Sunday, December 30, 2018

Remembering Euell Gibbons (died December 29, 1975)

Gibbons died December 29, 1975

[Nyerges is the author of “Guide to Wild Foods” and other books.  He can be reached at Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041 or]

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.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Searching for the Real Meaning of Christmas

[Nyerges  is the author of several books, including “Enter the  Forest,” “How to Survive Anywhere,” and “Whose Child Is This” (about the meaning of the symbols of Christmas).  He can be reached at or Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041.]

I was waiting in line to buy something at Target, and the friendly checker asked the man ahead of me if he was ready for Christmas.  It was a cheerful and innocent question. After all, in December in the United Stated, it does seem like getting ready for Christmas is the number one dominant activity, and it’s the reason that lines in all the stores are long and why you cannot easily find parking.

“No, I don’t celebrate Christmas,” the man responded, and then he went on to explain how much money he saves by not observing “all that silly stuff.” I did overhear enough to hear that he was single, and then he walked on.  I wondered if that was the real reason he didn’t observe Christmas. He could  have been a Jehovah’s Witness, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or any of the other dozens of religions and sects which don’t observe the Christian Christmas holidays. 

Though I have both fond and depressing memories of the Christmas season growing up, I have worked through all the mish-mash of symbols that have gotten thrown into the Christmas motif, and I regard them as generally uplifting.  I have long ago ceased my mindless Christmas card-sending and gift-giving out of some sense of social obligation, but I still immensely enjoy special times with friends and families in what is the darkest time of the year.

Many years ago, I was asked by a local non-profit to share at a Christmas event the “real meaning” of Christmas.  Even after I agreed to do this, I wondered to myself:  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? 

My job was to discover what all the symbols and practices of Christmas mean, and how we might best realize and vivify those meanings during this time.  Needless to say, it was a tall task.

I found that the best way to share my research was to be honest, explaining my background, how I went about my research, and what I personally concluded. 

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.  So I had to begin my presentation with the man who is at the center of Christmas, Jesus.  It turns out that all historians agree that Jesus was not  born on December 25, but rather in May or September, probably  in the year 6 B.C. by our current reckoning. Not only that, many of the modern symbols and practices of Christmas-time actually pre-dated Jesus, and were celebrations of the Winter Solstice by the people that Christians called “pagans.”

So then I  had to stop and define “pagans.”  Originally people outside of the strong influence of Roman power were called the pagani, country folk, a term that had no religious overtones in the beginning. Eventually it became a term of derision, meaning non-Christian, for the people who practiced the old religion of Mithraism. 

In the time of Jesus, there were many religions and gods and Gods, and they didn’t all get along. Jesus, as everyone knows, was a practicing Jew, and observed the Jewish  holy days. After the crucifixion, his followers carried on the message of Jesus the Christ, and they still mostly-observed the Jewish traditions, hence, Judaeo-Christianity. 

None of this is new, of course, and these details can be found in any encyclopedia, including such tomes as  The Golden Bough, and Manly Hall’s Secret Teachings of All Ages. 

So why do we celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25, when we know that the early Judaeo-Christians didn’t celebrate Jesus’ birthday at all?

Most ancient religion is astronomy-based, and draws great symbolism from the cycle of the earth around the sun.  The winter solstice is the day of the least light, from which the days have increasingly more light. The birth of the sun has long been anthropomorphized into the birth of the sun.  Jesus wasn’t the first to be commemorated with the winter solstice.  Mithra, born of a virgin mother in a cave, was said to be born on December 25.   Nimrod from Babylon was also said to be born on December 25, as was Osiris, Quetzalcoatl, and others.

The new religion of Christianity was still struggling in the 4th century, and its adherents were still being persecuted for their  faith when Constantine became the emperor.  Constantine also converted to Christianity.  In his attempt to unite his kingdom, 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, Jesus.

Some of the symbols that have been adopted into the Christmas season are universal symbols of eternity, life, and light, symbols such as  wreaths, evergreens, the tree, lights and candles, the giving of gifts, the virgin birth, and birth in a stable.

Santa Claus was based on a very real Catholic bishop named Nikolas of Myra (modern day Turkey) who gave gifts during the winter and the newly-established Christmas season.  He was born in March 15, 270, and actually participated in the First Council of Nicaea in 325, the famous council where early church doctrine was argued and decided.  He died on December 6th, 343.   This generous bishop was remembered for the gifts he gave, and his image was severely watered-down over the years by Coca-Cola and others who used him in their advertising.

It’s correct that many people have been turned off when they learn of the roots of modern  Christmas.  Some even find all this depressing.  But I am not like the man in line ahead of me at Target.  I’ll still observe the Christmas season, and I enjoy the lessons that are buried within all these symbols. 

