Thursday, August 30, 2018

"Field of Dreams" -- in Highland Park

Excerpt from Christopher's "Squatter in Los Angeles" book -- available from Kindle, or from the Store at  The best $3 you'll ever spend!

"Field of Dreams" -- in Highland Park

I think I was just a natural dreamer and I believed that I could magically earn a very sufficient income by freelance writing and teaching, so this period of squatting gave me the luxuries to choose my life’s activities.

I continued to write newspaper columns, though I never earned much from them. I  began to work more actively on my first book about the uses of local wild plants. I continued to engage in metaphysical studies, and gardening, and conducting occasional wild food outings.

My garden never seemed highly productive but  I had a few of the tall red amaranth plants, some squash, a corn patch, some greens, and wild foods. It was probably my first successful corn patch. I didn’t plant the rows of corn that you see so often in gardens and on farms. Rather, in my approximately 10 by 20 foot corn patch, I had corn more of less evenly spaced.  I had wanted to try the so-called Three Sisters of the native Southwest, of corn, beans, and squash.

In the arid soil of the Southwest, the corn was planted first, and once it  arose, beans were planted at the base of the each corn. The beans’ roots fix nitrogen and this acts as a fertilizer to the corn. Squash was then planted as a sprawling ground cover to retain the valuable scant moisture of the desert.

I planted my corn in my wood chip patch, three seeds per hole about two feet apart.  Corn came up, and then I planted bean seeds.  Beans are usually an easy crop to grow, but not that many came up. Who knows, maybe the ducks ate them. I planted squash too. Not a desert squash but ordinary zucchini which did a good job as a ground cover and food producer. I loved the little garden, and at night when I sat at my plywood desk with my typewriter, I’d look out my window through the several feet tall corn patch to see the lights of the city below.  During the day, little birds would flock to the corn patch and eat bugs. I enjoyed the fact that this little garden that I created with my simple efforts was now teeming with wildlife.  It felt good just to look at it. It provided food for my body, food for wildlife, and food for my soul.

Not long after I started this patch – it was near Thanksgiving – David Ashley came by for a visit.  David had already moved into the neighborhood from wherever else he’d been living. He came up to the top of the hill where I was an illegal squatter. My housing status didn’t cause David to lower his regard for me.

I took David out into my garden, and we stood there talking about life. I pulled off a ripe ear of corn and handed it to him and picked one for myself.

“What’s this?” asked David.

“To eat,” I responded as I began to peel off the leaves and hairs on my average size ear of corn.  He took a bite of the sweet kernels.

“I didn’t know you could eat corn raw,” said David in a surprised voice.

“Yep, you can,” I told him as I chewed on my sweet cob.  David began to peel his and take some bites.

“Wow, that’s really good!” said David, chewing on more kernels. We stood there for a few moments, eating our corn, looking at the outside world through the stalks of corn that were taller than us. It was a quiet, special moment.

Eventually, David left, and over the ensuing months, I would occasionally hear David telling someone about his surreal experience eating raw corn in Christopher’s little corn patch, our own little “field of dreams.”

Sunday, August 26, 2018

On Urban Sustainability .... a beginning

To Create a Sustainable City, we must Re-Engineer our Thinking

Growing up in a suburb of Los Angeles, I did not have an immediate knowledge of where our food and water came from.  I turned on the faucet for water, plugged cords into the wall for electricity, and went to the store for food. Yes, my city had been engineered for me, and I was just mindlessly playing my role.

At a young age, I felt that there was something wrong with my ignorance. Even worse, no one else seemed to be aware of our unawareness.  Everything came from somewhere else.  One salvation for me was that my mother grew up on a farm, and would tell tales of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl where many people had no food, and some starved to death. My mother’s family were poor by most standards, but they had 51 acres in rural Ohio and they fed themselves and many others. My mother’s stories inspired me to become an ethno-botanist, and to learn about how all plants were used in the past. 

Though I did not pursue the path of “urban planning,” I realized that I had many choices within the framework of my suburban life where I could ecologically engineer my life.


