recall, if you will, that animals and shepherds were in the fields, and it was the time of a census that required much travelling.  It was definitely not in the dead of winter, as all historians agree.

Let’s get out our encyclopedias and learn  that the “birth of the Sun” celebrations were pre-Christian.  These so-called “pagan” traditions were part of the holy days of Mithraism and other pre-Christian religions.  Exchanging gifts was part of that tradition.

In the early days of the new cult of Christianity that arose from Judaism, there was the desire to “hide” the new Christian commemoration of the birth of Jesus when others were also celebrating the birth of the Sun.  Some credit the Roman Emperor Aurelian with this clever idea.  Eventually, when Christianity was the official religion of the empire in the 4th century, no such hiding was necessary as nearly all the pagan holidays became Christianized.

Still, our pointless profligate buying and giving is a relatively modern invention of the advertising industry.  Gone are the days of making something to give to another – a cake, cookies, a wooden bowl, a pipe, a toy, a hand-written card.  Gone are the days of personally handing a thoughtfully-made or acquired object to a person, as both parties exchange the gift of their time, and Selves, to one another, as they examine the physical object.  Or is such a day gone?

It is only by our choice to be a lemming that we continue the mindless buy and gift command from our marketing masters.

I’m not particularly concerned that most of the modern Christmas symbols can be traced back to the pre-Christian days – the wreath, the tree, the yule log, December 25, the birth of a saviour at the time of least light, the cards, and yes, gifting.  What matters most is the level of thinking and thoughtfulness that we inject into our observation of what should be a High Holy Day.  “Buying stuff” is anathema to this day.  We don’t have to choose to be a part of the cattle drive at the local mall.  Rather, choose something else.

Plan to be with close friends.  Plan thoughtful songs to sing.  Plan special movies to watch – I never get tired of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  Plan thoughtful readings about the meaning of the day.  And if you choose to give gifts, avoid the animalistic urge to wildly rip through the packagings of gift after gift.  Make each one special.  Tell the person why they were given the gift. Let them open it and examine it. Discuss how the gift will enhance their life.

I remember a scene in the book “Less Than Zero.”  It’s Christmas time and the author is at home when his father visits. The father is divorced from his mother, so he visits on holidays.  As he sits there on Christmas, he pulls out his checkbook and writes a check to his son.  The author – the son – lamented that his father didn’t take the time to at least write the check ahead of time, put it in an envelope, and include a note.  It was just done rather casual.  It was a classic “less than zero” moment.

In this time of least light, when the sun is about to start on the path to more light and longer days, when so many of us are scrambling at the malls for “good buys,” we can choose to eschew “less than zero,” and choose instead the Light.

Monday, November 19, 2012


It makes sense for all of us to give thanks to the American Indians on our national day of thanks. Let's briefly review some of the many contributions of the Native Americans.
The European immigrants were not treated to any sort of welfare or foreign aid package, in the way we practice such today with newcomers to the United States, or with foreign countries. The new settlers to America were helped in accord with the old Chinese axiom: "Give a man a fish and he eats for one day; teach him how to fish and he eats for life."
They taught the newcomers how to identify and use the native vegetation, such as wild berries (cranberry, crabapples, et al.), wild roots (Jerusalem artichoke, wild onions, et al.), wild gourds, wild leaves to make teas, wild herbs to make medicines, strange new foods from the sea (including marine life  and seaweeds), and such delicacies from nature as maple syrup;


They taught many methods of hunting and trapping North American game.
Of course, the bow was ubiquitous around the world, including North America. The natives' easily-portable bows and arrows were far more efficient in the dense Northeast coastal forests than the huge, heavy firearms the pilgrims had brought. Once the pilgrims ran out of their black powder, they quickly learned to make and use archery equip­ment.
The pilgrim pioneers watched closely and copied the natives' unique snare-making, deadfalls, blow gun use, throwing spears and knives and tomahawks, the canny use of poisonous plants to stun fish in ponds and lakes,
They also uses for those animals' skins and body-parts entirely.  For example, the stomachs and skins were used for making bags.  Or pouches.  Or drum heads.                 
American Indians of the Northeast and Canada built log cabins and large lodges without metal axes. On hunting expeditions, these natives were well-skilled in building temporary shelters (such as snow shelters and lean-tos) that were both safe and warm.


