Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Antigua of Highland Park: Doing Little Things to Help the Environment



[Nyerges is the manager of the Old L.A. Farmers Market, every Tuesday from 3 to 8 p.m. at Ave. 58 and Figueroa. He is the author of “Self-Sufficient Home,” “Extreme Simplicity,” and other books. He can be reached at www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com.]

As I was walking from the Old L.A. Farmers Market to get my usual cup of coffee-chocolate at Antigua’s, I noticed a new flower bed in the back of the coffee house.  Where there was once trash and dead weeds, now there was now a beautiful wood-framed garden bed with colorful flowers and even some vegetables.  But there was something different about this approximately 6 by 6 foot garden space. There was a wooden pole sticking out of the middle, and a plastic bucket was strapped to the pole with some sort of tubing leading to the roof.

I went inside to talk with the owners, Dennis and Miguel Hernandez. The Hernandez brothers were both born in Guatemala City, Guatemala, so they named their coffee house after their home town. (Antigua is the name of the “old” Guatemala City.)  They both moved to Los Angeles in 1999 as teens, moving to the U.S. with their father. They both worked at similar jobs, including food industry jobs which got them interested in starting their own coffeehouse.

After lots of work, they started Antigua at 5703 N. Figueroa in September of 2007.

I saw Dennis and asked him to explain the unique garden out back.

“Oh, you need to talk to Miguel,” he told me with a big smile. “It was Miguel’s and his daughter’s idea.”

So the next day, I met with  brother Miguel, and we discussed the ecological garden.

Miguel told me that he had wanted to do something with a little bit of space in the rear of the coffeehouse, a somewhat ugly little spot where trash would accumulate.  So, with encouragement and help from his teenage daughter Kathy,  he built the little sturdy-framed garden out back.


“You know we throw a lot of coffee grounds away, right?” Miguel asked me. “Well, we filled that little raised bed garden with lots of our coffee grounds.  It’s a really good way to recycle the grounds.”  Miguel pointed out that they still end up tossing some used coffee grounds away, because they use so much.  They do give some away to gardeners and mushroom growers, and they plan to continually find a home for their used grounds.


“But what’s that plastic bucket up on the post?” I asked Miguel.  He broadly smiled and he told me that he realized the air conditioning for Antigua constantly drips out water.  “I ran a tube from the AC to that bucket, and the water from the bucket drips down and waters the garden.  Why not put that water to use?,” he asked.  

Miguel wasn’t sure if the AC condensation would be sufficient to water the garden, but to his surprise, he found that the water from Antigua’s AC system filled the five gallon jug at least three times a day, and up to five times during hot weather.  “There is so much water coming off the AC,” explained Miguel, “that I run the tube to fill those overflow bottles, and I actually take water home for irrigation.”


The little garden also has a little   solar lamp, and a bird bath for the birds.  It’s a great example of what anyone – even in the urban environment – can do to help save and recycle resources.

The Hernandez brothers also recycle as many of their used cans as possible, in which they receive certain food items. And during very hot weather, they put out a jug of water and cups on the front entrance for passers-by to get a drink.  “A lot of people, even homeless, really need a drink and sometimes they are a bit too embarrassed to just ask for water,” explains Miguel. They also put out a water dish for dogs.

“We’re just trying to do the right thing to give back to the community,” explains Miguel. “And if we do this, maybe others will do so also, and we’ll all make a difference to our community.”

Friday, July 20, 2018

"The Winds Erase Your Footprints" --Life on the Reservation during the Depression


A book by Shiyowin Miller

One of the books that came out of my family was “The Winds Erase Your Footprints,” written by my wife Dolores’ mother, Shiyowin Miller.  Shiyowin, who was part Osage, was immersed in Native American culture. I remember visiting her home in Temple City, which seemed like an Indian museum with a full library, drums, pots, and artifacts from all over the country.  

Shiyowin had been a music and dance teacher, and was a professional dancer. She knew Iron Eyes Cody, and worked with Luther Standing Bear, a Lakota Sioux who wrote “My People the Sioux” and other books. Luther Standing Bear adopted Shiyowin, and let Shiyowin act as his agent for his various books and other legal matters. It brought the past alive to me when I was able to see and feel the pipes, sandals, robe, and other materials that Standing Bear had given to Shiyowin. (After Shiyowin’s death, I donated most of Standing Bear’s personal possessions to the Crazy Horse Museum in South Dakota).

Shiyowin also had many friends from the Navajo lands. In the 1930’s, Shiyowin’s best friend, Juanita, fell in love with a Navajo man, Luciano, who’d been working as an extra in Hollywood.  Juanita and Luciano got married, and moved back to Luciano’s Navajo lands in New Mexico.

Shiyowin kept in touch with Juanita, and wrote about the experiences that Luciano and Juanita underwent on the reservation, during the Depression when there was so little work.

Shiyowin edited and revised and rewrote her book many times over the next 30 years, and she died in 1983 before it was ever published.  I married Shiyowin’s daughter Dolores in 1986, and when I saw the box with hundreds of pages of manuscript, I asked Dolores if I could read it.  In fact, Shiyowin had hired Dolores to type many of the revisions over the years, and so Dolores was familiar with the content.