My first teenage forays were into backyard urban gardening and raising chickens in a tiny space.  I didn’t want to be dependent on commercial fertilizers and bug-sprays, so I learned the ages-old methods of agricultural, methods that people today call “organic” or “perma-culture.”  I learned that anyone could indeed produce at least some of their food in the least amount of space. 

Even in my late teenage years, I had critics who told me it was not practical to grow foods without artificial fertilizers and pesticides.  Really?  I followed the path of Fusuoka and his “One Straw Revolution,” and the Rodale family, and insisted on growing everything with nothing artificial. I learned to keep down the bug population with natural methods that had been practiced world-wide for millennia.  I knew that the so-called Green Revolution, based as it was on petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides was partly a fraud, and was not sustainable into the future centuries.

I continued my botanical studies by learning about the uses of wild plants of the Native Americans. I found to my surprise that all the foods used by the indigenous population could still be found throughout my homeland, though it was necessary to hunt a bit more because of all the houses, roads, and modern landscaping that has taken over the land.  Yes, the engineering of the concrete city has destroyed much of the territory for these native foods, but they were not entirely gone.

 I began to eat these wild plants that had sustained people for millennia, and I incorporated them into my regular diet.  When I first began to share with others my excitement of these floral treasures, I  was treated with mostly apathy, sometimes scorn, and even pity.  I was amazed! 


In the mid-1970s in Los Angeles County,  I began publicly teaching and writing about the practical skills of self-reliance and practical survival in the city.  I was not engineering the city, but I was working to engineer a new mindset that says we can live ecologically (and economically) in the city.

Today, there is a renaissance and a great interest in the knowledge of our ancestors.  And it’s never too late to begin to seek our roots, and to turn around some of habits of ecological suicide.  I believe that we can solve many of our problems today by looking to the past for some of our solutions.

Here in Southern California, we have barely gotten over a four-year drought, which has finally inspired politicians and water department movers-and-shakers to encourage the millions of people who live here to consume less water.  With water usage averaging about 131 gallons a day for Los Angeles residents, and an ever-growing population of about 5% a year, water must always be a concern, as it will always be for most major cities of the world. 

The mayor of Los Angeles, and water department officials, are encouraging people to tear out their lawns and install drought-tolerant plantings.  I encourage people to go even one step further. Actually, a few steps further.  Yes, learn about the wild plants which are edible and medicinal, and encourage them. They will grow without your care.  And never merely plant “ornamentals,” that is, plants who do not provide food, or medicine, or good mulch from their leaves.  Plant with a purpose to feed your body  and your soul. 

To help irrigate these useful plants, I’m a big proponent of simple grey-water recycling, where your sink and washing machine water are piped into your backyard garden or front yard orchard.  Not every single city dweller can do this, but enough can do it to make a large difference.  Yes, certain changes are essential, such as buying soaps that contain to dyes, colors, or harmful chemicals. Continuing education is a big part of self-reliance and sustainability.  Recycling your grey-water means that you are getting at least two uses from water which previously you used only once.  Practically speaking, for every gallon of water you recycle, you have effective created another gallon of water for your use which does not have to be imported from somewhere else!

With the population of Southern California that continually grows, there is the growing need for more food and more water, as a function of increased population.  This unfortunately means even more land paved over for more houses or apartments.  Thus, the very soil which all ancient civilizations knew was the foundation of a healthy society becomes more and more rare. This should not be the case, even though it seems all but inevitable.

Our very lifeblood is dependent on the soil in so many ways.  Water, food, everything.

However, urban people need to re-learn these very basic ecological principles.  Our very laws, and attitudes – especially in the more-“developed” countries -- work against our long-term sustainability.


Here in Southern California, the green lawn is still the norm in the sprawling suburban flatlands.  Never-ending flows of water (from somewhere) is the expectation.  The mindset must turn around, and it will begin with enlightened individuals who see that inappropriate lifestyles in an over-populated dry terrain are the antithesis of survival. As attitudes change – and slowly they are – the laws of the land need to support the water-wise practices that support sustainability. 

As a lifelong-educator in the uses of common wild plants, I cringe when I see television advertisements for such products as Roundup, and others, designed to kill off the unwanted vegetation of urban gardens and landscapes.  You know, such plants as dandelions and other healthful herbs called “weeds” which they picture in their ads.