For starting fire, the natives practiced numerous methods, such as the bow and drill, the use of pitch and punks, and the carrying of small iron-rich rocks that they'd strike together to make sparks fly. The pilgrims gratefully resorted to such methods in severe conditions when they were unable to make use of their steels that they'd brought from the Old World.
In the past, people had to dry everything. Drying was the universal method of food storage.  Sometimes foods – such as meats and fish – were also smoked.  Typically, the meat would be sliced and laid on racks and dried in the sun, or a smoky fire would be built underneath.
Jerky –which you can now go to Trader Joes or any supermarket and buy – is a ancient method of meat drying that is now done in factories.  The term jerky is actually Charqui and it comes to us from South America.  Now you have all sorts of jerky in the stores –fish jerky, beef jerky, turkey jerkey….
Pemmican is also a Native method of food storage.  And pemmican is not a chocolate candy bar.  If you go to a backpacking store, there are some chocolate products called pemmican. Original pemmican was the dried meat – the jerky –which is then ground up.  It is put into an intestine – as you’d do when you make sausage – and melted fat from meat is poured over it.  You end up with something that is a high protein trail food, and lasts a good while without refrigeration.


The natives made ingenious use of wood. From the birch tree, for example, they used the bark to write upon, as well as for making snow-glasses (to prevent glare), cups and eating utensils, baskets, and emergency shoes. Large pieces of the bark were made into light, easily portable canoes.
When the Europeans' illness-remedies failed, they eagerly sought to learn the "medi­cine" systems practiced by the Indians' holy people. This included herbs, the sweat lodge, and a largely misunder­stood body of chants and rituals that "worked" although the pilgrims didn't comprehend why.
And though today's Western "religious establishment" is reluctant to admit it, those Indian "medicine" traditions made significant inroads into the Christianity-based religions brought here by the pilgrims, and survive to this day as an integral part of America's mainstream spiritual life. 
            Many of the native ways were scoffed at by traditional western thinking as superstitious or backward or primitive.  Yet, the traditional healing ceremonies of Native America contained many elements of Science, meaning that if the correct elements are present, healing occurs.


            I’VE shared a lot of specific details about Native Americans, and how their culture has enriched our culture today.
            There’s a term we often hear with older cultures, and especially with tribal cultures. The Old Ways. What are the Old Ways?  Does it refer simply to the ways that people did things in the past, when there was no other option?
            When some people think of Native American culture in general, all they think of is beads and feathers.  But the Old Ways is rather complex, and yet a complete state of mind and state of living.  I’d strongly recommend books such as Vine Deloria’s “God is Red,” and “Black Elk Speaks” for clues to some of these details.
            But briefly, the Old Ways are the traditions that keep societies strong, and together, and supportive. It includes a focus on family, focus on Home, respect for elders, respect for our surroundings, respect for sacred spots, cooperation, the ability to adapt, keeping your word, and more.
Great leaders and politicians came to us from the Native tradition, such people as Handsome Lake, Wovoka, Sequoyah, Chief Joseph, and Hiawatha and Deganawide, who forged the “Great Peace” and the Iroquois Confederacy.
            Reseach has shown that Benjamin Franklin and other founders were aware the Iroquois Confederacy and even copied some of the details from the oral constitution of the Iroquois Confederation in creating the U.S. Constitution and system of government.
The newcomers took and used what was deemed worthwhile from the American indigenous people, and gave what they could in return. That sharing enabled the pilgrims to survive. But (sadly) as is always the case with human beings, once they've survived a near-death situation, and then grow strong and healthy and begin to accumulate wealth and live in comfort and safety, they "forget" those values that began it all.
By the early 1800s, 80 percent of the American Indians had died from the European's smallpox, measles, venereal diseases, tuberculosis, influenza, and from his insatiable lust to move westward and take the Indians' lands.
Today, the American Indians, both on and off the reservations, have become our "forgotten minority." Povertousness, alcoholism, suicide, dependency, and unemployment have become the modus vivendi for these once self-sufficient, powerful, ingenious, independ­ent peoples.
Of course, some of you will feel that I looking at the American Native tradition with rosy colored glasses and am overlooking the alcoholism, poverty, unemployment, etc., that plague the Native Americans, especially on reservations.  I am well aware of the full picture.  Yet, on this unique American holy day, shouldn’t we give more than a passing acknowledgment to the people from whom the early European pioneers learned so much? 
We should find ways to support those American Indians on and off reservations who are actively attempting to survive by means of organized self-sufficiency projects such as organic farming, crafts shops (to create jobs and salable products), solar energy projects (to make the reservation energy self-sufficient), et al. 
Giving thanks is good, always.  But let’s not just eat a turkey and congratulate ourselves that we are well-off.  Let’s find ways to giving a helping hand to those whose hand this nation once so eagerly took.
[Note: For details about the local WTI event on Thanksgiving Day, go to]