Once I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down. It was amazed at the quality and depth of the story, and could barely believe that it had never been published. Shiyowin had actually received an advance from a publisher some 20 years earlier, but since she kept rewriting and revising, it never got published.  

Shiyowin Miller, who had been adopted by Luther Standing Bear (author of "My People the Sioux" and other books) interviewed her best friend to write this true story of the harsh life in the Navajo lands during the 1930s. It's a wonderfully-told story, written mostly during the 1950s and ‘60s. Shiyowin died in 1983, and when Shiyo’s daughter, Dolores (my wife) showed me the manuscript in the late 1990s, I was amazed at the quality and depth of the story, and could barely believe it had not been published. To me, it was like reading a Tony Hillerman novel, except it was true!

Everyone said that the book accurately depicted life on the Rez during that time, mixed in with some accounts of Navajo witchcraft.  With some editing, Dolores and I got the book published in 2002 by Naturegraph Press, which features many Native American titles.  If you do an internet search with the book's title, you'll see some of the reviews that have been published about this book. 

The story was descriptive, compelling, and you feel as if you are re-experiencing the harsh winds, the life in the Hogan making coffee, the search for work, and all the ceremonies and gatherings that were a part of the Navajo way of life.  The books, which was 335 pages when published, also contained hints and clues in the backdrop about Navajo witchcraft, and the ma-itso, the wolf clan which was feared by most.

The freak death of Luciano was generally attributed to the work of the ma-itso, and Shiyowin gives the clues in bits and pieces, in the way that Tony Hillerman so masterfully slowly revealed his mysteries.

The following excerpts from THE WINDS ERASE YOUR FOOTPRINTS.

From chapter 3: Pentz's Trading Post

Juanita stood, head forward, her hair long and black in the sunlight; she shook it, the drops of water flying. She ran her fingers through it, the pale, yellow shreds of fiber falling lightly to the ground. Luciano was washing his head now, in water that his mother had prepared. Juanita began to comb her hair carefully, the comb snagging and tangling in the still-wet strands. She stopped and disentangled the combings, rolling them into a little ball. The wind caught it and tumbled it over and over across the ground.

"Ah-yeeee!" Shimah exclaimed and went running after the ball of combings. She brought it back and placed it carefully in the fire, watching as the flames consumed it, talking rapidly to her son. I am guilty of some small breach of custom, Juanita thought, and then was surprised at the gravity of her husbands' face. He sat back on his heels, his hair dripping unheeded.

"You must always burn your combings," he told her seriously.

"My mother says never to let any of your hair escape like that."

"I'm sorry, Lu," she began. "It was a bit untidy. But out here in the open I thought the wind would carry it away."

"That's it: the wind might . . ." He stopped abruptly.

Juanita was puzzled. It was such a little thing for him to get upset about, and she had said she was

sorry. "Is there some tabu connected with hair-combings?" she asked gently, trying to smooth the

troubled look from his face. "If I knew it I'd observe it--you know I would." Shimah stood by gauging the conversation by their voice tones. Luciano was still disturbed. "It isn't exactly a tabu, but just don't be careless." It wasn't like her husband to speak so. He'd always been patient about explaining even small things. She turned away to hide the hurt.

Shimah plucked at her sleeve, speaking gently, soothingly, as though to erase the hurt, the alarm.

"Tell my daughter-in-law to give me her jewelry so that I can put it into the soaproot suds. That will be good for the silver and the turquoise."

Juanita resolved not to mention the incident of the hair-combing again. Lu was moody, preoccupied with looking for a job. It wasn't anything important, only puzzling, and it wasn't worth a misunderstanding if she never found out. There was so much she didn't know, it would take forever to explain in detail everything she asked.       

From Chapter 5: Wild Duck Dinner

Wounded Head greeted them with warm words, but his face remained impassive--cold. His son

extended his hand for a limp handclasp. Juanita and Luciano were given a comfortable place to sit at the back of the hoghan, but Juanita wasn't comfortable. She was conscious of her hair being disheveled from the race up the canyon; she tried to smooth it, putting one hand to her head unobtrusively. She wished that she had worn a skirt instead of Levis. Somehow she could feel Wounded Head's disapproval without seeing his face.

Luciano was talking to the two men. No, he hadn't as yet gone to work in Albuquerque.

Wounded Head placed his fingertips together with elaborate care. Was it true that in that Western

place, where Luciano had been, there was great opportunity for ambitious young Navajo men?

Luciano misunderstood. Was his son planning to go there?

A thin ghost-like smile passed over Wounded Head's face and was gone. He shook his head.

The stew was ladled into bowls and passed to them. Juanita cooled one of the pieces of meat on her spoon. That didn't look like mutton. She bit into it. Beef! Wounded Head and his family did eat well. Her husband had placed his hat on the bedroll behind him, and now his dark head was bent over the bowl of stew attentively. He looked up long enough to direct a sidelong glance at her when their host got up, took a can of peaches from the cupboard, and opened it with his knife.

The meal finished, they sat back looking into the fire, the men talking leisurely of unimportant things. Wounded Head's wife asked a few questions of Juanita, through Luciano: did she like it here . . . did she miss her own people?

