Thursday, February 27, 2014

Rain Dance

[An excerpt from Nyerges' latest book, "Squatter in Los Angeles: Life on the Edge," available from Kindle, or as a Word document from Store at]


It was Tuesday, August the 14th, the last day I’d be working with some of the children at the day camp, so I had a few special activities planned. After their lunch, I began by showing my group of children some wild edible plants.  These were mostly plants that I brought to camp, because, remember, the day camp was held at Victory Park, which is a large park west of Pasadena High School, and it was mostly lawn with some introduced trees and bushes along the edges. 

Next we practiced some Indian sign language of the Plains.

After that I showed the children some of the buffalo gourd leaves which I’d brought.  I demonstrated how to make soap by wetting a few leaves and then vigorously rubbing a few between my hands.  This produces a thick green froth.  It’s not the best plant for making soap, but it was all that I could collect for that day. Each child then made soap from this plant and in their very excited way they cleansed their hands, splashing and  yelling as they did so.

The day before, I’d hinted that we might do a rain-dance, and now, as the children were returning to their circle, a few were now asking with their eager voice, “Are we going to do the rain-dance now?”  Once they were all seated, I explained that a rain dance is actually not just one thing, and that it could take many forms and is usually a part of a larger ceremony.  I explained that we would just be doing one small part of what might be called a rain ceremony, even though what I was going to share wasn’t specifically a part of one tribal tradition.

I didn’t have a specific “formula” or procedure, but rather I was attempting to share several key elements with the children.

I removed my hand-made clay pipe from its container and filled it with tobacco.  I carefully lit it and puffed on it. The children were silent and the teen-age counselors were not sure what to say or do.

Once the pipe was smoking well, I stood in the center and blew smoke to the four directions and to the sky and to the earth. I explained to the children that I was offering my smoke as a way of giving respect and thanks, in an attitude of humility.  I didn’t use the word “God,” but indicated that this was giving respect and thanks to a higher intelligence, a great spirit of the universe. The children watched in awe with wide eyes.  I could tell that they’d never seen anything like this before.

Then I passed the pipe around the circle for each child to take a little puff.  Each child nervously smoked the pipe as it went around, and I told them not to inhale. I explained as we did this that the smoking of the pipe was a traditional sign of our friendship and unity.
Once this was done, I conducted half the children in dancing around the outer circle, as the other half clapped their hands. We all chanted a simple rain chant that I led, and the we all let up a cheer for rain.

My time with the children was over and they all departed for their next session. 

“Is it really going to rain?” a few children curiously asked me as they departed. 

“Of course,” I replied with assurance. “It will rain by Saturday.”  Of course, I was just expressing confidence.  I really had no idea whether or not this would be “effective,” and I’d not checked any weather patterns.  For that matter, I’d not even planned to do the rain dance until that morning.

A heavy rain fell early the following morning.

By the time I arrived at the day camp on noon Wednesday, only a drizzle continued to fall, and most of the day camp activities had been moved indoors. Many of the children who had participated in the rain dance looked at me quizzically.  Several came up to me with their questions and comments.

Some yelled out: “We made rain! We made rain!”  I quickly pointed out that we didn’t make anything. Rather, I told them, our request was answered.

A few children asked with open eyes, “It rained from our rain dance, didn’t it?”  I answered what I believed to be true. “Yes,” I told them.

Pursuing the premise that there was a relationship between the dance and the rain, I attempted to delineate my learning:

1)We washed ourselves before our little ceremony.
2) We requested rain in an attitude of humility.
3) We shared the pipe in a posture of unity and friendship.
4) We sang, chanted, and danced our ceremony not “by the book” but with feeling.
5) And perhaps most important, the ceremony was conducted by children.  These children were young enough to still be uncorrupted by the limitations of adult minds. They had never been told that they couldn’t  invoke rain.  So I believe that the innocence and lack of prejudice on the children’s part was a key factor in the apparent “success” of our rain dance.

I found that this episode forced me to look at myself and the world very differently. What had happened here?  It was the middle of August when there is usually no precipitation, and rain came within 15 or so hours of doing a rain dance. I considered that a state of humility seemed to be essential, and that one really can never claim that they have the personal ability to invoke rain.