Friday, September 28, 2012

Yom Kippur Thoughts

In high school, my best friend was Jewish, and when we were together, people often thought that we were brothers. Having been born into Catholicism, I knew little of Judaism.  But by my 40s, I learned that my father’ father was a Hungarian Jew, and converted to Catholicism when they came to the U.S. in 1906 in order to “fit in.” 

Perhaps that explains my ongoing desire to learn more about Judaism and its ancient practices.
We just experienced Rosh Hashana, The Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, where Jews seek to identify their misdeeds of the previous year, seek forgiveness, and make atonement for those sins.

It reminds me of Catholic Confession, whose efficacy is directly proportionate to the intensity of the feeling and desire of the confessor.

So, during the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur week this year, I listened to a Jew and a Christian discuss the idea of forgiveness. The Jew stated that he must ask forgiveness directly (or via telephone) to the person offended, he must receive forgiveness, do restitution as necessary, and only after that could God forgive him. The Christian stated that, according to his beliefs, it was not necessary to go to the person offended, but that one need only ask forgiveness from God, or from God through the priest.

I would often debate matters of religious belief and dogma with my mother as well as our local priest.  My mother told me that all I needed was to look in the Bible and that I should quit pretending that I know more than the priest or the Bible.  I told her that I wasn’t trying to act as if I knew more than the priest, that I was only asking the priest questions, and rather than consult the Bible, I was simply consulting my own inner sense of rightness, and logic, and what seemed sensible. It led to many lively conversations and some enlightening moments.

Though all religions seems to be able to back up their ideas with tradition, or written verses, I’d have to go along with the Jews on this one, that it is always best to seek forgiveness directly from those you’ve wronged, and to make restitution directly to them.  Certainly this violates no code of ethics on any side, and by so doing, I would think that God would smile down on you.

My mother always told me that I think about things too much.  Maybe she was right, maybe not.  But it is good to ask questions, and to seek answers.  While I have never been big on the dogmas which arise from traditions, I have loved the origins of most religions.  It is why I became a Buddhist at age 14, and still continued some connection to various Christian churches.  I studied the Sufi sect of Islam, and I have studied Hinduism.  I find that there is value in all these traditions, when seen purely.  When asked my religion, my answer is very much like the answer that Gandhi would give: “I am a Christian, a Jew, a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Hindu.”  Properly understood, yes, it does make sense.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The El Prieto Bear

I’ve always liked the wildlife in the meadows, though it does mean that I have given up the idea of a food garden (except wild foods). Between the gophers, squirrels, and deer, nothing lasts long enough for me to harvest.  And the bird scene is incredible, with all the usuals, such as hawks, owls, jays, crows, ravens, woodpeckers, hummingbirds, the feral parrots, wrens, and many others.

I haven’t seen a bear in the yard for a few years. The first encounter was when one broke apart my compost bin – about 10 feet from my door -- to get to whatever yummy rotten food was inside,  and he left some prints on my sidewalk.  Once I went outside when a black bear was checking out the neighbor’s trash, and the bear ran off so quickly that I could hardly believe my eyes.

This morning I photographed these tracks down on the dirt road west of my home that leads into El Prieto Canyon.  I put my reading glasses next to the track so you can see how big it is.  I always figured that this was the path that the El Prieto bear takes into his canyon hideout, but I never saw good track til today.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Dylan vs. Beethoven

DYLAN VS. BEETHOVEN: A Lesson in Family Communication

[This is an edited chapter of a book I’ve been working on for some time, which consists of stories from childhood, approximately age 4 through 14.]

