Friday, March 08, 2013

Thinking about Euell Gibbons...

Has it been that long already?  In 1974, a strange man entered America’s consciousness via television.  Acting out what seemed to be primitive rites, he would brandish cattails, goldenrod, hickory nuts, and pine branches, instructing the viewers that “many parts are edible, you know.”

Euell Gibbons rapidly became fodder for comedians who turned his “Stalking the Wild ...” book titles into the comedy cliché of the year.  But, in the summer of 1975, the Federal Trade Commission ordered Gibbons’ commercials for Post Grape-Nuts cereal off the air, and, by the time he died on December 29 of 1975, Gibbons’ celebrity had diminished considerably.

That was a shame, for Gibbons did have a valuable message for America:  There are tons of wild, nutritious food growing everywhere in this country that we could -- but don’t -- eat.  Gibbons believed that the main reason that Americans shun wild food is fear of ridicule if they stoop to gather weeds, which are generally regarded as suitable only for the trash can, not the dinner table.

The FTC ruling appeared to speak to a deeper fear:  fear of the unknown.  In the cereal commercials, Gibbons spoke of his years of foraging for wild food.  “Ever eat a pine tree?” he asked in one spot.  “Many parts are edible.  Natural ingredients are important to me.  That’s why Post Grape-Nuts is part of my breakfast.”

The FTC objected to the apparent connection, especially as it might be interpreted by children.  The ruling said that the commercials “undercut a commonly recognized safety principle -- namely, that children should not eat any plants found growing in natural surroundings, except under adult supervision.”

Despite its good intentions, the FTC succeeded in generating a great wave of mistrust and fear of all wild food, despite the fact that Gibbons stressed in his books and countless public appearances that you much never eat any plant or part of a plant until you recognize it as edible.  Shortly after the FTC ruling, the media latched onto two incidents in which teen-agers who had been captivated by Gibbons’ living-off-the-land philosophy became ill when they mistakenly ate toxic plants while foraging near the Angeles National Forest.

Gibbons’ death of unspecified “natural causes” at the age of 64 seemed to seal his reputation as a “kook.”  At worst, people suspected that he had accidentally poisoned himself (he hadn’t); at best, it appeared that eating “natural” foods did not contribute to longevity.  But those of us who saw the real value of Gibbons’ teachings still feel that he left us with a precious legacy.

I first encountered Gibbons in 1972, through his writings.  Excited and fascinated by “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” and his other books, I explored fields and woods across the country in search of wild edibles.  In 1974, I began to share what I had learned by conducting Wild Food Outings in the Los Angeles area.

I finally met Gibbons after he gave a lecture at Pasadena City College.  We chatted for the better part of an hour, our conversation ranging from carob pods to American Indians to compost.  He told me of his plans for television documentaries about primitive societies that still live totally ecological lives.  Gibbons said he hoped to show the modern world some of the follies of civilization.

One of these follies is the persistence -- the expenditure of so much time and money -- in attempting to eradicate from our yards and parks plants that have thrived for centuries.  Some of the most common edible “intruders” are dandelion, lamb’s quarter, pigweed, mallow, mustard, and sow thistle.  Among the most enduring of wild plants that were brought to California in the westward migrations is chickweed.  To even the most pampered palate, it is an incredibly good salad green, yet it often leads the list of “garden pests” in advertisements for herbicides.   Other “enemies” highly valued by herbalists and naturalists are wild garlic, plantain, purslane, French sorrel, sour grass, and ground ivy.

Many of the common wild plants have been used for centuries as herbal medicine, and still have value for simple ailments.  But, like any medicinal ingredient, they can be harmful when abused.  In 1976, jimsonweed, which has been in California for probably thousands of years, became the target of an eradication program when some people erroneously popularized it as a cheap “high.”  This was a typical case of ignorance about wild food that could be countered by some basic education rather than by the wholesale application of herbicides across our countryside.

So, while many people regarded the natural foods “craze” as a passing fad, others found much that is worthwhile in what Gibbons brought to the national attention.  I know I do.  Gibbons was just passing along something that our ancestors knew, something that is still a deeply respected tradition in many parts of even the “civilized” world where scarce food is more prized than ornamental gardens.  Despite the ridicule of passersby, on almost any day in almost any park right here in the city, people still gather berries, cactus, mustard greens, chickweed, and wild mushrooms.  These wild foods are there for the taking -- foods that grow in relative abundance and that are much better for you than a lot of the processed junk sold in supermarkets.

Euell Gibbons and his many adherents warrant our admiration, not our mockery.

[Since 1974, Nyerges has led outings and classes to identify  and use wild edibles.  To learn about these classes, contact the School of  Self-reliance, Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, or]


Shulamit said...

Do you know how tall Euell Gibbons was? I know he died from complications of Marfan Syndrome, and that people with Marfan are particularly tall. I have searched, but can only find "well over six feet tall."

Since you knew him, perhaps you can narrow down that range? Was he taller than 6'4"? 6'6"? I would understand you might not know exactly, but I sure would like to know more specifically.

His books were great. It really is too bad he is most known for his Grape Nuts commercial.

Mike Krebill said...

I have read that Euell Gibbons was 6' 2" tall. I was present at a talk he gave at the College of Environmental Science and Forestry, on the campus of Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York. He stood on a stage above us when he spoke, and it made him seem even taller than that. If someone had told me that he was 6' 4" tall, I would have believed it.

Christopher Nyerges said...

I'm 5'11" and though Gibbons was taller than me, he wasn't significantly taller. My guess, from the one time I was with him, is that he was about 6'2"