Can I say that today I know the “real meaning” of Christmas?  I have come closer to experiencing the universal “magic” of Christmas in my personal life, year by year, and I feel that this is an on-going process, where there are always more nuances to be learned.  I never get tired, for example, of watching Capra’s wonderful Christmas movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and watching Jimmy Stewart confront the meaning and purpose of his own life, and the value of true friendship.  Though he had nothing to give others that fateful year, it turned out  his greatest gift was the service he’d done for so many in the town. 

And for this reason, I have long felt that “It’s a Wonderful Life” expresses “the real meaning” of Christmas: slow down, breathe, recognize the higher power, and acknowledge your friends and family who are the real gifts in your life.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Who is Santa Claus?


[Nyerges is an author / lecturer / educator who has written such books as “Extreme Simplicity,” “How to Survive Anywhere,” “Guide to Wild Foods,” and other books.  Information about his books and classes is available at www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance, or Box 41834, Eagle Rock,CA 90041]

A few years ago, I recall a Christian woman complaining that Santa Claus has gained a more prominent role during the Christmas season than the Jesus child.   She argued that this was a sign that “we” have allowed secularism – and maybe even paganism – to creep into the Christmas tradition. Really!?

So, who is Santa Claus?  Isn’t he just a fictitious jolly man to make us feel happy during the dark of December?  Not really.  There actually was an historical figure, upon which “Santa Claus” is based.

Nikolas of Myra was an historical 4th century Bishop in the Catholic church of Asia Minor (modern-day Demre, Turkey).  He was born on March 15, 270, in Pataya, Lycia, in Asia Minor, what is now modern Turkey. At that time, however, the area was culturally Greek, and was politically a part of the Roman  diocese of Asia.  He was the only child of wealthy Greek parents, who both died in an epidemic when Nicholas was young. Nicholas inherited much from his parents, and was then raised by his uncle (also named Nicholas), who was a Bishop of  Patara, and who trained young Nicholas into priesthood.

Nicholas was said to be religious from an early age, and he always fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays.    Because of his outspoken beliefs, he was persecuted by the Romans  and was imprisoned during the persecution of Diocletian.

In case you never heard of the “persecution of Diocletian” (I hadn’t),  it was the most severe of the persecutions against Christians, simply because they were Christians, in the Roman Empire.  It was also known as the “Great Persecution.”   In 303, four emperors issued a series of dictatorial laws which essentially did away with any legal rights of Christians.  The edicts demanded that the Christians comply with traditional Roman “religious” practices, meaning, giving sacrifices to the various so-called Roman gods.  This persecution was severe, and was weakest in the British colonies where the Empire had the least sway.  It was the most severe in the Eastern provinces, where Nicholas lived. 

Since Nicholas refused to worship the Roman gods, he was imprisoned, and suffered hardship, hunger, and cold for about 5 years. With the rise of Constantine, the persecutions came to an end in 313.   With Constantine in power, Nicholas was released. Constantine is known for “Christianizing” the Roman Empire, and re-naming all the Mythraic and so-called “pagan” holidays so they could all now be regarded as Christian holidays.

Shortly after his return to his homeland in 317 A.D., Nicholas became the Bishop of Myra. 

He was later invited to attend the First Council of Nicaea in 325, the famous council where much of the modern dogma of the Catholic church was determined.    Nicholas of Myra was one of many bishops to participate in the Council at Constantine’s request. He is listed as the 151st attendee at the Council. There, Nicholas was a staunch anti-Arian.  Arius, from Alexandria, held that the Son of  God did not always exist, but was created by the Father.  Nicholas disagreed with Arius, and defended the developing orthodox Christian viewpoint.  According to stories told, Nicholas got so angry at Arius that he punched him in the face!  Really?  Proto-Santa Claus punches a fellow man of the cloth?  Really? 

Back in his homeland, Nicholas became known as a very generous bishop.   Remember, he inherited wealth from his parents, and he would sometimes give gold and other valuables to those that he heard was in need.  In one case, it is said that Nicholas tossed a bag of gold coins into a needy family’s yard, anonymously.   He was apparently humble, and didn’t want to be seen giving money to people, so he did it secretly.  He was so famous for wanting to give such gifts in private when he traveled the countryside,  children were told to go to sleep quickly or  Nicholas would not come with gifts.  This, apparently, is the origin of telling children to go to sleep or that Santa will not come.

In one story, he apparently snuck into the home of a family where the three daughters of a poor man were about  to get married. Nicholas put some gold into the stockings which the girls left by the fire to dry.  This, apparently, is the origin of hanging up stockings on Christmas eve.

He was also well known for the gifts that he gave to newly married couples during the already established Christmas season.

And so it goes.  Nicholas was a complex man, part of the new Catholic tradition which celebrated the birth of Jesus on the already-observed winter solstice. (Early Judeo-Christians did not celebrate the birth of Jesus, a date that has been lost to history, but was definitely not December 25).

He died on December 6, 343,which is to this day known as “Saint Nicholas Day.”  Upon his death, he was buried in the cathedral of Myra.  He is revered as a saint in most versions of Christianity and is especially honored in Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

By the  year 450, churches in  Greece and Asia Minor were being named in honor of Nicholas.  He was officially honored  as a saint by the Eastern Catholic Church in 800.  December 6 began to be celebrated as Bishop Nicholas Day in France  by the 1200s. 