It was a foolish thing, her imagination was overactive, Juanita told herself, but she wanted to get away. The fire was bright, warming; Wounded Head's wife was pleasant; Wounded Head himself seemed almost friendly as he drew Lu into conversation; but it was a strong feeling that Juanita had--as strong as a cold wind--as dark as a dark shadow. She was relieved when Luciano finally arose to go. He thanked them for the good meal and then the blanket over the doorway dropped behind them. She was first in the saddle and started toward the edge of the mesa.

"Not that way," Luciano called. "There's no trail--only rocks."

Juanita turned and followed Luciano as he picked his way down the other side of the mesa. Halfway down the narrow trail, Luciano took off his hat. Holding it at arm's length from him, he shook it carefully. Puffs of yellow dust scattered on the wind.

From chapter 7: The Sing

And then Shimah was telling him about the yellow pollen. Juanita could almost follow the story by her mother-in-law's excited gestures. Shimah's face was strong and tense, no room for gentleness, and her voice carried a new undertone--like fear. Only her hands seemed natural, although excited, as she gestured. Strange that Shimah should tell about the yellow pollen, rather than ask the rider about himself, about news which he was surely carrying. Of what interest could the yellow pollen be to him?

But he was interested. He leaned forward as though better to hear her words; his eyes narrowed and his face looked very grave. He asked many questions. Shimah answered and sometimes Yee-ke-nes-bah. Through their conversation one word seemed to repeat itself until it began to echo and re-echo in Juanita's mind: ma-itso . . . ma-itso.

...And then Lorencito began to talk seriously to Luciano; Juanita heard the work ma-itso repeated

again and again. Shimah sat nodding her head as her oldest son talked, occasionally adding a word to what he was saying. Luciano turned to Juanita; his face was marked with gravity as was his older

brother's. "Lorencito says that it is not safe to keep this from you any longer; I should tell you now."

 Juanita waited. Her mouth and throat felt suddenly dry. She could not have spoken. Her thoughts

raced: this is in some way connected, ma-itso and yellow pollen. Perhaps it's all connected, all of the puzzling and unexplained things that have happened. And somehow, the looks on their faces, Shimah's and Lu's, Yee-ke-nes-bah's and Lorencito's, are a little bit frightening.

"Before we came here," her husband began, "when I tried to tell you about everything which might seem strange to you, I didn't tell you about ma-itso--the wolf clan. One reason, it no longer seemed as believable to me as it once had; perhaps all the years in school did that; anyhow, in Hollywood I seldom thought of it. When we came here, my mother told me the wolf clan was still strong in CaƱoncito. I didn't tell you then because I could see no reason why they would try to harm us. But to be sure you were safe, my mother and sisters watched you every minute.

"There were times when I almost told you, those times when you were upset about things you didn't understand. And yet I hated to frighten you needlessly. Already there was so much for you to worry about. It seemed better to wait until I had a job, until we were living in town and then tell you. "But now two things have happened which make me sure the ma-itso is for some reason after us. I found yellow pollen in an X mark on my hat brim, and today my mother found pollen on our clothes. That is their warning. Lorencito thinks you will be safer if you know about this evil thing."    A hundred questions sprang to Juanita's lips, but her husband went on talking, interrupted now and then by Lorencito or his mother.

"The wolf clan is as old as the Navajo tribe. From the beginning some men turned certain powers, which should have been used for good, toward evil things. Corn pollen, used for blessing, is used by the ma-itso as a warning to a person marked for death. And death does not come in a usual manner; it comes in a round-about way which cannot be easily traced. The victim sickens suddenly; sometimes his mind leaves him. No Medicine Man can cure him. Sometimes the victim meets with a mysterious and fatal accident.       

From chapter 13: Wolf Tracks

Juanita had hung up two diapers when she became suddenly aware of something across the arroyo. When she looked carefully nothing seemed unusual; in the dim light she could see the sharp banks of the arroyo, the clumps of juniper in dark patches on the other side. Then gradually, two of the dark juniper patches began to take on the indistinct forms of dogs sitting on their haunches.

That was what imagination would do for you. She even thought now that she could see the large

pointed ears. Juanita smiled to herself. This must be what Lu had seen, the queer-shaped juniper

bushes. They looked surprisingly like coyotes, only larger. The likeness had even startled her for a

moment and her mind had certainly not been on wolves or wolf tracks. She pulled her eyes away and began resolutely to hang up more diapers.

A sudden movement, one dark figure detaching itself from the other and moving farther down the arroyo, a third form appearing almost directly across from her on the opposite bank. Juanita stood absolutely still. There was no sound except the flapping of the clothes on the line.

When Juanita reached the kitchen door, she called to her husband to bring the shotgun. "Those

figures that you saw are out there again." This couldn't be her voice, tight and choked.

Two of the dark forms were loping off down the arroyo when Luciano reached the bank, but the

third sat directly across from him like a very large coyote on its haunches. Luciano raised his gun and fired directly at it. The animal seemed to gather itself into a ball and plunge down the bank of the arroyo--across the wide, sandy bed.

"Lu! Watch out! It's coming for you."

He raised the gun to fire again ...      

From chapter 20: The Wolf Hunt

"What do you know about this wolf hunt?" Juanita finally asked.

"Something has been stealing lambs this spring; the dogs bark but when the men get out to the sheep corral there's nothing around." Alice paused to consult Pah-des-bah.

Now that she thought of it, Ginger and Bob had been restless for a few nights. The dogs had

awakened them once, howling, and Luciano had gone outside to look around.

