Thursday, March 14, 2019

In Search of the Real Saint Patrick

Who was Saint Patrick?  Was he a real person?  Children are told  "Saint Patrick wore a green suit, talked to leprechans, and while trying to convert the pagans with a shamrock, he marched all the snakes out of Ireland."  Will the real Saint Patrick please stand up?

His real name was Maewyn Succat, born around 385 A.D., somewhere in Scotland, or possibly somewhere else, as there is conflicting historical data on his exact date and place of birth.   His baptismal name was Patricius. 

Around age 16, he was sold into slavery in Ireland and worked for the next 6 years as a shepherd.  Keep in mind that human slavery, as well as human sacrifice, was considered normal for those times.

After six years in slavery, he said that an angel came to him in a dream, prompting him to escape and seek out his homeland.  He actually walked about 200 miles to the coast, where his dream indicated a ship would also be waiting for him.  Imagine that!  He took off and walked about 200 miles because of a dream!  Amazing. Even more amazing was that he found the ship, and though he had to finagle his way aboard, he successfully escaped, and spent the next 20 years of his life as a monk in Marmoutier Abbey. There he once again reported receiving a celestial visitation, calling him to return to the land where he’d been enslaved, though now with a mission as a priest and converter.

Patricius was called to Rome in 432, where Pope Celestine bequeathed the honour of Bishop upon him before he left on his mission.

Patricius returned to Ireland not alone, but with 24 supporters and followers.  They arrived in Ireland in the winter of 432.  In the spring, Patricius decided to confront the high King of Tara, the most powerful King in Ireland. Patricius believed that if he had the King's support, he would be free to take his Christian message to the people of Ireland.

Patricius and his followers were invited to Tara by the King of Laoghaire. It was there that he was said to have plucked a shamrock from the ground to explain to the Druids and the King the concept of the Trinity - The Father, The Son, and the Holy Ghost.   

Of course, triads and trinities were a common concept among the Druids.  In fact, one could argue that the trinity (a term not found in the Bible) was a concept given to Christianity by the Druids, rather than the other way around.  The Trinity is a universal principle, though does not seem to have been a part of the earliest Judeo-Christian teachings.  Regardless,  King Laoghaire was impressed with Patricius.  He chose to accept Christianity, and gave Patricius the “green light” to spread Christianity throughout Ireland.

When Patricius returned to Ireland, he treated the "pagans" with the respect implicit in his dream. Part of this respect was attempting to communicate with the Druids on their terms.  He also blended the Christian cross with the circle to create what is now known as the Celtic cross.  He used bonfires to celebrate Easter, a Holy Day that Christianity supplanted with the already-existing spring equinox commemoration. In fact, he incorporated many of the existing symbols and beliefs into his Christian teachings.

Patricius spent his last 30 years in Ireland, baptizing the non-Christian Irish, ordaining priests, and founding churches and monasteries. His persuasive powers must have been astounding, since Ireland fully converted to Christianity within 200 years and was the only country in Europe to Christianize peacefully. There was none of the “convert or die” hard-sell that was so common elsewhere.  Patricius’ work ended slavery, human sacrifice, and most intertribal warfare in Ireland.

Patricius was also unique in that he equally valued the role of women in an age when the church ignored them. He always sided with the downtrodden and the excluded, whether they were slaves or the “pagan” Irish.

According to Thomas Cahill, author of How the Irish Saved Civilization, Patricius' influence extended far beyond his adopted land. Cahill's book, which could just as well be titled How St. Patrick Saved Civilization, contends that Patricius' conversion of Ireland allowed Western learning to survive the Dark Ages. Ireland pacified as the rest of Europe crumbled. Patricius' monasteries copied and preserved classical texts. Later, Irish monks returned this knowledge to Europe by establishing monasteries in England, Germany, France, Switzerland, and Italy.

When the lights went out all over Europe, says Cahill, a candle still burned in Ireland – the candle that was lit by Patricius.

Veneration of Patricius gradually assumed the status of a local cult.  He was not simply remembered in Saul and Downpatrick, but he was worshipped. Indeed, homage to Patricius as Ireland's saint was apparent in the eight century AD.  By then, Patricius had achieved the status as a national apostle, completely independent of Rome.  He was regarded locally as a saint before the practice of canonization was introduced by the Vatican. The high regard in which the Irish have held St Patricius is evidenced by the salutation, still common today, of "May God, Mary, and Patrick bless you".