As time went on, when ever someone received a mysterious gift, it would be attributed to Saint Nicholas! 

The Dutch called Saint Nicholas “Sinterklass,” which is the most likely manner in which the name Saint Nicholas gradually evolved into “Santa Claus.”  Along the way, Saint Nicholas was given some of the attributes of Odin, the Norse God, who could travel through the sky and who had a secret home somewhere around the north pole.  Come to think of it, even the Superman story also borrowed from Odin.  Remember how Superman sometimes goes to a secret cavern in the Northern coldlands and converses with his ancestors via ice crystals? 

The image continued to morph over the years, with the Coco Cola company giving the world a somewhat sanitized and plumper  Saint Nicholas-Santa Claus with their early 20th century ads. There we began to see the fatter bearded man in the red suit. 

Today, the man you see in the mall is the modern condensation of fact and myth, embodying the generosity of one Catholic Bishop, the good will of all who gave gifts in his stead, and bits of the mythology of Odin.  

Thursday, December 13, 2018

New Book of Poetry by Jason Deatherage

Today I got a package in the mail from Canada.  It was Jason Deatherage's new book of poetry, "Up Closer to the Sky: Poems from a Mountain Hut."

I am not what you'd call a big fan of poetry, but I've known Jason for so long that I knew I had to read it.  It's a beautiful book, and I started from the front, and read it all the way through.  I think this is a book intended to be read in sequence, since it takes you through the year, beginning with fall and winter.

Jason writes that the Taoist and Chan (Zen) hermits took to the hills in ancient China to meditate, contemplate nature, and get basic.  This collection is offered in the spirit of those old mountain dwellers.

I could picture Jason in a mountain hut, after a day of chopping wood and hauling water, sitting at a little table by candlelight writing (which may not be too far from the truth).  The poetry is simple, and reminiscent of Basho.

His book is illustrated by a well-known Canadian wood-cut artist, James McDowell.

It's available as a kindle book, or you can get a hard or soft cover from Blurb. Here's the link:

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Folly of Christmas Spending


[Nyerges is the author of several books, such as “Self-Sufficient Home,” “Extreme Simplicity,” “How to Survive Anywhere,” and other books. Information about his classes, and Blog, can be found at]

“Look at all the money I saved,” my friend excitedly told me with an enthusiastic grin, pointing to various boxes with Christmas wrappings on his table.  I was visiting an old friend who I’d not seen in years, who I’d heard was experiencing financial hard times.

“What did you get?” I asked.

He proceeded to show me some electronic items, objects that I mostly did not recognize, plus many gifts that he described as “obligatory.”

“So, how much did you save?” I ventured.

“Forty percent,” was his quick answer.

“Forty percent of what?”  I asked.  I could tell that my friend wanted to share his excitement with me, but he chose the wrong person to revel in his shopping savvy.

“The retail of this new phone is $300,” he told me.

“Really?” I said, picking it up and turning it over in my hands.  “And why do you need this? Was the one you already have malfunctioning?”

“Are you serious?” he challenged.  “It’s working, but it’s obsolete.  This one,” he said, holding it a few inches in front of my face, “is the coolest latest model.”

“I see,” I said, rather detachedly. “And you paid for it with your credit card?” 

“Of course,” he said, shocked that I would even ask such a ridiculous question. 

“And do you pay off your credit card bill when it arrives each month?” I ventured.

“Of course, I mean, I pay off what’s required.”

“So you pay the minimum?” I said. “So you don’t pay off the card. You pay interest month after month.” I paused.  I knew I was not there to make him feel good about his shopping. I knew that his shopping was the reason he was having financial difficulty. 

“Look,” I said, “I hope I’m not the first one telling you this, but your electronic gadget is usually sold for less than $300. That’s an inflated retail price and so you didn’t really save 40%. And since you’re paying interest on it, that supposed savings is even less.  Are you willing to have a chat about some basics of personal economics?  I mean, I saved much more than you simply by not buying something that I don’t need, and can’t afford.” My friend seemed forlorn, and went quiet.

Though my friend was constantly having “money problems” such as running out of money that he needed before the end of the month, I knew that his problem wasn’t “money,” per se. In this case, my friend’s sense of self-importance was boosted each time he purchased something new, even if he didn’t need it, even if he really couldn’t afford it.

And if spending money provides one with a sense of self-importance, I knew that my friend would continue to make bad monetary decisions until he found a more substantial concept upon which to base his self-image.

“Look,” I told him, “do you really want to get out of debt?  Do you really want your life to be different?”  He nodded enthusiastically.

“OK,” I continued.  “To begin with, you need to keep track of your income, and never spend more than you make each month.  For example, if you can’t pay off your total credit card each month when the bill comes then you can’t afford those purchases.  Unless you experienced an emergency, you should not have purchased those items, Period.”  I emphasized that he really needed to scrutinize each purchase and buy only those things he really needed, and not just stuff that he desired.

