Friday, November 28, 2014

Post-Thanksgiving Considerations

[Nyerges is the author of “How to Survive Anywhere,” “Extreme Simplicity,” “Self-Sufficient Home,” “Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants,” and other books. He conducts classes in practical self-reliance. He can be reached at School of Self-Reliance, Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90401, or]

Black Friday.  When I was a child 50 years ago, we never heard that word.  Oh, it was around, and it seems to have taken on a heightened life of its own in the decades that followed.

I can recall that in my world as a child – which was the vastness of Pasadena – every store closed on Thanksgiving. The streets were quiet, and you knew everyone was home preparing a meal, or they’d driven away to some other town to visit relatives.   But commerce ceased.  You were pitied if you had no family, and you were looked down upon if you kept your business open.

“Too bad that guy has to actually work on Thanksgiving,” we’d hear my father say.  Most businesses were closed, and when my father realized that he had no working batteries for a camera or flashlight, he’d send one of my older brothers on a mad dash to find a store, any store, that was open and sold batteries. There was no internet, and no easy way to figure out who was open and closed unless you spent an hour on the phone. Suddenly, it wasn’t such a bad idea to have a store open.  Of course, my father would be furious and he’d blame it on someone else for forgetting to stock up on some batteries. Usually, my brother would be gone an hour or two, but somehow managed to come home with the needed batteries.

Still, there seemed something very special to demand of yourself that Thanksgiving be set aside for family, for remembrance, for breaking the spell and monotony of work only and working only for material goals.  In the United States, that used to be Sunday where people took the day off.  In some areas, Sunday is still to the week what Thanksgiving is to the year.  For example, try finding an open store in Utah on Sunday.  Oh, you’ll find one, but not until you do a bit of searching.

Our values determine who we are, and who we become. In this world, everything seems to drive only the materialistic instincts.  Merchants cannot wait even a few extra hours to open their doors for the Black Friday specials, and we are encouraged to rush out the door and buy now before the next guy gets the discounted item offered to the first 50 folks who push their way into the door.

The mindset is rampant in our society.  A natural hillside, and lush trees on a lot, are described as non-performing real estate.  Relaxing on  a Sunday  is thought of as being lazy.  Studying esoteric literature is regarded sometimes as impractical.   We are fast becoming a nation of  non-thinkers, and it is usually (but not always) when we break out of our routine and out of our comfortable box of thinking that we rise to who we really are as spiritual beings, and live lives which reflect some higher goal. 

I want a low price and a deal just like the next guy, but I am not willing to do anything to get that deal.  I regard Thanksgiving day as nearly sacred, the closest thing we have to national holy day where we attempt to ponder who we are, what we are, what we did right, what we did wrong, what we need to do next.  To quickly eat a slice of turkey and then some cranberry, and rush out the door to fight the mobs to get a deal is nearly sacrilegious in my thinking.

I have both good and bad memories mixed into Thanksgiving. By my teens, our family Thanksgiving gatherings were crowded, loud, raucous events that started the night before and included the whole weekend.  Yes, there was the prayer that my mother insisted upon, and there were moments of quiet reflection. My mother began forcing each of us to say what we were thankful for, and with close to 20 people in a room, that could take a while. But then, food and wine and beer was served, and the “conversation” was more like non-stop yelling, while the TV played a football game in the next room at the highest possible volume. 

No wonder I got to the point where I told my parents I would not be there on Thanksgiving.  I didn’t try to make them feel bad by giving them all my reasons, but I did come the next day with my wife and we’d sit quietly and talk for awhile when the mob was gone.  At first, my father called me a bad son for not showing up on Thanksgiving, but eventually he enjoyed the more thoughtful visits.

This year, I went to a local park with a small group and we together shared Native American skills that the east coast Indians would have taught the starving pilgrims of the Plymouth Rock colony. We taught about wild plants, and making fire, and weaving with natural fibres, and weaponry, and painting with natural minerals.  Yes, we had some snacks, but it was not about food. 

It has taken a long time to find what I consider a better way to commemorate this very special day. It was thoughtful and quiet and insightful while our small group learned and talked together. We shared the myths and the realities about the people at that “first Thanksgiving,” and looked at how the Indians were thanked for their generosity.  There’s a lot buried just beneath the surface that is so relevant to each of us today that it’s a shame more of us don’t open our encyclopedias and explore these American roots.

Like so much of American history, there are plenty of myths, and plenty of facts. And like so many of American holidays, commercial interests seems bent on convincing us that “buying stuff” is somehow synonymous with commemorating the special day.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Why Go to the Mountains?

This is the epilogue to my "Enter the Forest" book. 

[Nyerges is the author of “Enter the Forest,” “How to Survive Anywhere,” “Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants,” and other books. He has been leading field trips into the mountains since 1974.  He can be reached at Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, or]

In his classic book, “The One Straw Revolution” (Rodale Press, 1978), Masanobu Fukuoka describes his path that led him to natural farming.  When he was  young, he had a realization that completely changed his life.  It was hard for him to put it into words, but he described it like this: “Humanity know nothing at all.  There is no intrinsic value in anything, and every action is a futile, meaningless effort.”  His experiences in the world seemed to verify this realization.