Patricius was not Irish, had nothing to do with leprechauns, almost certainly was not a drunkard who drank green beer, and didn't drive snakes out of Ireland.  In fact, there were no native snakes in Ireland -- that story is believed to be an analogy for driving out the so-called “pagans,” or, at least, the pagan religions.

Patricius was one of the "greats" of history who nearly single-handedly preserved the best of Western culture when much of Europe was devolving into chaos and ruin.  He deserves far better than remembering him in the silly ways we do today, such as wearing green, pinching each other, and getting drunk.  He deserves our accurate memory.  Yet, unfortunately, as we should all have learned by now, all of history’s true Saviors are either killed off, or relegated to the closet of ridicule. 

[Christopher Nyerges is the author of several books, such as Enter the Forest and Extreme Simplicity: Homesteading in the City (co-author), and How to Survive Anywhere.  He has led wilderness expeditions since 1974.  He can be reached at Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041 or via]

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Book Review: Exploring Tide Pools of the Pacific Coast

[Nyerges is the author of “Foraging California,” “How to Survive Anywhere,” and other books. He can be reached at for information about his books and classes.]

You’re walking along the California coast, somewhere where it’s still possible to see seaweeds and shells and sponges and anemones.  You’re in the tide pools!  These are exciting places to discover what lives where the ocean meets the land, and even to observe the effects of pollution, human intervention, and climate change.

The first step in your expansion of knowledge and insight into the flora and fauna of the diverse tidepools is to learn a bit about the plants and animals that reside there. There are many books available, and one of the better books I’ve recently reviewed is “Fylling’s Illustrated Guide to Pacific Coast Tide Pools,” by Marni Fylling.

It’s a slim book, 76 pages, measuring 5 by 7 inches, so this book fits easily into your pack or pocket.  It’s a simple guide to everything you’ll find in the tide pools, with color drawings. 

After a simple introduction to how the tide pools work, the book shares with us how to recognize the common anemones, sponges, mollusks, worms, arthopods, sea stars and urchins, tunicates (yes, I never heard of those either!), fish, birds, and the seaweeds.  It’s a delightful book, which makes the understanding of what lives in the tide pools easy and accessible.   The color drawings are clear and well-presented.

If you’ve ever watched some of the many “survival” shows on television, you’ll see that those who understand the sea and shore are those who eat.  Where there is water, there are fish, and shellfish, and seaweeds, and basically no excuse to go hungry. 

Kelp is common in the tidepools and along all the coasts, and of course, when properly prepared can provide you with some very flavorful soup or broth.  Various forms of kelp are described in this book, including the bull kelp (the one with the long stem and the hollow ball at the end of the stipe), and the giant kelp.  According to the author, the giant kelp put the bull kelp to shame in its speed of growth.  

Giant kelp can grow 20 inches in a day, faster than almost any other organism on earth.  (The author says “almost.”  I wondered, what could possibly grow faster than that?)

Purple laver is another seaweed found in the tide pools, growing on rocks.  One type of purple laver that many people are familiar with is nori, which has been eaten since at least 500 A.D. (that we know about). 

I learned about tunicates in this book, also known as “sea squirts.” These are the jelly-like masses that you often see on rocks in the tide pools.  These are quite unique creatures in the animal kingdom.

In the crab section, the author describes the diverse crabs to be found in the Pacific tide pools, and also mentions the gooseneck barnacles. Back in my teens, we used to collect the gooseneck barnacles and use them for bait.  I also would take some home to boil and eat, and everyone laughed at me because they said I was “eating bait.”  Still, I learned that you could survive on very little.

“Pacific Coast Tidepools” retails at $15 from Heyday books (


When I was first studying the life of the beaches, I used Jepson’s Manual of the Higher Plants of California, which is what you use in college to study botany.  That’s a good source, obviously, but not as enjoyable to read as Fylling’s guide to the tide pools.

I also used Euell Gibbon’s “Stalking the Blue-Eyed Scallop,” which covers the edible and useful flora and fauna of the Pacific, Atlantic, and other coasts.  It’s actually quite good, and though illustrated with simple line drawings, is perhaps one of Gibbons’ best works.  Though many of Gibbons’ books were lively conversations, and sometimes lacking in science.  “Blue-Eyed Scallop” demonstrates the true naturalist in Euell Gibbons, and it showed that his love for the sea was his first love.


In a related vein, Heyday also publishes a book from a Pomo perspective called “Enough For All:  Foods of My Dry Creek Pomo and Bodega Miwuk People” by Kathleen Rose Smith.