In our short time together, I doubt that I changed my friend’s mental wiring that causes him to justify the excessive shopping. But perhaps it was a step in the right direction. To use the alcohol analogy, he wasn’t quite an alcoholic yet who needed rehab; rather, he was the guy whose drinking was starting to cause more and more problems and disruptions in his life.  He was not yet beyond redemption.

As an environmentalist, I have long believed that one of our biggest ecological problems is that we all want more and more, and that demand pulls excessively hard on the supply chain, meaning, more and more raw materials, and energy, and water, are required to produce the mountains of “stuff” that we all seem to revel in. Especially at Christmas. And if material things were the source of true happiness, I wouldn’t mind, but just the reverse seems to be true.

I tried to instill in my friend the sense that each item, each resource that he handles, came from somewhere. Someone mined the materials, processed the materials and turned them into some object, and then packaged and shipped the materials, all using up way more resources than just the object in question.  My friend nodded, but I’m not sure he cared so much about the environment. 

“Try making something yourself,” I suggested.  “You know, carving something out of scrap wood, growing some food items and canning jam or pickles, even fixing up old furniture and chairs and selling them or giving them as gifts,” I said.  I even suggested that he learn to sew and develop the appreciation that comes with making something with your own hands.  “Then, the objects of your life – and the gifts you give – have a story, and they don’t add to the burden of trash in the world.”  He nodded.

I don’t know if he will change, but as I left, I shared with him the old adage from the Depression: "Use it up, wear it out,  Make it do, or do without."  [Thank you Bruce for helping me get the quote right!]
Not only would this help him to economize and save money, but I believe it will give him an improved self-image.

What do you think?

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

On Death


[Nyerges is the author of “Til Death Do Us Part?” a book about death and the many ways to deal with the death of a pet or loved one.  The book is available as a Kindle download, or from the Store at]

When  a loved one dies, the close survivors often express regret that they didn’t spend more time with the departed, or tell them that they loved them.  Time flies, of course, and life always presents us with so many things to do. It’s easy to put off what’s important in life.

I also deeply love and value my pets, and have always considered them very much a part of the family.  As a child, I remember when our family dog Pariah was old and sick.  I could no longer walk him, but I would go into the back yard to pet him and feed him. Then one day when I came home from school, my father told me that he “took care of” Pariah. “What? Where is he?” I exclaimed. My father calmly told me that the local pet hospital “euthanized” Pariah.  “What does that mean?” my teenage-self replied.  “Does that mean he’ll be home soon?”
“No,” my mother chimed in with a somber tone.  “The doctor put him to sleep. He was dying.” My mother tried to hide her tears.  I was shocked, and ran to my room.

I was stunned!  How could they do that.

Later, after my father was asleep, my mother – who grew up on a farm – explained that she used to see animals die all the time.  “We just tried to make them comfortable,” she told me. “Animals know they are dying. They usually want to be around their people to feel safe, and not in a cold hospital where they don’t know anyone.”

That was her way of telling me that she didn’t agree with my father’s decision.  I was sad for a long time, and vowed that I would never again do that to any pet of mine – and I’ve kept that vow life-long, despite the inconveniences that come with assisting a person or pet in death.  I’ve watched pets – cats, dogs, one pig – get old, stiff, and slow, and then they find a spot to go and die.  I’ve learned to accept this as part of The Way.

I was saddened by what a friend recently told me.  His father, who lives alone, has had a cat for over 10 years. The cat became sick and old and was on its deathbed.  The father – in his 80s – now seemed indifferent to this animal that once was a close friend. He wanted the cat to be taken to a vet and “put to sleep.”  Fortunately, the cat died in peace on its bed in its home.  But I was saddened that a person could be such a fair-weather friend because the dear pet was now dying.

All of life is precious, and we need not push the death process. It comes quick enough. Nor should we fear death.

I’m reminded of the time – precisely 10 years ago – when I was taking care of my wife of 22 years on her deathbed, 24/7.  She died with me by her side, at home. I think the reason that so many people fear death, and want dying people out of sight-out of mind, is because they cannot get into the shoes of the dying person.  The dying person usually wants to be around the people who they were close to in life and not in a sterile hospital. (Yes, I know all situations are different, and sometimes the family simply cannot deal with the demands and pressures of the dying person).

The fact that we have grown so far from this very basic tenet shows how far we have strayed from out most fundamental roots.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

"Primitive Technology" book by Errett Callahan


“Primitive Technology: Practical Guidelines for Making Stone Tools, Pottery, Basketry, etc., the Aboriginal Way,” by Errett Callahan, PhD.

Errett Callahan has been around a long time, teaching how people produced their everyday goods in the past, using the technologies then available.  He is perhaps best known for his works on flint-knapping, the art of taking various rocks and fracturing them to make arrowheads or spear points.  Besides over 30 years of teaching many of the teachers today, he’s authored “A Manual for Flintknappers and Lithic Analysts,” wherein he describes and defines the stages of the process to make proper stone points.