"There's nothing out there," he had said upon returning. "Bob must have started baying at the moon and now Ginger's doing it."

Alice began to cut potatoes into chunks; they fell plop, plop, plop into the pan. "Richard Platero

heard something around his corral last night and took his rifle with him when he left the hoghan. He saw what he thought at first was a shadow. When it moved he fired at it. It got away. He couldn't trail it last night so he started out early this morning. The tracks were wolf tracks. When he met Pah-des-bah's husband, they talked about it and decided to get some of the other men to go with them."

Juanita cut the stew meat into small pieces and dropped them into the boiling water of the stew kettle. Coyotes ran near CaƱoncito. Early mornings she had heard the weird yelping cries of coyotes from the direction of Apache Wash. They could have been stealing lambs. ...

Alice listened for a moment. "They've been following the wolf tracks, and the trail doubled back

several times but always went ahead again. Then they lost it on a ledge of rock on one of the mesas." She pointed north with her lips. "One of the men found a spot of blood below the ledge."

Alice paused to listen again, and then the women began to talk in low voices and move away from the doorway as the men separated and went back to their horses.

"The men said the nearest hoghan was Wounded Head's on that same mesa. They rode up there to ask him if he had seen anything or anyone that morning."

Juanita started back to the washing machine, a frown puckering her forehead.

"Wounded Head's wife met them at the door of the hoghan; her son stood beside her. The men could not see past them. She would not let them in. She said her husband was very sick. A horse had kicked him."

Excitement spread through the whole community. Some of the men began to carry guns--rifles across their saddles or old revolvers in their belts. The women who gathered in the day school kitchen or sat outside around the back door talked together in low voices. But no one rode again to Wounded Head's place on the mesa.

A fascinating glimpse of Navajo life during the depression through the eyes of one woman. The Winds Erase Your Footprints is available from the School of Self-reliance, Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, for $22, or check the Store  at www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com

On Willow...



A lesson in learning how to learn

The wise man of the forest had been hailed by the people of the land, the eager pilgrims, to teach another lesson in the ways of nature. “Speak to us on the ways of the willow, oh kind sir,” asked one of the pilgrims. “The people are in great need, and it would benefit them greatly to learn the secrets of the prolific willow.”

The wise man listened intently, and told the pilgrim that he would teach the lesson on the morrow, and that the pilgrim should bring the families to the spot in the river where the willows grow around mid-day.

“Oh thank you kind sir,” said the pilgrim. “We shall be there, eager and ready to receive your lessons.”

On the following mid-day, the wise man was at the willows early, as the pilgrims began to trickle in.

It was a cool day as the pilgrims gathered around the riverbed area, near the tall and drooping willows.

“Oh, kind sir,” asked the elder pilgrim. “It is so chilly in this area. Perhaps we can build a small fire to warm up before you begin your talk?”

Without speaking, the wise man of the forest collected a long straight piece of dried willow. It was about as thick as a pencil, and about a foot and a half long. He took another dead and dried piece of willow branch, about as big around as his fist and maybe a foot long. As the pilgrims watched, the man of the forest first took his large knife and split the branch in half, and then further split the half so he had a flat rectangular piece of willow. All the pilgrims watched carefully as the wise man made a little triangular cut into the edge of the wood, and then he began to press the pencil-shaped piece of willow onto the flat piece. The wise man pressed hard, and begun to spin the willow drill onto the flat piece of willow, and soon smoke flowed from the friction. The wise man continued to spin thusly, and smoke poured out from the drilling. Soon, there was a red-hot ember in the dust that the wise man created.

The wise man quickly collected a bunch of dried willow bark from a dead branch, and scraped it with his knife to create a fluffy bunch of thin bark. He deftly placed the little ember into his nest of fluffy willow bark, and carefully blew on it until it puffed into a flame. He then placed it into a circle of stones, and added dry willow sticks so that the fire could grow and the pilgrims could warm themselves.

The wise man then began to collect his thoughts for his talk, when the leader of the pilgrims spoke up again.

“Kind sir, I don’t want to trouble you, but we have an elder here with pain in his legs. He cannot stand or sit comfortably on the floor. Is there something we can do for him?

The wise man nodded, and then proceeded to cut some of the dried and dead willow branches, those that were the straightest. He also peeled some long strands of the willow bark and put it to the side. First, the man of the woods created a square from the willows, and securely lashed the square. He then carefully measured, and then cut, willow branches that he then lashed to the square like legs, and the square because the seat of a chair. Taking a few more thick willow logs, he split them so they were flat, and secured these to the seat of the make-shift chair.

The wise man then helped the elder into the chair, cautioning him to sit carefully.

By now, the pilgrims had warmed some rice and vegetables on the fire, and one lamented to the wise man, “Too bad we didn’t bring forks and spoons.” The wise man whirled around back to the willows, and carefully trimmed pencil-thin twigs about 10 inches long. He passed several pairs of these to the pilgrim, saying only “chop sticks.” The pilgrims eagerly took these and began to eat their vegetables and rice.

By now, much time had passed and the sky was darkening.

As the wise man considered how to deliver his talk on the virtues of the willow, another pilgrim spoke up saying, “Kind sir, I have a terrible headache. Is there anything that I can do to help?”