Kathleen Rose Smith reveals the practices handed down through generations of her Bodega Miwuk and Pomo ancestors, and shares how these traditions have evolved into the contemporary ways her family still enjoys wild foods. Her knowledge and personal reflections are expressed through recipes, stories, and artwork, recording not only the technical aspects of food gathering, but also the social and spiritual—inextricable elements of traditional California Indian food preparation.

It's a wonderful book, complete with family stories and photos, and also full of useful information of how the wild foods were once collected, and shared with others in a time of need.

“Enough for All” is not only the title, but the theme that more people should adopt in this time when there is so much plenty, but also so many in poverty.

Monday, March 04, 2019

On Homelessness: One Man's Story

[This Blog is partly based upon the e-book "Squatter in Los Angeles: Living on the Edge" by Nyerges.  Nyerges is an author and instructor in skills of self-reliance.  He has also written “Extreme Simplicity: Homesteading in the City,” “Self-Sufficient Home,” and other books.]

I used to wonder what it would be like to be homeless, needing to survive “on the street.” Then one day I was in that situation – without a home.  I experienced first-hand the homeless “lifestyle.”  I now feel deep empathy for anyone in such a miserable situation.

Although my period of homelessness was relatively short, I continue to see a part of myself mirrored in each homeless person I see.

I’ve come to conclude that most programs (private and governmental) designed to help the homeless cannot succeed (i.e., eliminate homelessness), because they fail to cognize, let alone directly address, the root causes of the problem.

How did I become homeless?  I became homeless in the aftermath of a divorce.  It was difficult at that time for me to stay focused on clear decision-making.  Due to the complexity of the situation, and the heated emotions involved, and bad decisions, I found myself homeless within months of moving out.  Since the house also had a rental unit, it had provided a source of income.  However, without that, and with the instability of the divorce and move, I found myself less able to support myself.  I had been self-employed – writing, teaching, publishing, lecturing. I did still work, but the income was insufficient. 

I recall seeing myself lose my house, as if I was watching it all happen to someone else.  I think that defines a person in shock.  Of course, I’m over-simplifying a miserable and deeply-chaotic period of my life.

My first “home” when I was “houseless” was the unused cellar of a residential home in the neighborhood.  The cellar was empty, convenient, and inconspicuously located.  I’d seen the open door to it when I visited a friend who lived nearby.  This house was on a two-level lot in a hilly district, where you could access each level from a different street. The owner lived, and kept his car on the upper level.  During the weekends, he would sometimes garden in the front yard on the lower level, where I entered the cellar.  So I generally stayed away on the weekends.

While living in the cellar, I had to be very quiet.  I usually came “home” around 11 p.m. when the owner was asleep.  To this day, I do not believe that he knew I resided in his cellar with my few bags of clothes, my full backpack, and my hammock.

Although at this time I had no full-time job, I did manage to maintain a few part-time jobs.  I struggled to do them. To make myself appear presentable, I took a long time to clean up.  I had no bathroom, but there was a hose outside the cellar door.  I bathed with the hose when no one was around, and I vigorously scrubbed myself clean with my boar-bristle brush.  My toilet was a hole I dug with my small shovel; occasionally, I’d use public facilities.

In the evenings, I’d frequently stay late at inexpensive caf├ęs. Then, having no electricity for TV or light, I’d sneak back into my dark “cave” (as I called it) and quietly crawl into my hammock.

I was never “on the street” like so many of today’s homeless.  I did have a roof over my head, even if that roof was the floor of an unsuspecting homeowner’s living room.  But I still experienced the starkness of no stable home.  I stared into the vacuum of all that I once took for granted, that I now lacked:  stability, cleanliness, order, warmth, availability of a toilet, bath, hot water, telephone, etc.   It was not a picnic.

During this period, I was forced to call upon my latent talents.  On one hand, I could detachedly view it all as a positive “freedom”-promoting experience – which it was.  On the other hand, I realized how limiting such a lifestyle was.  No one could readily contact me, and thus dollar-earning possibilities and social activities were nearly non-existent.  Projects of any sort were nearly impossible to implement without some sort of solid home base.  So although I was “free” of most home and social responsibilities and the need to “perform” for a boss, that “freedom” left a lot to be desired.  The large number of “freedom-froms” that I experienced radically limited my number of “freedom-tos.”

I constantly looked for ways to improve my situation by finding ingenious new ways to wash my clothes, to go to the bathroom, to stay clean, to carry my gear less conspicuously.