His “Primitive Technology” book is backed up by his 40 years of personal experience.  According to his count, he’s made at least 8000 stone tools, 200 earthenware pots (as well as cooking in them), and at least 50 aboriginal dwellings.  Additionally, he’s lost count of the bows, arrows, baskets, fire-gear, and other items. His books is based on what works.

“Primitive Technology” consists of mostly line drawings, summarizing flint-knapping, projectiles, bows, pottery, baskets, mats, fire, and shelter.  According to Callahan, the pages of this 8 ½ x 11 book were originally charts used in the teaching process, so they are reduced from a larger size. 

Callahan was a founding member of the Society of Primitive Technology, now somewhat in hiatus, and though retired, apparently still does some teaching in his Virginia workshop.

“Primitive Technology” is available for $17  (price includes postage), to School of Self-Reliance, Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041.  You can also get your copy by sending the payment to Paypal, using the e-mail

Friday, November 23, 2018

Is Having a "post Disaster" Survival Group a Viable Idea


Is having a “survival group” a good idea?
[For on-going classes by Christopher Nyerges and the School of Self-Reliance, see Schedule at]

We were finishing a day-long field trip of practicing outdoor survival and self-reliance skills, and the remainder of our small group was now sitting around the table talking.  The subject moved to emergency action plans, and what contingencies any of us had in the aftermath of a major disaster. 

“How would any of us ever get together after a major disaster?” one woman asked me.  She was well-aware that our small group comprised a broad spectrum of skills, people who worked to be  ethical, socially-conscious, and doers, not just talkers.  I could tell she was wondering about how our group might actually come together in such a scenario.

“We probably would have no way to get together,” I offered.  “Of course, there is no predicting the future, but if we couldn’t use a car, and couldn’t get gas, and there was chaos on the streets, in the first few weeks, we’d almost certainly have to stay put wherever we’re living.”  My response pre-supposed a serious disaster where all social services would be disrupted.

I’ve long recommended that people get to know their neighbors, because they are your “family” in the aftermath of a major disaster, like it or not. Think global, as the saying goes, but act local.  Enroll in local CERT training, and be active in Neighborhood Watch.

The woman then asked me, sort of a question and comment combined, “Well, don’t you have a tight survival group of people who would all come together in an emergency?”  She really wanted to know.  I knew she was thinking of how she might organize such a group where she lived, and I knew that she believed I have organized, or been a part of, such a “group.”

I live in the northern section of Los Angeles County, near the mountains.  In our class that day, the woman had driven about a hundred miles, from San Bernardino County from the east.  Three had come over a hundred miles, from the high desert. One other person was local, and the rest lived between 30 and 45 minutes by car from me.  We were all spread out.  There was no way that this diverse group would ever come together in the sort of disaster (and end of the functioning of normal society) that she was envisioning.

“Don’t you have a survival group?” she again implored.

I began by sharing stories in novels I’d read, about a group of highly-trained people who came together after an end-of-the-world scenario, and how they worked together to form a new society. For example, such a group is depicted in Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged.”

“But here’s the reality,” I told her.  I explained that I have worked with many “groups” over the years, often with the focus of working together to survive a disaster.

“Your best bet is to work with your own family to make each person strong, healthy, and self-reliant,” I told her, “and to work with your local community to improve things.”’

How, for example, would a far-flung diverse group of people communicate with each other?  If they were ham operators, it might be possible, but there would still be the problem of traveling a long distance under unsettled conditions.

I could see that this was not what the woman wanted to hear, so I shared more with her and the rest of our small group.

In the planning sessions of which I’ve been a part, there are always “great ideas” from everyone, and countless scenarios are discussed about what might occur.  However, in the real life, things never go that way.  Any “group” might have one natural leader, even though there is an appointed or elected leader.  That’s a problem. There are also lots of lazy people, people who want to be a part of something but who are more talk than walk.  Lazy and idealistic people have spelled the doom of many an alternative community.

I shared the experiences of a friend of mine who was part of an intentional eco-living community of under 20 people. It was all run very democratically and members would vote for “great ideas” but my friend found that the work required to do certain things was not being done.  The group voted for having a dog, and chicken, and rabbits, all of which require daily regular care, and then some.  My friend learned that  “the group” never does anything – only individuals do work.  My friend found that he was the one cleaning up after the dog, emptying the compost, taking care of the chickens, and eventually he left because he got tired of doing everyone else’s work in the supposedly idealistic ecological community.

Then there is the reverse situation, such as occurred in the “Killing Fields” of Cambodia, where everyone was forced to be “equal.”  There was no incentive to do better and do more, because you’d be knocked down, and be “re-educated” to alter your capitalistic and imperialistic thinking.  And then there was Mao, who – perhaps with “good intentions” – wanted to take the wealth of the country out of the hands of a few and give it back to the people by “nationalizing” companies.  Isn’t that that goal of the various idealistic communes and communities – making everyone equal?  Well, it doesn’t usually work, and the result of Mao’s “good intentions” cost the lives of 100 million people, more or less.