This led me to research the many recorded episodes of rain-making and rain ceremonies among Native American traditions, and try to find some common elements.  Eventually, I compiled a file full of newspaper accounts and interviews and book excerpts all about rain ceremonies. 

It turned out that even to this day – well, even to 1984 when this occurred – the invoking of rain was still being practiced by Native Americans.

I read, and collected, a lot more on the people who do rain ceremonies, and documentation of the many cases where they produced rain.  It’s a fascinating subject and that rain dance at the day camp opened the door to this incredible exploration.  It seemed that the more I looked into it, and inquired, the key idea to keep in mind was that personal attitude was the essential ingredient, and that “asking for” or “praying for” rain was an inaccuracy.

It also became clear to me that it is actually a blessing that most people are unaware that they have such a power over the elementals of nature. You could say that our ignorance protects us from the irresistible urge to abuse such ability.

I spoke to Dr. George Fishbeck, L.A. area weatherman and meteorologist, and he told me that he noted a storm off California’s coast at 7 p.m. Tuesday.  That evening by 11 p.m., Dr. Fishbeck said that he knew rain would fall, but not where. He was calling it a freak storm. Due to the winds that arose, the rain moved further west and north than he expected.

Apparently, someone had called Dr. Fishbeck and told him about the rain dance, so he already knew about it when I brought it up.  He believed that there was no connection between the rain dance and the rain, discounting the ability of what he called “prayer” to affect the weather. Still, Fishbeck told me that he recognized and respected the sacred nature of the Southwestern Indians’ rain dances and ceremonies, having lived among the New Mexico Indians for two years as an anthropologist.

In the Los Angeles Times of August 16, 1984 on the front page, it read “First Rain of Season Snarls Traffic, Causes Blackout.”  The report read, “The first rainstorm of the season struck the Los Angeles area with surprisingly heavy showers Wednesday morning, spawning a rash of minor accidents on slick freeways and power failures affecting thousands of customers. Rainfall at the Los Angeles Civic Center measured .40 of an inch, nearly double the .21 of an inch recorded by this date last season, before tapering off in mid-morning.” The report talked about auto accidents, blackouts, and flash floods up in San Bernardino and Riverside Counties, and clear up in Las Vegas.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014




[Nyerges is the author of “Guide to Wild Foods,” and the soon-to-be-released “Foraging California.” He has led wild food outings since 1974.  He can be reached via the School of Self-reliance, Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, or at]

There’s a low-growing little plant that grows in most people’s yards and in nearby wild areas, whose little pod is remarkable.  Look at the picture!  The seed pod is heart-shaped, making it the ideal posey to give to your loved one on Valentine’s Day.

The plant is Shepherd’s Purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris), which came to this country from Europe a long time ago.  It was probably brought here as a medicine, since it was used  by the ancient Greeks and Romans and was popular all over Europe into the Middle Ages. The entire plant was used as astringent (the poultice can be used to stop bleeding), diuretic, and antiscorbutic.  When the plant became naturalized in North America, even the desert Indians began to use it in their medicine. The Cahuilla  (whose territory is around the Palm Springs area) used the leaves as a tea to treat dysentery.
In fact, the small leaves of this little plant are very nutritious, and can be added to salads and soups. As a member of the Mustard Family, the leaves are both tasty and nutritious. An analysis of 100 grams (about ½ cup) of the leaves shows 208 milligrams of calcium, 86 milligrams of phosphorus, 40 milligrams of sodium, 394 milligrams of potassium, 36 milligrams of vitamin C, and 1,554 international units of vitamin A.
Some years this plant is very abundant in lawns, fields, along trails. This little annual is already growing in lawn areas all over town, but it’s not nearly as abundant this year because of the lower rainfall levels.
A friend of mine told me that he once gave his wife a bunch of the seeding stalks as a Valentine’s day gift, and suggested that it might not be the ideal gift.  He explained that he nearly had to spend the night on the couch.
Still, it’s always a good idea to learn about the wild useful plants which grow all around us.  But never eat any wild food unless you have positively identified it as an edible species.