The wise man nodded, and then carefully peeled off some fresh willow bark. He put the shredded green bark into a metal can, added water, and set it into the coals of the fire. After a few minutes, the wise man poured the tea-colored water into the pilgrim’s cup, and asked him to drink it. “The willow bark is nature’s aspirin,” he explained.

By now, the sky was darker, the children restless, and a cold wind began to pick up. The leader of the pilgrims looked about and decided they should depart for the day. As everyone was packing and getting ready to depart, he spoke up loudly for all to hear, saying, “We are all so thankful that the wise man of the woods came here to teach us about the wonderful willow, but we are very sorry that there was no time for him to teach us anything.”

The wise man tried to conceal his smile as he walked out of the canyon with the pilgrims.

Monday, June 18, 2018

The Wild Cherry

Native Americans processed and ate the pits
of this widespread and tasty summer fruit

Nyerges has been leading Wild Food Outings since 1974.  He is the author of Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants,  Foraging California, Extreme Simplicity, and other books. For a schedule of his classes, and information about his books, contact School of Self-Reliance, Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, or on-line at www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com.

Wild cherry is a common, widespread plant throughout North America.  Where I live in Southern California, there are five native species of wild cherry found throughout the Pacific Coast region.  People are surprised because they do not think of this semi-desert area which rarely gets frosts as being able to support cherries. Yet, these varieties are well adapted to this climate, with deep roots, and thick -- almost waxy -- leaves so it can survive periods of drought.

Wild cherries are believed to be the most widespread wild shrub throughout all of  North America.  The Prunus genus not only includes all wild and domestic cherries, but also nectarines, peaches, plums, and almonds. 

One of the first historical accounts of the local indigenous people eating wild cherries comes to us from Father Junipero Serra, who passed through the San Gabriel Valley area of Southern California in July of 1769.  He noted that the local Indians (the “Gabrielinos”) used various fruits, grass seeds and other wild seeds, etc.

Most of the year, the evergreen cherry bushes or trees will resemble holly, and people will often guess that they are looking at holly bush.  I tell my students to take a leaf and crush it and wait a few seconds to get a whiff of that characteristic odor.  Most agree that the odor resembles bitter almond extract used in cakes.  In fact, this sweet odor is from the presence of hydrocyanic acid (“cyanide”).  This is why you do not make tea from the leaves.

If we are hiking around the cherries in late summer, there will invariably be fruit on the bush.  Some will be ripe enough for us to taste.  Most people can look at this fruit, and guess that it is edible. (However, I strongly urge you to never assume any wild berry or plant is edible simply because you subjectively think “it looks edible.”  That can be a quick way to get sick, or die.  Never eat any wild plant if  you haven’t positively identified it as an edible species.)  I typically will sample a wild cherry and let my students taste one before I tell them what it is.  The taste is not identical to commercial farm-grown cherries.  There isn’t quite as much sugar in the wild cherries, and they have a bitter underflavor and a tartness that makes them uniquely enjoyable, especially when you’re in the back country with meager food rations.  After a few bites, someone will guess that they are eating a cherry. 

In wet years, there is a thicker, sweeter layer of pulp around the large seed.  In dryer years, the pulp layer is thin -- even paper-thin in drought years. 

And though the Indian population certainly enjoyed the pulp of these cherries in the past, they considered the seed as the more important food source.  Seeds were saved, and their thin shells removed.  There is a solid pulp inside the pit, just the same as there is with the store-bought cherry pits.  When you chew on the pulp, you’ll find a pleasant combination of that almondy-bitterness and sweetness.  Though it might be OK to nibble on a few, these seeds were always shelled and leached if substantial amounts were going to be consumed. 

The process of removing the hydrocyanic acid is essentially the same as for acorns. You shell the seeds, and boil the pulp for about half an hour, changing the water a few times.  Generally, you will not need to process cherry seeds as long as acorns. In fact, three boilings of cherry seeds are sufficient to render them safe to eat (whereas, acorns might require a much longer leaching time). The final product is then ground into flour, and mixed into breads, pancakes, soups, or other mush-type dishes.  It is good, and is a sweet flour. 

Shelling cherry seeds

Vickie showing the whole seed in bag and shelled seed in bowl

3x boiled seed, ready to eat

The Cahuilla people of the desert in the vicinity of Palm Springs called this plant cha-mish, and today refer to it as a chokecherry.  They did not typically use the leached seed for breads, but almost exclusively for soups or mush.  Sometimes they made the meal into little cakes.  When dried, they were quite hard and black.  They could then be stored a long time, and would be reconstituted in water before eating.   One form of pemmican was also made by adding the fruit of these chokecherries with deer or elk meat. 

There is a great photo essay on making cherry seed atole (and other cherry seed foods) in “Ethnobotany Project: Contemporary Uses of Native Plants” by Ramirez and Small, and published by Blurb.com.

Dr. James Adams, co-author of “Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West,” adds applesauce to a cherry seed mush that he makes, and he reports that all his students enjoy it.

The inner bark of the wild cherries was also used for its medicinal value. A tea from the bark was used for diarrhea, stomach inflammations, and -- among the Cherokee -- the tea was said to help relieve the pain of labor during childbirth.  This medicine was also listed in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia in 1820 as a sedative. 