Getting back to the woman’s question about the practical aspects of a small tight group getting together after a disaster, what else can go wrong with the “group” that plans to get together?  For one thing, the ability to spring into action after an emergency requires the maintenance of physical fitness, and requires at least some level of economic autonomy, and knowing how to live one’s life so that you are, in fact, able to rise to the occasion of a severe emergency.  The concept of such a survival group is not a passive concept.  In order to be viable, it must be alive, dynamic, and involve regular training of some sort.

So, as a practical matter that I have observed in smaller groups, there is the fact that people like to pick-off the leader, and endlessly criticize.  I have watched countless “leaders” whose job ended up being fending off and defending the countless criticisms  Then the members of the presumed “survival group” form groups and clash among themselves, akin to “The Lord of the Flies.”  Then some get girlfriends or boyfriends, and they go off into their own world, fending for themselves in the society at large, just trying to seek whatever goal it is that anyone seeks in life.

These are just a few of the reasons why “groups” don’t stay together, and it’s especially pertinent with a group that is expecting an end-of-the-world event in a way that may never actually happen. 

The constant challenges that everyone faces in life requires a never-ending series of choices and changes.  Our lives never remain static, and the things that happen in society can always leave us guessing.  The idea that we should spend a major, or a large, portion of our time and resources on how we’re going to “start over” in the event of a world-changing cataclysm is some thing that should be put into perspective. 

We can’t predict the future, but learning new self-reliance skills will always serve you well, and those of your friends and associates who are of like-mind.  But assuming you survive an event like a comet hitting the earth, or a major tidal wave, there’s no way that you can depend on any “group” that you might have developed.  Don’t get me wrong—organizing and working with such a group, whether a private family group, or a more public group such as CERT training – is a great idea.  But just remember that life is a very dynamic thing, and as long as you’re willing to continually learn, and adapt to changing situations, you’re likely to do well regardless who you happen to be stuck with.    

Monday, November 12, 2018

Commentary on the "Caravan"


Christopher Nyerges

[Nyerges is the author of “How to Survive Anywhere,” “Self-Sufficient Home,” “Extreme Simplicity,” and other books.  He leads survival skills and ethnobotany field trips. He can be reached at]

In October of  2018, news reports tell us that a large group of people from Guatemala are fleeing from their country worried about the violence that may befall them if they stay there. They have moved north and passed through the border of Mexico, their large numbers overwhelming the border authorities between Guatemala and Mexico.  They have reached Mexico City and are moving north.  Their purpose is to flee the violence of their homeland.  They are attempting to mostly walk a few thousand miles to get to what is perceived to be the Promised Land of the United States. 

Now, just think about this for a minute.  Think of what it really takes for you to walk a mile to the local grocery store, buy a few things, and walk back home.  If your grocery store was more than 5 miles away, your shopping trip would be nearly an all-day event for most of you.  Why?  No one walks anymore.  Though bicycling has been slowly increasing in the urban areas, even bicycling is not commonly used for everyday transportation.  Urban Americans drive! 

The ability to walk from place to place as a normal part of daily life has long become a lost skill, along with cooking one’s own meals.  Just like most people don’t cook from scratch anymore, nearly no one walks.  So from the American urban point of view, it’s simply unbelievable that a large group of people – which though mostly men, does include women, children, and elderly – is attempting to walk several thousands of miles.  Consider if you had the prospect of walking from Los Angeles to San Diego.  You’ve probably driven the two-plus hours drive to San Diego.  But walking?  What path would you take?  Could you carry enough water? Where would you go to the bathroom?  Would you be able to find a safe place to sleep at night? Would there be safety in numbers?  What if your feet start to hurt?  What if your shoes literally wear out?

There are several lessons that can be derived from this so-called caravan from the south. 

For one, the average American is completely clueless about the harsh conditions that beset so many people every hour of every day in so many countries.  If your money was worthless, and it was challenging to earn an income, and your life was constantly on the line due to changing political situations, you would live in fear and without hope for the future.  These are just the tip of the iceberg of reasons why mass numbers of people have chosen to pick up and move.  But let’s face it – the average American rushes from job to job to school to home, completely preoccupied with getting ahead and the various pleasures that make life seem worthwhile.

Students of Southwest history should take some practical lessons from the fact that people can and do walk hundreds, if not thousands, of miles when drought and political fighting have compelled them to move. 

Of the many “mysteries” of history, one is the movement, and fate, of the Anasazi who lived in the American Southwest, and built thousands of extant structures throughout the sprawling landscape of New Mexico and Arizona.  It was a society which travelled long distances on foot.  We know they built long straight roads, and we know that chocolate was found at Chaco canyon, evidence of a trade connection way to the south in Meso America. 

