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.