People of the 1800s and earlier would make syrup and soup from the cherries and use it as a medicine for whooping cough. The Miwok Indians of Northern California believed that eating the raw fruit was good for the voice. The bark of the cherries has been used extensively in cough medicines.  The use of cherry fruit or bark in cough medicines was not just for flavor.  But like with so many old fashioned medicinal remedies of the past, the modern counterparts that are now sold in stores are typically all sugar and artificial flavors.  Thus, horehound candy rarely has horehound in it, marshmallows have no marshmallow extract, and even the “cherry” cough medicines do not always have real cherry in it.  The price we have paid for our “advanced culture” is using more sugar, and concomitant health problems -- but that is another topic.

Due to the presence of anthocyanins in cherries, eating about 20 cherries provides the same anti-inflammatory effects as two aspirin, according to Alternatives.

Long, straight branches of the various wild cherries are often used for making archery bows, backrests, baby cradles, and various other crafts. 

The cherry is an attractive plant, somewhat conspicuous in the hillsides because of its somewhat shiny leaves.  The leaf shape of the common holly-leaf cherry (P. Ilicifolia) is very much like a camelia leaf, a simple ovate to round leaf with fine teeth along the margin.  In the spring, many white flowers develop, and as the summer progresses, you will see many small green cherries as they develop.  The fruits turn pink, then red, and then nearly black when they are ripe and at their best. 

Though great as a trail nibble, there are many recipes that you can make from the seeds’ pulp, and the deseeded fruit.  Uses for the fruit include jams and jellies, fruit pemmican, juices, and even ice cream. 

I recall taking a late August hike in the Angeles National Forest up a trail I’d never been on before.  There was no water along the four mile, uphill road that eventually led to one of the old, now-abandoned fire-lookout stations.  Though I foolishly neglected to bring along a canteen, I collected many of the ripe and very sweet wild cherries along the trail, and I ate them sparingly along the way.  I ate them sparingly, because if you consume a lot of the fruits raw, they can have a laxative effect.  I ate about three dozen fruits over the course of about three hours, and suffered no laxative results.

Keep in mind when you are collecting your wild cherries that bears enjoy this fruit also.  We’ve often observed abundant cherries in bear scat.  So be mindful and alert when you’re in wilderness areas during cherry season.

The seed readily sprouts, and I have occasionally kept the wild seeds which had particularly large or tasty fruits, and planted them in my yard or in pots.  I have several that sprouted and are now taller that I am, though I have not yet had fruit crops from these.      

Thursday, June 14, 2018

"Extreme Simplicity: Homesteading in the City"


EXTREME SIMPLICITY: Homesteading in the City

[Nyerges is the author of over 20 books, and leads classes through the School of Self-reliance. He can be reached at Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, or www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com.]

When Dolores and I purchased a run-down house in Highland Park in 1986, we  worked towards our goal of "living lightly on the earth," even though we had a small budget and lived in a small suburban Los Angeles home.

We were doing what our Appalachian friend used to describe as "living country in the city."  We pursued all aspects of self-reliance, and wrote about it. Starting as soon as we moved in to our new home in 1986, we began task by task with limited income.  We were never fans of a front lawn, so one of our first tasks was to invite a tree pruner to dump a load of woodchips in the front lawn area. We used our front lawn  to grow food and fruit trees. We recycled our wash water into the yard, using the simplest of technologies.  We collected rain water, had chickens, a duck, bees, and a pig.  Eventually, we installed solar water heating, and enough solar panels and inverter to power at least part of our home. We installed a wood stove, fueled mostly by “scrap wood,”  and we planted fruit trees and food everywhere.

One of the problems we found with our home was that it was very hot indoors during the summer. So we installed metal security doors at the front and rear, and were able to leave the doors open all night for the breeze. We also painted the roof with a white elastomeric product which reflected sunlight, and produced an indoor temperature of about 15 to 20 degrees cooler in the summer.

At that time, I was writing articles for Mother Earth News, Wilderness Way, American Survival Guide, and various other magazines and newspapers.  Sometime in 1999, I got a call from an editor at Mother Earth News. They wanted to know if I could write an overview article about the methods of “alternate health” that Dolores and I practiced.  I said yes.  They then said, good, and we’d like to come out there from New York and take pictures of you in your home and put you on the cover.  We said yes.  The article came out, all about herbs and healthful living, and the ancient healing methods of Hippocrates.  We got a lot of attention about what we considered very normal, something that everyone should be doing.

Shortly after that issue of Mother Earth News was published, we got a call from a book publisher who asked if we could turn that health article into a book. Of course, we said yes. But when we eventually submitted the manuscript to the publisher, they said, hmmm, not exactly what we were looking for.  [That book, “Integral Health,” is still unpublished, though I use it frequently as the basis for lectures]. They wanted a complete summary of all sorts of “alternative health” methods, though they had not told us that in the beginning.  So we talked about it, and they asked us if we could just write about how we live our life in Los Angeles, which we did, and it became “Extreme Simplicity: Homesteading in the City.”

We described our efforts to do "integral gardening" on every bit of usable land, to produce food (for people and wildlife), medicines, fragrance, shade, and useful tools. We described how we worked to use as little electricity as possible (for heating, cooling, everything), how to recycle everything, and how to waste very little.