The Anasazi knew how to build from the local materials, and they mastered pottery, making fabrics with the loom, agriculture, and even canals to bring the water to the crops.  They were only peripatetic when they had to be, when situations compelled them to move.  Skeletal evidence suggests there were at least two distinct peoples living in the Anasazi landscape, and the various long-distance moving probably was a result of lack of water, as well as civil conflict of the population.  There was brutality in the end, as the last of the people apparently moved south again, back to Mexico, to Pacquime, and beyond.  The record is open to interpretation.   But people moved everywhere, on foot, with whole families, carrying what they could. When they settled again, they set to work employing their technologies to create the things that were once again needed.  Craig Childs does a masterful job of re-tracing the hundreds of miles of foot traffic of the Anasazi in his “House of Rain” book.

Others in history have travelled long distances on foot.  Of the many mysteries of the Americas includes what happened to the Maya? When the cities were emptied, many are unaccounted for in the skeletal record or other records of migration.  Look at a map.  They walked north, or sailed north.

What happened to Cahokia, the site of the second largest pyramid in North America, in Illionois?  Archaeologists believed that, for some reason, the city emptied and they all departed.  There are many bits of evidence to suggest this, detailed by Timothy Pauketat in his book, “Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi.” 

We know that people of the past walked, and eventually walked great distances.  With them, they could only carry the most basic essentials, living off the land as they walked, using their skills and knowledge to create a new life when they arrived somewhere better.  “Iceman” is evidence of this tradition – he was the traveler found in Northern Italy, having been buried in the ice for 5000 or so years.  His gear provided modern archaeologists with an insight into how people of the past made such distant treks.

There are many ways to interpret a large group of people coming into the country where you are living.  One interpretation is to view it as an “invasion,” and to respond with fear. Ancient Rome had a few such invasions that spelled the end of the Empire. 

 As of this writing, we have no idea how far the current “caravan” will get, since it would be hard for even the hardiest to live off the land of the desert to their north, not to mention the difficulty of a thousand-plus people doing so.  Still, if you live in a country where—despite its weakness and pitfalls – everyone in the world wants to get there, you should be thankful that you live in such a place.  Such a place as the U.S. is not perfect, but people want to come here because it has a somewhat stable economy, and their work can mean something and their money will not all be taken away.  It has  somewhat fair and ethical legal system, where the equal implementation of laws is not strictly about who you know.  In this place,  it’s still possible to create a business for yourself, and to provide a service that others want and need. 

Those who come to the Promised Land to just get something for free will be less satisfied and fulfilled than those who come with the burning desire to create a life that they simply could not do so in their homeland.  We don’t yet know who will be rebuffed, or welcomed. 

Nevertheless, we should view this as a page of living history.  Simultaneously, as the Thanksgiving season approaches, Americans should take the time to learn more about the uniquenesses of our system, so that we do not “lose it” through our ignorance and complacency.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Is a Pre-Commercialized "Hallowe'en" Possible?

The Roots of Hallowe’en

Is it possible to observe a pre-commercialized version?

[Nyerges is the author of several books including “How to Survive Anywhere,” “Extreme Simplicity,” and “Foraging California.”  Information about his books and classes is available at]

Recently, a few associates and I were discussing the strange customs of Hallowe’en.  Why has it devolved into a day of  fun and fear, we wondered?  We wondered how this once- Holy Day was commemorated before it was all commercialized into a scary night.  Is it possible to discover the roots of this day, and observe it in its original fashion  today?

We determined that we’d need to dig up whatever historical facts we could find that show how this day was commemorated before 1700, more or less.  Though we couldn’t be 100% certain, we at least assumed that “commercialization” didn’t really exist in 1700, and all the European and some American commemorations before that year probably retained some semblance of what the day was all about, originally.

So, first, let’s begin with the day.

It is believed that the ancient Celts observed something called a “Samhain festival” towards the end of October.  Says the World Book Encyclopedia. “The Celts believed that the dead could walk among the living at this time. During Samhain, the living could visit with the dead. Elements of the customs can be traced to a Druid ceremony in pre-Christian times. The Celts had festivals for two major gods—a sun god and a god of the dead (called Samhain), whose festival was held on November 1, the beginning of the Celtic New Year.

This day, or period, was to mark the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter. 

Samhain (pronounced “sow-in,” which means “summer’s end,” or the name of a god, or both) is seen by some Wiccans as a time to celebrate the lives of those who have died, and it often involves paying respect to ancestors, family members, elders of the faith, friends, pets and other loved ones who have died. In some rituals the spirits of the dead are invited to attend the festivities.

Various sorts of activities done on Samhain have been described over the centuries. In Ireland,  Samhain was a time to take stock of the herds and food supplies. Cattle were brought  to the winter pastures after six months in the higher summer pastures. Then, the people chose which animals to slaughter before the winter. After the slaughter of the animals, there would be feasting. And obviously, if you aren’t an animal-raising farmer, how would you celebrate this aspect, except for the feasting?