To me, a student of the wild plants and the things growing in the faraway and neglected places, using a chemical like Roundup to “clean up” a wild area is a sacriledge.  Further,  bankers and land investors do not necessarily see the land as a source of life, recreation, fulfillment, and community. Rather, increasingly, the desire is to extract the greatest financial benefit from the land. Land that has nothing built upon it is all too often described as “non-performing real estate.”  That is the mentality which has caused the urban sprawl to sprawl even further, while diminishing the very sustainability from the land that we all need.  “Engineering” the city should not be simply building ever-more structures on the diminishing landscape. We should be re-engineering our thinking so we can get more from less, in ways that are both healthful and ecological. 


I am a pioneer of the path of the green and sustainable revolution.  You won’t find me protesting in the streets for changes, but you might find me in a city council meeting, or in a garden, or in a wilderness area.  I work with people one at a time. I have found that once an individual sees that the so-called weeds in an empty field are actually great nutritious food or medicine, they suddenly take a very personal interest in protecting and caretaking the land. Once individuals learn that the water from their very households can water their own garden and herb-patch, they become quite alert and aware of the quality of any soaps they are using, and they begin to use only those that are biodegradable, as a result of enlightened self-interest.  Suddenly, living an ecological urban life becomes very personal.

There are many paths to urban sustainability. This is the path I have chosen.

Christopher Nyerges works to engineer a new mindset that says we can live ecologically (and economically) in the city. He has taught self-reliance and sustainability his entire life through the teaching of ethnobotany and principles of permaculture. Nyerges is the author of 23 books including “Self-Sufficient Home: Going Green and Saving Money,” “Extreme Simplicity: Homesteading in the City,” “How to Survive Anywhere,” and others. He is the co-founder of the School of Self-Reliance, and works actively with various non-profits for the goals of urban sustainability.

Monday, August 20, 2018

How Eric Sloane Influenced my Work

Lessons for Artists from Eric Sloane

[Nyerges is the author of “Guide to Wild Foods,” and nearly two dozen other books.  He also teaches writing, self-reliance skills, and ethnobotany. He can be reached at]

Eric Sloane is one of my favorite artists.  His work is primarily line-drawings, and he’s authored such books as “A Reverence for Wood,” “Eric Sloane’s Weather Book,” “Our Vanishing Landscape,” and “Age of Barns.”  And many others.

Sloane is also a thinker and philosopher, not merely sharing old timey things for their antique value, but constantly trying to share that there was a living character of self-reliance that we have all but lost due to our penchant for modern devices and letting other people do our work for us.

As a would-be artist, I have used Sloane’s images to practice my line art.  I figured, I’m not trying to become another Sloane, but if I could get my level of artistry closer to his, my skill will have increased.  I am still no where close to that level, probably because I simply don’t practice as much as necessary to become a master.

My very first book was “Guide to Wild Foods,” which took me more or less 4 years to write and then another year for the artist to illustrate it.  I knew that my skill was insufficient for that early book, but 10 years later by the time it was revised and revised, I undertook to draw the plant images for that fourth edition.

Though I have had scant few art lessons, I learned from Sloane that drawing is not so much about the technicalities of drawing, as it is about seeing.  As I drew each plant for my revised book, I had collected a sample of that plant which I set before me.  I would move the leaves and stems this way and that, in order to show all the significant parts of the plant that would help in identification.

Then I would begin the hours-long process of penciling each plant, where I was able to show  both the character of the plant, as well as the essential details.

Once I was happy with the pencil drawing, I went over it in black ink, and these nearly 70 images became the latest book. 

I have always liked that version of the book the best, because not only did I entirely produce the book – from typesetting to layout to printer – but it’s my personal art gallery, which contains much of my work in one place.  I would have been proud to give a copy to Eric Sloane should I have ever met the artist.

But as technology improved and prices for color printing dropped, no one really cared for a botanical book with simple black and white drawings. “Guide to Wild Foods” is currently published in full color by Chicago Review Press, and sells more widely than my line-drawing version ever did. 