One Saturday, with no warning, Paul Martinez engaged my father in the relative value of pop vs. classical music.  This was probably around 1964 when Bob Dylan was the king of pop, and seemed to be the messenger of the “secret messages” to the younger generation.  All my older brothers could fairly accurately be called Dylan fans, if not Dylan worshippers.  We all seemed to regard listening to Dylan as a more meaningful spiritual experience than sitting through Mass at Saint Elizabeth’s.
No one remembers how it began, but it was a legendary conversation that lasted for hours.  My father’s argument was that the music and lyrics of Bob Dylan were of no lasting value and the young people were simply too ignorant to realize it yet.  Frank, my father, said that Dylan would be forgotten in a few years.  He compared Dylan to Beethoven and Bach, and other classical musicians, and explained that Dylan was not in any way at the level of the classical composers.  Paul wholeheartedly disagreed.
Their conversation began in the living room where Frank would sit in his easy reclining chair and watch TV.  Paul sat near him on the couch.  Everyone in the household only became aware of their conversation when we realized they were still at it after about an hour.  As the conversation’s volume level would rise from time to time, we could all hear what they were saying:  “Of course you can put Dylan in Beethoven’s category,” said Paul in his deep and sincere voice. “Have you actually ever listened to what he’s saying in his songs?”
            “He just cackles,” said Frank, “and you really can’t even make out his words most of the time.  And I’m not even talking about the words.  And it’s only important, as you call it, if you take an hour to explain it all to me.  I don’t need any explanation to know that Bach’s music really is good,” said Frank as Paul patiently waited his turn in this lively exchange.
            “Well, I’m not saying that Dylan and Bach and the other classicals can be compared directly. Obviously, they can’t,” said Paul, giving some ground to Frank. “But there is obviously something that millions of people are responding to that you aren’t seeing – or hearing.  Dylan is not just music;  he is also the message.  So we’ve got to examine some of the words and see what he’s really saying.”
            This went on, back and forth, quiet and loud, for another hour.  They opened up the record player and began playing select songs for the other to listen to.
             We prepared the usual Saturday night dinner – something like hotdogs and baked beans and salad and some other vegetables.  We took a plate into Frank and Paul, and we didn’t expect them to come into the kitchen as their debate entered the third hour.
            We heard silence and then the lyrics of Dylan.  Sad Eyed Lady of the Low lands.  Hey Mr. Tambourine Man.  Blowing in the Wind.  The Times They Are A Changing.    After each short selection, there would be a brief silence, presumably as Paul removed the needle, and then they would talk about it.  We couldn’t hear all the details. Then there would be a round of some of the classical musicians’ work, a silence, and commentary by Frank. 
            We cleared the table and washed the dishes, and I set up the chess board and began a game with a neighbor who dropped by.  Our game lasted nearly an hour, and Robert won. The Dylan-Classical debate continued.
            And then, all of a sudden, Frank and Paul were standing in the kitchen doorway, shaking hands as Paul had to depart.  My brother David hadn’t said much the whole night, but he never did.  
            It was late and Paul had to go home and so it was over.  A stalemate, we presumed.  No clear winner, each side having done their best to promote their own arguments to win over the other.  But both Paul and Frank were unbudgeable and they each stuck to their guns.
            For the rest of us, the conversation about the conversation had just begun. 
            “Why doesn’t he ever have meaningful conversations with us,” David asked to no one in particular.  “He engaged with Paul when Paul challenged, but shouldn’t he take it upon himself to engage us,” asked David.  No one really cared, but it was clear in the conversation about the conversation that David didn’t really care about whose music was best.  To David, the conversation was an example of a father that didn’t take adequate interest in his own children, but would take extra time and supreme effort in a very engaging discussion – but not with David. 
            I inwardly agreed with David, but I didn’t say anything.  In some very primal way, I am sure that I longed to have a father who took an interest in me, who talked to me, who taught me things, who engaged me in his activities for our mutual benefit.  I am sure that David had a good point that Frank should do these sorts of things, but I was not bitter about the fact that he did not do so.
            The rest of us had probably long ago accepted Frank for what and who he was.  To me, Frank was neither good nor bad, right nor wrong – he simply was my father, doing what he did in his patterns of somewhat predictable behavior. But to David, Frank’s conversation was like a slap in the face, saying that he can take the time with a friend of the family, but would not take the time with his own children.  At least that’s how I took David’s reaction.
            Depending on who you asked during the various conversations about the conversation in the weeks and months that followed, the entire event was amusing, meaningless, interesting, a waste of time, insightful, and/or demonstrated that Frank was capable of in-depth abstract thought and could maintain an intellectual conversation and hold his own for hours. 
Though I generally disagreed with Frank’s premise, his performance definitely boosted my image of him.  And likewise my image of Paul was greatly enlarged.  Here was a peer of my brother who could debate with intensity and authority, and try to convince my father of a point of view which I held, but felt totally unable to communicate in any meaningful way. 

