Wednesday, January 25, 2017

To Run in the Mud

[Nyerges is the author of “Extreme Simplicity,” “Self-Sufficient Home,” “How to Survive Anywhere,” and other books. Information about his books and classes is available at, or Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041.]


Way back in 1976, a friend who ran a non-profit group shared with me a way to commemorate one’s birthday.  Run a lap for every year, and mentally review that year as you run.  Relive your life. There are many other details, but this is the essence of it.  Take the time to run through your life, and look over how you got to where you are today.

This is essentially what I have done every year since then.   My birthday this year in January of 2017 was no different.  Though the leaders of the non-profit have encouraged their members to do this run as a group-activity, I felt the need for solitude this year.  I wanted to review my past years, without having to talk it aloud to whomever might have come along to run with me. 

Before noon, I found a somewhat isolated place to run down in the Arroyo Seco. It had rained previously, so everything was wet and muddy.  It was sunny, yet it was still cold and breezy.  Birds flew about overhead looking for possible meals in the new pools of water that head developed around the willows.  I located one of the catchment basins that had been built to hold rain and river water, so it soaks into the water table. I liked the length of its perimeter berm, and began my run.

I run one lap for each  year, trying to remember all the significant events for that year.  I tried to remember all my significant events, and how I was feeling about them way back when. Successes, failures, fears, challenges, obstacles, rejections, learning new skills, realizing that people don’t become more skilled and competent just become they grow older.

In the first few years, very few memories were present.  I ran in a large circle, trying to not pay much attention to my physical surroundings, trying to get back into the mindset of a newly born child.   I saw my parents and I saw my teachers.

I recall the phrase being asked to me so often, in the very early years, and especially as I grew older: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  It was an odd question, I always thought, because the person asking really meant “what sort of a job do you think you will do for the majority of your life so you can earn money to pay your bills?”  But I only heard “what do you want to be” and “when you grow up.”  I had lots of interests, for sure, and I recall admiring other friends or associates who seemed to be so wholly engrossed in one task that they clearly had “become” that activity, whether sports, proficiency with a musical instrument, gardening, whatever.   I had so many interests.  Did I really have to decide on just one?  And “growing up.”  Will I know when I have “grown up”?  I just naturally assumed that once I grew – that once anyone grew up – they would ipso facto become a stable member of society, an actively contributing member to a family and community, and someone who maturely made all the best decisions for now and the future. But I never saw those adults.  I recall feeling disappointed as I “grew up,” seeing what I perceived to be vast incompetence, lack of willpower, and general confusion about what to do in life.  I reasoned that if I enjoyed walking in the woods and studying plants and Native American history, what could  be wrong with that?

As I ran in early January, I felt that I  had wasted so much time in school, constantly resisting the teacher, constantly thinking that my time would be so much better spent being somewhere else. But where?  My problem and blindness, which I did not see back in my grammar school years, was that no teacher was ever really going to teach me anything, as if they were to serve me something on a silver platter.  The real purpose of teachers and schools, I now realize, was to teach me how to teach myself, how to prime my thinking so that I learn what facts are useful in my life, and which facts are necessary to find out all the other things that were necessary to know.

Round and round I went, in the mud, in the diminishing light of the cloudy day, reviewing school, and job, and relationships, and breakup of relationships, and moving from here to there, and traveling, and writing about things, and feeling the pain of the death of so many people around me.

During that time, I had just finished reading the remarkable book, “House of Rain” by Childs, about the possible fate of the Anasazi the American Southwest, and I could not help but think about people with an incredible low-tech technology, who built great houses and roads and canals, made pots and fabrics, and grew food when there was sufficient rain. Then something happened, and people were dispersed, or killed. As I ran, I thought of the fate of all of us, how we take so much for granted, how water is the most essential key to life, wherever we happen to be.

Now, at 62, I was not so concerned about “what I will do when I grow up.”  I was more concerned about the refinement of what I have been already doing.  How do I make the world a better place for my having been here?  Is any “revolution” more important than a personal revolution of my very thinking and going about my daily life?

As I ran my final laps, it was so obvious that life is about people and our relationships, not about the stuff that we acquire.  What we do is what we do, here and now.  Live  your life, and do it the best you can.  Accumulating money, and buying a house, and degrees, and all that,  are all OK, but we don’t want to get all caught up by the material things.

I stood in the stiffening breeze with the setting sun to the west, and it was so clear that life is to be lived in the now, and how you go about that doing, is everything. 