I began to think about the artist’s eternal conflict after reading Eric Sloane’s “Legacy” book.  The conflict is how to retain your impeccability as a true artist, and how to reconcile that with the business world and the need to stay solvent financially.   It was a good business decision for me to turn my “Guide to Wild Foods” book into an all-color book, because far more people are learning about ethnobotany from it now.  Still, it makes me happy to see that my all-line drawing 1995 version can still be occasionally found on Amazon and ebay for the collector who likes folk art.

Though I have always purchased Sloane’s books for the art first, and the writing second, I want to share some of his ideas about writing.

In his chapter “The Adventure of Writing” in “Legacy,” he writes, “Writing is an apparatus for the conveyance of thoughts. Some writers write because they have something to say; others write just because they want to say something. The writer who writes for the purpose of making money should forget it; there are easier ways to make a living. When you chase money, it becomes elusive, but when you ignore it for the love of hard work, money seeks you out like a neglected lover: Payments will come in from stuff you had even forgotten about. Writing shouldn’t be a commercial occupation, because it is a religion and a calling that should never be treated sacrilegiously.”

That’s quite a sentiment, though I doubt those who write (anonymously) copy for web site and advertisement and city brochures will lose sleep over the fact that they are writing for their income, as factotums.  Even I have done plenty of writing such as ghost writing, editing, brochure writing, and web-content where you’d never know it was me doing it. It was honest work that paid the bills.

Still, I think every beginning writing student, whether journalists or those seeking literary careers, should read and study Sloane.

Among his other advice to writers, from his long life of experiences, Sloane adds “Writing to compete (like writing to make money) is both bad manners and bad thinking:  Being yourself and enjoying your writing is paramount.  Nowadays competition is the major philosophy of business, the backbone of the national economy, and the essence of sports.  Competition is the spark of the American way.  Yet, no doctor, inventor, painter, or writer ever reached greatness by means of competition.  The only person that any kind of artist should compete with should be him or herself.  Always trying to do better work used to be the rule of old-time writers, but that was when there was such a thing as indecency and four-letter words were considered crude or rude…. Writing has become a competitive industry instead of an art and a way of life.”

Sloane is forever the idealist, and for better or worse, he lived what he believed.

Again, students of journalism, English, and literature should all be required to read, study, and discuss the Sloane doctrine.

He concludes, “A writer is not someone who writes as much as someone who thinks, and the writer’s prime reason for being is to help others think.  Teaching people to think is the highest calling of civilization.”

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Old School Knife Sharpening: Meet Julio Toruno



[Nyerges is the manager of the Old L.A. Farmers Market every Tuesday in Highland Park, at Ave. 58 and Figueroa.  For information about Nyerges’ classes and books, he can be reached at]

Julio Toruno is intimately involved with knives everyday.  But he’s not a survivalist, a knife collector, nor a cutlery dealer.  He doesn’t live in a remote compound, and he’s never heard of all the TV survivor actors.  Toruno is a quiet man who’s found his peace through the art of knife-sharpening.

Many times a week, including Tuesdays at the Highland Park Farmers Market, he sets up temporary shop from the back of his truck.  He’s a peripatetic knife sharpener; “have stone, will sharpen,” seems to be his motto.

Toruno got started with knife-sharpening because of his background in cooking.  He’s worked as a prep cook, and as a cook at a private school.  He knew that a sharp knife was a necessity in getting the job done.

For the last four years, Toruno has been a peripatetic knife-sharpener, driving to various locations where he sets up shop and does his trade. 

When I recently approached him as he was sharpening a large kitchen knife, I could see that he was very focused, and I didn’t know at the time that he was counting his strokes.  His concentration was completely on each strokes of the knife on his wet stone. I watched him evenly stroke the knife back and forth, and occasionally put some water onto the stone.  I waited until he finished, after he wiped the knife clean, and set it to the side, before I began to ask questions.

The stones are mounted in a vice that Toruno made, which allows the stone to sit atop a large stainless steel rectangular pan filled with water.  This makes a very neat system, so that the water he continually adds to the stone drips right into the pan.