Survival Pack followup

On the Dirttime Forum, we had a discussion about "bug out bags" and what to carry if you ever had to evacuate your home.  This topic resulted in many comments, and some controversy.  Please check out the Forum at, and also look at the commentary under Web Articles.

Again, everything you need is at home.  Why wander the streets?  BUT, if there is no choice, then you should carry what you know you'll need.  But what do you need?  There is no one answer, since your situation, location, time of year, and many other factors all come into play.

See what others say on the Dirttime Forum, and let me know if you have questions.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

What if you had to evacuate?

During one of my Pasadena City College survival classes, a student asked me to list the items that should be carried in an evacuation bag, also known as the “bugout bag.”  In other words, if she had to immediately leave her home for some reason, what should her survival bag contain.  Of course, this led to a big portion of that evening’s discussion.

“First,” I responded, “what scenario are we talking about?” The student was thinking of a serious emergency where even a car wouldn’t be useful, where you’d have to evacuate on foot.

So my first order was to convey the fact that one would rarely choose to leave one’s home – where everything is familiar and where you know everyone in the neighborhood – unless you absolutely had no other choice. 

“You would rarely want to choose to leave your home and randomly wander the streets after an emergency,” I replied, “because you are now entering into the chaos and randomness of street mobs and possible violence.”  I tried to impress upon the class how dangerous it often is to wander on foot in the aftermath of a major disaster – whether it be an earthquake, or the results of war, or flooding.

And though the effects of nature can be devastating, the fear and chaos that will possess other people could be your greatest threat.

OK, we established that wandering around may not be your best choice but if you have no choice, then what should you carry?

Before I tried to answer that question, I asked all the students, “If there was an emergency tonight after you get home and you had to evacuate, where would you go?  And why would you go there?”  Most had no idea where to do, and in all probability, would follow crowds to some likely safe place, or would simply follow the orders of whomever happened to be giving orders. 

I urged each student to obtain topographical maps of their local area and to begin to learn about their local environment.  Find out where there are sources of water, reservoirs, pools, train lines, etc.  In a disaster, your knowledge is far more important than your stuff.  Next, I urged each student to get involved in their local Neighborhood Watch, and to do the CERT trainings, and Red Cross emergency first aid.  In other words, we need to realize the fact that other people in our community, and our relationships with them, is a far greater “survival tool” than merely having a pack with some knick-knacks in it.

Most people would be surprised to learn the level of preparedness that already occurs in most cities, and within various agencies such as the Red Cross, Police and Sheriff departments, and City Hall.  It is to each of our advantage to get to know what has already been planned in our own towns.

Everyone was getting the picture.  Get to know your town, your geography, and get to know who’s who in your town, and learn about systems that have already been established in the event of emergencies. Of course you must still do your own home preparedness, but just don’t do it in a vacuum.

But the student persisted.  She still wanted to know what to carry. So I polled the students who’d already been in my class for several weeks. What should one carry in a survival pack?   Someone said a knife. Yes, I wrote that on the board.  You should carry some sort of useful knife that you’re comfortable with, like a Swiss Army knife, a Leatherman, and so on. Someone suggested that a bow and drill be carried for fire making. No, I said. We learn how to make fire with those primitive methods so we can do it when there is nothing else.  You must have fire, but keep it simple. Carry a Bic or a magnesium fire starter. Water.  Yes, you need it, and should carry at least a quart container and a water purifier. And you need to know where to find water.  And we continued this way – first aid kit, small flash light, etc. It was more important to get people to consider their individual needs than it was for me to list things that someone else thinks are important.

Survival can be deadly serious, but it can be a very enjoyable pursuit along the way.  Learn what you can little by little, but apply your knowledge as you go. That way, your skills are useful and your confidence level is increased.  It is never sufficient to say “I saw that on YouTube” and think that you know what it’s all about.

For some idea of what you might carry, look at Francisco Loaiza’s blog spot, where he describes 30 essential items that he recommends to his Boy Scouts.

For more ideas of what to consider in a kit, you should check out John McCann’s “Build the Perfect Survival Kit,” as well as my own “How to Survive Anywhere.”