Though the book has a lot of "how to," it’s also full of personal stories and rich reading of the learning we experienced along the way. There is a section on recycling, and a unique section about the economics of self-reliance, my favorite chapter.

“Extreme Simplicity” is still in print, and still prompting conversations.  It’s available wherever books are sold, from Amazon, and from the store at School of Self-Reliance, Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041; or www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com.






Many people today believe that they're spending all their time working, yet with very little in return. Unfortunately, such realizations may come too late to be remedied.

We think that the Amish people have the right idea when they keep their schools and work close to home. They don't have to go a long way to a job, thereby avoiding wasted time and energy, unnecessary expenses, and disconnection from their community. They can protect their families from undesirable influence, and there is the added bonus of having youngsters nearby where they can learn a trade from an early age. The Amish are firmly committed to valuing "quality of life" over all the stuff that our modern society deems important or indispensable - car, home entertainment system, fancy clothes, foods bought for "convenience" and prestige rather than fresh garden flavor and nutritional value.



Once, during a period of homelessness before we were married, Christopher was engulfed in thoughts of "poor me" and "I'm destitute," and he could scarcely see a way out of the darkness. Dolores provided him with a simple set of practical tools that anyone can use if only they choose to do so. Here are four "magic" ways to improve your financial situation:

    1. Never waste anything.

    2. Continually improve your personal honesty.

    3. Leave every situation or circumstance better than you found it.

    4. Tithe to the church (or organization) of your choice.

We know that these are genuine practical solutions. We have heard people say that they cannot make these efforts - such as tithing, or improving an environment - because "we are poor." Our perspective is that they have their reasoning backwards. They are poor because they do not engage themselves in the world in these ways. Logical thinking leads to erroneous conclusions when the premise is false.



1. You can do without some electrical devices.

This will probably involve changing your behavior, for instance, thinking twice before switching on an electrical tool or appliance when a non-electric alternative will work just as well or better.

2. You can learn to use your existing devices more efficiently.

 This step, too, requires changes in habit, but once you've understood the extra expenses caused by inefficiency and waste, you'll feel good about it - plus you'll save money by practicing efficiency.

3. You can purchase new appliances that render your household inherently more energy efficient.

 This step requires initial outlays of money, and in some cases higher short-term expenses, but with certain especially wasteful appliances, the best way to save energy and money is to immediately replace the old, wasteful model.



Our freestanding fireplace has completely transformed our home. We would strongly encourage anyone without one already to seriously consider installing one. On very cold nights, we had been using those small electric heaters that really drive up your electric bill. The fireplace made the house really feel like a home, and we now are uncertain how we got along without it.

In our case, the transition to wood heating was fairly easy, because we had plenty of firewood readily available. We were actually doing a neighbor a favor by cleaning up and carting off large amounts of dead and fallen wood from his property. Our first season of firewood came entirely from our weekly cleaning of his yard, just for the cost of our labor. How's that for a win-win situation?

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Decline of Western Civilization: Why I wrote my books


“Testing Your Outdoor Survival Skills”, et al.

Christopher Nyerges

I am often asked why I teach and write about the topics of self-reliance and survival.  Here is part of my answer.

“The city” developed organically from the earliest times of human history, presumably for the mutual survival and upliftment of all those who became a part of it.   The city because the locus for heightened social interaction, where farmers could barter and sell their goods to the far reaches of the domain, where the brightest and the best could answer your questions and resolved your needs, whether about technical, medical, or other issue.  It’s obvious why cities developed, though it has not always so altruistic.

We know, for example, that the great Mayan cities most likely had theocratic rulers whose orders were law, and sometimes that worked out well for the people.  But it could also spell the demise for the city if deluded self-important religious leaders saw themselves as more important than “the people.”  Right here in North America, there was the great city of Cahokia in what is now Illinois, which emerged, dominated, changed and improved the lives of everyone it touched, and then, for various reasons, it disappeared.

Cities and civilizations arise out of the common interests of those it serves, and they seem to follow a pattern of growth, peaking, declining, disappearing (that’s the 25 cent version of what usually takes a full semester anthropology course).

Every school child has heard about the great Roman empire, and how it “fell.”  We read the great details and shake our heads at the Roman stupidity that allowed such greatness to fall, and secretly, we believe it can never happen to us.  Really?  Well, we don’t want it to happen to us, of course, but consider that a “civilization” is a living, dynamic entity.  It’s essence and character and health are all determined by the collective mindset and collective actions of all the participants, whether you recognize that or not.  And it does seem to more and more of us that the collective mindset is too often about short-term gains, and not about the health and survival and vitality of the city, and the culture, and our civilization.

We aren’t sure exactly where we are as a people in the curve of the decline of a civilization, or whether or not we can affect that decline.  However, there is always something that the individual can do – always. 

To gain a higher perspective of what you can do, in your own life, in your own family and in your own town, I strongly encourage you to read Morris Berman’s “The Twilight of American Culture.” There are lots of good ideas there. Also, continue to read the publications that describe and promote the positive actions you can take every day in  your own life to improve your survival quotient, in the city, and in the wilderness.

Everyone wants to make the wisest choices  when our modern structures break down, either from the ravages of nature, or from man (war, terrorism, disease, etc.). 

Sometimes we can feel like we are just a drop of water in the ocean, but as we network and work with like-minded others, we can move in the direction of living solutions.