I gave Toruno one of my carbon steel sheath knives so I could watch the process from start to finish.  He mounted the coarsest wet stone onto his vice, which had a grit of 120. (The smaller the number, the coarser the grit of the stone). He tells me that he first examines my knife to see how many strokes it needs, and to see if there are any particularly bad spots on the knife. He decides to take my little Russel skinning knife through his five stages of sharpening.  He lays the knife onto the wet stone, matching the angle the cutting edge to the stone. He then gives it about 70 even strokes. “The number of strokes changes as I move from stone to stone, and depending on the knife,” he explains. “The further along the process, I use less strokes, but on average it’s about 160 strokes total per side, from the coarse to the fine stone.”

When he was done with the 120 grit stone, he moved to finer grits of stones.  He proceeded to stroke my knife with a 220 grit stone, then 320, then 1000, and finally the finest work was done on an 8000 grit stone. 

Toruno looked at my knife’s edge carefully, and sliced through a piece of glossy paper to show how sharp he’d made it.

For a beginner just getting started in knife-sharpening, he suggests going to any woodworking store and buying a stone with a different grit on each side, such as a 500 and 1000 grit stone. 

Locally, Toruno can be seen Tuesdays at the Highland Park Farmers market at Avenue 58 at Figueroa, and at the Altadena Farmers Market at Loma Alta and Lincoln.

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]

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.”


Water dripping from air conditioners: Is it sanitary?

Answers to your questions about the news.

July 15 2013 3:02 PM

Ever wonder about the water that drips down from air conditioners as an unwelcome sidewalk surprise when you’re walking to work? In 2011, Forrest Wickman looked into the reason why ACs are so leaky, and if there’s anything unsanitary about the water that’s dripping down on you. The original article is reprinted below.


Air conditioner water: Is it good enough to drink?

Walk down any city sidewalk on a hot summer day, and you're bound to get wet—and not just when it's raining. Water drips from window AC units, especially on muggy days, and this unpleasant drizzle can fall into your hair or even onto the lip of your morning coffee cup. Is all that dripping water sanitary?

Yes, as a general rule. Most of the dripping from air conditioners is just condensed water vapor that comes from the air inside the building. Window air conditioners are designed to drain this water from the back, raining it down on any unsuspecting pedestrians below. In most ways this water is exactly like rain (which also forms from condensed water vapor) or the moisture that collects on a cool can of soda, and it's typically no more harmful. However, in rare cases small amounts of water can be left to stagnate inside the air conditioner, making it a breeding ground for bacteria.

On a hot and humid day, a window unit can drip up to 2 gallons of water, which accumulates on its evaporator coil as it cools and dehumidifies the air. (Very little condensation gathers on the exterior side of an AC, which tends to be warmer than the air around it.) This coil, like many plumbing pipes used for drinking water, is made of copper (which is also what makes air conditioners so heavy), and it's much cleaner than you might expect from looking at a dusty AC filter. While copper can be unhealthy in high doses, the condensate from air conditioners seems to be low in minerals and dissolved solids.

In a properly functioning air conditioner, the water drips down from the coil into a condensate pan and then exits the unit through a drain or tube. However, a clog in this drain or tube can leave a puddle to accumulate inside, which is an ideal environment for many types of harmful bacteria. In particular, a 1976 outbreak of Legionnaires' disease was caused by bacteria that spread out of the air conditioning system at Philadelphia's Bellevue-Stratford Hotel. (That's how the disease got its name: Many of the victims were attending an American Legion convention.) While Legionella is known to thrive in the cooling towers of large air conditioning systems like the one at that Philadelphia hotel, it does not seem to grow in smaller units. Furthermore, dripping water isn't really stagnant, so it's extremely unlikely that the water raining down on pedestrians would be infected.

The water that drips from air conditioners is probably even safe for drinking. (It's certainly more potable than the drinking water in many countries.) Still, for the reasons mentioned above, it's best not to tilt your head back for a draft. If you're looking for a better use for your air conditioner's condensate, the Explainer recommends using it to water your plants.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Douglas T. Reindl of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Mark Sobsey of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.