The Roots of Valentine's Day

[Nyerges is the author of several books.  He can be reached via School of Self-reliance at Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, or]

 Now that January is behind us, the stores are now getting filled with red and pink hearts.  Why?  February 14 is the day set aside to commemorate a real historical person named Valentinus, the day we now call “Saint Valentine’s Day.”  With just a little bit of research, we learn that this Valentinus person was stoned, clubbed, and beheaded in about the year 270 A.D.  He was violently killed by an unruly mob.  But why?  And how have we come to associate Valentinus with chocolates and hearts and lovers?

It turns out that there were at least two people called Valentinus – possibly more – who lived in the 2nd and 3rd Centuries.  One – who the Catholic Church now called Saint Valentine – was beheaded in 270 A.D. 

Another Valentinus lived about a century earlier and founded one of the most important sects of Gnosticism.  He was born in Egypt and educated in Alexandria.  He settled in Rome during the reign of Pope Hyginus and taught there for more than 20 years.  He attracted a large following to his beliefs, due in part to his intelligence, his eloquence of speech, and his impeccable arguments.

But the teachings of this Valentinus differed in some ways from the Christian church of that time, and when the office for the Bishop of Rome opened up, he was not selected.  Valentinus then chose to break off from the Christian church, left Rome, and continued to develop his doctrines as he saw fit.

There are no original surviving documents from the teachings of Valentinus.  So, if you want to discover what he actually believed and taught, you have to study fragmentary quotations found in the writings of his orthodox Christian opponents.      

Through research, we learn that Valentinus was influenced by Plato (the main source of the teachings of Socrates), Zoroastrianism, and Christianity. Valentinus also spoke of a spiritual realm which he called Pleroma, which consisted of “emanations” evolving from an original divine being.  These have been described as the layers of an onion, with each layer being a wholly complete reality.  It’s all very interesting, though it’s all a bit second-hand because whatever Valentinus wrote was apparently “lost” or destroyed by opponents.

The term Gnosticism came from the word “gnosis,” defined as spiritual knowledge.  Those who followed this line of study were called the Gnostics, and many were referred to as Christian Gnostics.  But by the third century, the more orthodox Christian church (and the political power of the day), decided to oppose and persecute the Gnostics.   By the end of the third century, Gnosticism as a distinct movement had largely disapppeared.

Now, here’s the quiz:  Where in all this did you hear anything about chocolates, hearts, greeting cards, bunnies, jewelry, roses, or lace underwear?  Plus, there doesn’t appear to be any historical connection with any of the individuals named Valentinus with the date of February 14.

It turns out that in the pre-Christian days, there was a celebration in honor of Lupercus, a pastoral god, sometimes identified with Faunus or Pan.  Faunus is depicted as having the body of a man but the horns, pointed ears, tail, and hind legs of a goat.  That is, Faunus is more or less identical with the satyr, who was said to be lecherous, lustful, and always ready to party.

The pre-Christian observance of this day was called Lupercalia, which fell on February 15.  Most of what people do today in the name of  “celebrating St. Valentine’s Day” has its roots in the ancient feast of Lupercalia.  On Lupercalia, cards were given (often with subtle or overt sexual overtones), and men reportedly chased women through the streets (sounds somewhat like Mardi Gras).

It is difficult to ascertain why the commemoration of Valentinus was used to supplant, uplift, and supercede the already-existing commemoration of Lupercus, but that’s what happened.  Yet, very little of the trappings of modern St. Valentine’s Day have anything to do with the historical Valentinus.

And that’s really a shame, since Valentinus was as important as perhaps Socrates or Pythagoras, and yet most of us only associate him with the silly commercialism of Lupercalia’s remnants. Certainly it’s possible that the Church engineered this substitution so that people would elevate their practices on this day, though there is no evidence that that has happened.

So rather than waste money and time on chocolates and red cards, why not take the time to study something meaningful about the great teacher Valentinus, or about the real meaning of  that much-used word “love.” One excellent book in this regard is Eric Fromm’s “Art of Loving.”  Once you get into it, you may discover – as I did  -- that  much of what he taught is very relevant today.

NOTE:             Every Sunday outdoors under a large banyan tree in Highland Park, there is a spiritual studies presentation on topics of current interest, such as the meanings of the holdays. The presentations are sponsored by WTI (see for details and schedule of upcoming talks.