Monday, January 09, 2017

The Lord of the Flies

[Nyerges has led wilderness and wild food field trips for over 40 years. He is the author of numerous books, including “How to Survive Anywhere,” “Extreme Simplicity,” “Guide to Wild Foods,” and others.  Questions about his classes and books can be directed to or Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041.]

Commentary on the "Lord of the Flies" 

A plane crashes on some remote island, and only the British school children survive. A classic story of survival begins.  The boys –after having attended not a single “survival school” --  learn to hunt, make shelters, make fire (using Piggy’s spectacles, or eye glasses), and to enjoy themselves.  After all, with all the adults gone, there’s no one to enforce rules, so we do what we want, right? Then the battle for power begins. One side is for some sort of orderly life,  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?  Are we essentially animals who need to learn to control our animal natures?

The book (and movie -- see the original; skip the re-make) 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 fulfillment 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, somewhat akin to someone in a board meeting tossing the gavel out the window.

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 depicts, 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. The story has even  been used to illustrate political parties in various countries. 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. The sailors are tall, dressed in white, somber.  It’s as if the children butted up against the gods of the universe, and now the day of reckoning comes.

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 as a petty tyrant in his island empire is over; Ralph is relieved his life is saved, and now he’ll be going back to his real home.

We see something in the childrens’ faces:  now they have to account for their actions to a higher power. The choices that each of us  make in life have ramification that ripple through our lives. “Ralph” and “Jack” represent the choices we make. What legacy will we leave? What actions will we ultimately be accountable for when the sailors get to shore?

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. The boys later related  that making the movie deeply affected them.  Even though it was described as “just a movie,” many of the boys  realized in their personal adult lives that it was far better to work hard to choose the upward, inclusive way of Ralph, rather than to ever find oneself descending into Jack-ness.

Friday, January 06, 2017

On Being Podded

The Technological Invasion of the Body Snatchers

[Nyerges is the author of “Self-Sufficient Home,” “How to Survive Anywhere,” “Extreme Simplicity,” and other books.  He writes a Blog on his web site, and he conducts outdoor field trips.  He can be reached at Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, or]

The original “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” was filmed locally in Sierra Madre, where the viewer watched pods being unloaded at the triangle at Baldwin and Sierra Madre Avenue.  It’s an insightful movie into human nature, and some have called it an analogy to alcoholism.  Watch the movie sometime and see if you agree.  You could also argue that the movie presented an analogy to any sort of addiction, or cult-thinking, where we are no longer in full control of our destiny.

A few recent experiences have made me realize that most of us are already fully “podded.” 

Not long ago on a cold night,  I went to a local Pasadena coffee shop to sit and drink coffee.  I thought I would meet someone and engage them in good old-fashioned conversation. I purchased my coffee and then found a comfortable chair where I could read the latest issue of Pasadena Weekly.  I hadn’t paid attention to the other patrons but I noted it was very quiet.

Finally looking up from my hot beverage and the rantings of my favorite Pasadena Weekly columnist Carl,  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 “Take Five.”   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.  It was a room full of alone people,  separated, and non-communicating with anyone else in the here and now.  No conversation would be possible, I lamented.

I went outside in the cold to maybe make conversation with my 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 tuned in elsewhere.  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 had vacant eyes, and they were somewhere else.  

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

I went to a Pasadena Trader Joe’s market,  did my shopping, and noted that nearly half the shoppers were not here now, but chatted away on their cell phones and other devices 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,” as he waved me on, and continued with his very important conversation.

I talked to a young  friend who plays on a sports team at a local college.  When I told her about my recent experience, she told me that she takes a school bus with the other athletes to the soccer meets.  She told me that after the game, all her fellow students sit in their own private I-podded musical worlds as they bus home.
“Really?” I said, stunned.  “Don’t you all talk about the game?” I asked.
“We don’t do that,” was her reply.

What a depressing world we’ve devolved into.  I can recall bussing home from John Muir High School cross country and track meets, listening to “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” playing loudly on the bus radio, and all us boys loudly 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 safe little individually-podded worlds?

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 not only is there no fight, but it’s being welcomed as the next great thing.

Later that night, there was a localized blackout in my neighborhood for five hours or so.  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 the answers to my inner questions before I’ve even asked them. 

I marvel at our technological advances, and I know there are certain values to them. Still, I  cringe with sadness each time I  realize what all of us have lost.