Years later, after contracting acute pneumonia from what he describes as “an aimless life coupled with fatigue from overwork,” he was hospitalized.  Upon his release, he experienced great depression and wandered about.  He collapsed on a hill overlooking the harbor, and spent the night there. He was awakened by a great heron flapping its wings and crying.  His realization came back to him, and the words that came from his mouth were “In this world this is nothing at all.”  He felt as if he understood nothing.

He returned to his father’s farm in the country, and began the path that led to his radical way of farming, letting nature teach him what is best, using no pesticides, doing no tilling, pulling no weeds, and  -- remarkably – eventually producing crop yields the equal of conventional farmers.

Why do I go to the forest?  I think of Masanobu Fukuoka whenever someone asks me that.  Going to the forest isn’t an escape from the nothingness of modern urban life, but it does provide a chance to allow one’s self to come forth.

One day in late winter, we’d just finished a day of intensive outdoor training in the foothills of the Angeles National Forest.  We were now back at our cars, saying our goodbyes, when one woman asked me, “Don’t you ever go to the mountains just for fun?”  She looked quizzically at me, waiting for an answer to her sincere question.  I had to think for a moment.

“Perhaps my difficulty is with the word fun,” I finally responded.  “To me, fun implies frivolity, diversion, and something not to be taken seriously,” I slowly responded. “So I rarely go to the mountains for fun.  I enjoy studying nature, learning new things, expanding my ability to see the unseen, and developing new skills.  These serious pursuits are my ‘fun’ since they provide me with a means to stretch my limits, to grow, to seek to find meaning in a world that sometimes seems to have no meaning.  So I go to the mountains for my spiritual nourishment.”  She nodded.  I didn’t want to seem overly philosophical, so we said our final goodbyes and departed.

Since then, I have considered her question.

People today spend billions of dollars talking to psychologists, and self-improvement seminars, and seeking out various self-appointed “masters” who suggest they know “the way.”  The reason for this occasionally desperate search for “answers” is that our society  has cut us off from raw nature.  The result seems to be that we have lost touch with our inherent but dormant spiritual faculties.

We live our lives cramped in houses and apartments and freeways in a highly structured organized society.  We thus have lost a healing and a grounding that people closer to the earth took for granted.

I am not one who believes that closer contact with nature automatically  imparts a greater spiritual wakefulness, more awareness, deeper sense of the meaning of life, etc.  Observation demonstrates that people who are lazy, sloppy, wasteful, and unaware in their urban environment will practice those same bad habits when they go to the country or wilderness.  Some prophets of the wilderness suggest that if we all went back to the wilderness, the world would be a better place. That’s simplistic and silly.

The unexplored wilderness that we need to investigate is within our own minds, and in the hills and valleys of the unused portions of our brains.  And, in general, two things are required in order to find and to explore that inner wilderness.  One is a guide – someone (or something) to point the way.  Usually this is a person who has already traveled the path ahead of you.  Another requirement is to get away from the patterns and paradigms of man so you can attempt to discover a natural rhythm, and so you can attempt to listen, and to see, and to think, in ways that no one could do for you.

So that’s part of what I attempt to do.  I go to the hills and valleys and rivers and mountains and deserts of the Angeles National Forest and beyond to find myself, to re-awaken and to revitalize that inner spiritual part which is usually assaulted non-stop in the urban wilderness of man.

Still, for awhile, I couldn’t get her question out of my mind.  “Don’t you ever go to the mountains just for fun?”

I had to think back 45 to 50 years ago when I began my treks to the mountains in earnest.  Yes, back then, sometimes I did go just for fun, to pass the time, to avoid boredom, or to exercise.  We walked from our home up to the hills, and explored the trails, caves, and old forgotten sites.  We could walk a few miles up the street from our home, and then hike on the mountain trails to old cabin sites and ruins of the old resorts right up there in our extended backyard.

At a very early age, I began to think about life’s “big questions,” and I read books voraciously.  I found some answers, but concluded that true answers are personal and can only be found through personal realization.   Thus, I set out to find my Self, to awaken that Self within, as my individual quest.  In a sense, I had the same realization as Masanobu Fukuoka, except that instead of going to the farm to find answers, I went to the hills. 

So why did I find myself dwelling so much on the question posed to me?  I suppose it is because I have drifted.  In my youth, I knew that all answers were obtainable from within, if you only had the clarity to define your quest, and the patience and concentration to pursue the answers.  I knew this from my own personal experience, and from an inner knowing.  But, as I became more enmeshed in the adult world of jobs and bills and resumes and rents and mortgages and repairs and insurance and taxes and business ventures and organizations and worldly success and failure and politics and social issues, and on and on – well, what I think happened to me is what happens to nearly everyone, except most people seem barely aware that anything at all has happened.  This external “self” slowly becomes the master, and the inner Self is forgotten.

So I go to the mountains to look, in order that I may see.  I see, in order that I may remember.  I remember, in order that I might Learn.  And my goal is to learn one new thing each time I visit the hills.  One new thing, whether from my own thinking and observation and memory, or from another person.

And as a result of being born right here at the base of the these mountains, these mountains are not only my home and “backyard,” but they have been my spiritual training ground.  I regard these mountains as sacred since they provide me (and you) with the means to escape the complex artificial order of man, and to find True Self if I work at it.

That is why I go to the mountains.