When I began teaching about wild foods and survival skills when I was still a teenager, I did so to encourage others to think likewise, but mostly I did so to clarify my own thinking on the subject.  You could call it enlightened self-interest.  Plus, by teaching and writing, I was able to meet others along the same path, people that I would have never met if I were hiding out somewhere in a cave.

I taught field trips, and I taught in the classroom. When I taught in the classroom, I found it useful to organize each subject by topic, and to teach by constantly asking questions of the students.  Those refined and edited questions became the basis for my “Testing Your Outdoor Survival Skills” textbook, which is still used by many today.  (It’s available on Amazon, or from the store at www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com). 

Though I still use that “Testing” textbook, I have also written “How to Survive Anywhere,” which embodies most of the ideas in “Testing Your Outdoor Survival Skills.” 

In “How to Survive Anywhere,” I mention Jane Jacobs, who is the author of “Dark Ages Ahead,” who attempts to offer solutions to anyone worried about the decline of western civilization.  Her book is worth reading; at least read page 258 of “How to Survive Anywhere,” where I summarize her thinking.  She explains some of the obvious causes of our decline, especially the idea of community.  But she does not see “dark ages” as inevitable. Rather, she says that since culture is a living dynamic entity, we need to all become living examples of the best in society, and we need to think, we need to model solutions, and we need to teach, lecture, and write! 

Sunday, June 10, 2018

"Urban Wilderness: An Urban Survival Guide"


URBAN WILDERNESS: An Urban Survival Guide
[cover of first edition]
[current cover]

“Urban Wilderness” is the third book I wrote, published in 1979.  A  few years earlier, I had started writing outdoor columns for the Pasadena Star News and other papers, and I thought the collected columns could make a good book.  But I wanted to create a book that was also relevant to the average city dweller, back then, trying to live a more self-reliant life. 

So my proposal to the publisher included a collection of articles, loosely held together by the themes of household ecology, city gardening, wild city plants, pollution issues, and city survival.  It all seemed very cohesive at the time, but in fact, that third book was a hodge podge of great ideas that only loosely held together.  But since Peace Press of Culver City wanted to publish the book, I went ahead and produced a manuscript.  
[Look at that! Larry Dean Olsen wrote us a cover quote!]

Now, if you are unfamiliar with the publishing world, think of the search for a publisher as men or women exploring a dating service.  Finally you find an interesting publisher and the courting begins.  Finally, you sign a contract, and you’re married! You no longer get exactly what you want.  It’s a pretty good analogy of what happens when you and a publisher hammer out an idea for a book.

Though I wanted a well-organized right-to-the-point book about what it takes to live a self-reliant life, the publisher had their own ideas of what it would take to make the book “popular.”  At the time, I didn’t think much of the fact that they also published books by Timothy Leary, and notes from prison, but their ideology watered down the content and arrangement of my well-intended book.  That book is still available on ebay and elsewhere, and you really might find it entertaining.  I still look into that book for the details of how to process olives, and for my carob recipes. 

In fact, if you get a copy of the old Peace Press version of “Urban Wilderness,” just think of it as a series of newspaper articles and it will make a lot more sense.  There is a great chart on common herbs and their uses, and some unique information about the medical value of garlic, and the dangers of aluminum.  And the book contains a lot of my tests that I use in my survival skills courses.  By the way, my complete set of tests and answers and supportive data I use in my classes is compiled into my “Testing Your Outdoor Survival Skills” book, still available. That testing book was partly the basis for my later “How to Survival Anywhere” book, published by Stackpole.

Eventually, Peace Press closed its doors, and the book never went into a reprint.

Many years after that, in the early 1990s,  there was a resurgence of  survival shows, and I started going to some of these shows and selling my books and giving survival and wild food lectures. Some of you may remember this as the time of militias, when everyone started wearing camos and paintball games were big.  I entirely revised my “Urban Wilderness” book to make it a bare-bones essential guide to the key areas everyone should be concerned about with urban survival.  This was a spiral-bound version that I produced myself, and I sold hundreds of copies.  As Y2K approached, survival and preparedness expositions were popping up all over the country like toadstools.  I made a few tweaks to my “Urban Wilderness” book and also called it “A Y2K preparation manual.”  If you think about it, Y2K planning was not much different than earthquake planning, except your house would still be standing.   I sold thousands of copies of this textbook.  I was very busy in December of 1999,  and then in January of 2000 when the world didn’t slip into the dark ages, and my book continued to sell, I immediately removed all Y2K references for my “Urban Wilderness” book.

The revised book was simple and terse.  It included only what I considered the most essential information about shelter, water (storage and purification), food (storage, cooking, etc.), cooking without gas or electricity, hygiene issues (toilet, etc.), dealing with utilities and using manual tools, communication systems, wise use of resources (making compost, dealing with waste, recycling anything you have to make needed products, and a few other topics. 

If you’re already very knowledgeable in survival skills and planning, this book will seem very basic to you, and you should get one of my later books. If, however, you’re still trying to navigate the waters of prepping, this is an excellent way to begin.

The original “Urban Wilderness” can still occasionally be found for sale on Amazon or ebay.  The revised “Urban Wilderness” book is still available as a hard copy from the store at www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com, or from Kindle (at the cost of less than a tip at any restaurant).