The Catholic Church was aware of all the so-called “pagan” observances, and had their own day to commemorate the dead, May 13. This began in  609 or 610 C.E., when Pope Boniface the 4th dedicated the Pantheon— the Roman temple of all the gods—to Mary and all the martyrs.  Later that date was changed by Pope Gregory III (731-741 C.E.), who dedicated a chapel in Rome to all the saints and ordered that they be honored on November 1.  This was done, in part, to overshadow the pre-existing Samhain commemorations.

In the 11th century,   November 2nd was assigned as "All Souls’ Day" in commemoration of the dead.   So this began the use of the term Hallow’s Eve, or Hallowe’en for October 31.

Hallowe’en customs are similar to the observance of Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, commonly practiced in Mexico and which can be traced to early Aztec times.  Apparently,  this “day of the dead” was originally commemorated in Mexico in May, and was changed to November 2 sometime after Spanish contact to correspond with the Christian tradition.


Trick or treating in modern times goes back to leaving food and wine for roaming dead spirits and ghosts. The custom was referred to as "going a-souling" and was eventually practiced only by the children who would visit the houses in their neighborhoods and be given gifts of ale, food and money. It was believed the spirits of the dead returned to visit their old homes during this time, so in ancient times, people left food out for them and arranged chairs so that the dead would be able to rest.  

Treats called “soul cakes” were given out in memory of the departed.  The Middle Age practice of souling — going door to door begging for food in return for prayers — became popular and is even referenced by William Shakespeare in 1593.  This is obviously the root of the modern “trick or treating” for mini Snickers bars, a practice no doubt loved by every dentist.

Seasonal foods such as apples and nuts were often used in the Samhain rituals. Apples were peeled, the peel tossed over the shoulder, and its shape examined to see if it formed the first letter of the future spouse's name.  Nuts were roasted on the hearth and then interpreted – if the nuts stayed together, so would the couple. Egg whites were dropped in water, and the shapes foretold the number of future children. Children would also chase crows and divine some of these things from the number of birds or the direction they flew.  


Celts would wear masks when they left their homes during the night hours during Samhain days, because they hoped they would avoid being recognized by the ghosts and be mistaken merely for fellow ghosts.

“Mumming” and “Guising” were a part of Samhain from at least the 16th century and was recorded in parts of Ireland, Scotland, Mann and Wales. It involved people going from house to house in costume (or in disguise), usually reciting songs or verses in exchange for food.  It is suggested that it evolved from a tradition whereby people impersonated the aos sí, or the souls of the dead, and received offerings on their behalf.  Impersonating these spirits or souls was also believed to protect oneself from them.   One researcher suggests that the ancient festival included people in masks or costumes representing these spirits, and that the modern custom came from this.


Pagan Celtic priestesses and their followers would roam the countryside, chanting songs in order to frighten away the evil spirits thought to be out on Halloween night.  I wonder how that could be practiced in your neighborhood?


Bonfires  were a big part of the festival in many areas of western Europe.  Bonfires were typically lit on hilltops at Samhain where everyone could see them, and there were rituals involving them.

Bonfires comes from the root, “bone-fires” because the priests sacrificed animals and supposedly even people in an attempt to appease the sun god, while also looking for future omens. The fire was said to be a type of sympathetic magic, where the fire mimicked the sun, which has the power to hold back the darkness of winter.  Burning the fires was also believed to be a way of banishing evil, at least symbolically.


Divination has likely been a part of the festival since ancient times, and it has survived in some rural areas.  In part, this meant that the spirits,  the aos sí., could enter your world.  Many of the food offerings and fires were directed to the aos sí.   Or perhaps, some of the  crops might also be left in the ground for them the aos sí.    The aos sí.were addressed in various ways, with food offerings, with walks into the ocean, with the idea to hold off any mischief, and perhaps to learn the future.

The belief that the souls of the dead return home on one night of the year seems to have ancient origins and is found in many cultures throughout the world.


So what do you conclude from all this?  Is there an ideal way to commemorate this ancient day, and still avoid the trappings of commercialization?  Is it even possible?

I like the way that the Day of the Dead is commemorated. There are altars with pictures of the dearly departed, and plates of good food.  Candles are lit, rather than a big bonfire which the local fire department would frown upon.  Families gather, and talk in respectful tones about their departed relatives.  Yes, of course, even the Day of the Dead has turned into wild partying in some quarters, but if you seek a return to roots of the ancient commemoration of the dead, perhaps begin here.  

Begin with family or neighborhood gatherings. Prepare a good meal, and keep in the mind the foods that your beloved departeds enjoyed. This is not necessarily because you think their spirits will come to eat (last I checked, ghosts don’t need to eat), but because having, for example, your mother’s favorite dish will give you another reason to talk about your mother, and to remember all the good things she did. 

This is at least a start, and it elevates our day of ghoulish and pointless fear-mongering into one that reconnects us with our roots.