Shortly after that, I rented a warehouse from a man I’d know for many years.  He thought he was renting me an office and storage space – which he was – and I wrote into our contract that I could live there.  Which I did.  At the warehouse, fear of “discovery” was not longer an issue.

For most of the previous eight years I had been more or less successfully self-employed.  When I became homeless, it was more difficult to maintain any sort of meaningful employment.  I did maintain a few part-time jobs.  For example, I got a job with a Pasadena church where I opened and closed up after services.  I also worked as a part-time day camp counselor teaching wilderness survival skills.  I’d see hundreds of children and dozens of adults each day, but I didn’t need to be “neat and clean” to do these jobs, and they did not know where I went at night.

My closest friends were extremely supportive.  The places that I lived – the cellar, the abandoned house, the warehouse – were all possible only because of the support of these friends.  I was by no means “alone” or “lonely” as a homeless person, but I was embarrassed and determined to get myself out of that situation. During this time, there was never a moment when I was not filled with a driving desire to rise up out of homelessness.  That constant drive—and help from loving friends – is what forced me to explore viable work possibilities and actively to “find home.”

When you have little, it is very easy to go along, day by day, and convince yourself that “things aren’t really that bad.”  I knew that, for me, this attitude, though seductive, would be deadly.  I even thought about how many people – whole cultures – were nomadic and never had permanent homes.  As interesting as that was, however, being a nomad was not a viable life choice in the city of Los Angeles.

When I worked at the Pasadena church, I frequently encountered “on the street” homeless people.  I was regularly approached and asked for one form of assistance or another – but usually money.  These individuals had very real needs, but I came to realize that in most cases, simply putting money into their palms would not attend to those needs.

During this time, I wondered: Is the homeless problem today symptomatic of a greater spiritual crisis, even a spiritual void?  Has our rush towards unabashed materialism and consumerism been a part of this spiritual crisis?  Is the problem strictly personal? Is it strictly economic?

As I continue to encounter the homeless, I keep coming back to two ideas.

One is that much of the solution to homelessness lies deep within the volition of each homeless individual.  The best help is to show someone how to help himself.  Mindless giving—without an actual self-help program – is of no real help in the long run.

Mark Holsinger, Executive Director of the Los Angeles Mission,  wrote a "Letter to the Editor" in the March 14, 1992 Los Angeles Times.  He said, "As frustrating as it is that not all homeless people accept help, we should not forget that many gratefully accept the opportunity to change their lives.  The problem for most of the homeless isn't a lack of services or affordable housing or jobs.  Their problem is their lack of desire to change  [emphasis mine] -- to get off drugs, to function in a way that is acceptable to society, to respect others and themselves.”  He adds that it’s not easy to get off the streets, but certainly possible to become a  productive citizen because he works daily with those who’ve made that change."

I know that it is a stereotype that homeless people are alcoholics and drug users.  Some are, and they need to do whatever it takes, and accept whatever help is offered, to get off drugs and stop drinking. Still, it should be noted that many, perhaps even the majority, of homeless people are not drug users or alcoholics.  


The second idea is that part of the solution to homelessness must rest within the hearts and minds of those more fortunate individuals who are in a position to help.

My period of homelessness in Highland Park was relatively short.  My “recovery” took “only” two years.  In my process of recovery – my gaining of my ability once more to seek stable self-employment –   I never took anything for granted. The memory of the misery of being homeless was hard to shake.  I learned how difficult it can be to rise back up from the bottom.

You’d think that this would have been easy for me. After all, I had already been teaching others about wilderness survival and using wild plants for food for about 10 years.  And those skills were definitely instrumental in the manner in which I lived my life during that time.  But let’s face it.  Urban Los Angeles is not the Angeles National Forest, and where you might be able to live in a brush shelter in the wilderness and catch fish, the urban setting is a social and economic wilderness with rules of its own.  Still, when I see some of the filth and smell of homeless camps, I realized that my skills and knowledge allowed me to be homeless but under the radar of the public. 

Shortly after my experience, I was the editor of a local newsletter and I solicited commentary from various local leaders, including  then-mayor Tom Bradley.  Mayor Bradley wrote to me, “I agree that just providing emergency shelter for homeless is only a short-term solution to a much larger and complex problem. We must also provide job training, physical and mental health services, counseling, employment assistance, and housing assistance if we are to effectively combat the homeless problem in the City of Los Angeles.”   This was in 1989, and Mayor Garcetti is still wrestling with the many aspects of this complex problem.

We must begin to see that there is not a mass called “the homeless.”  Instead, there are distinct individuals – our brothers and sisters – with distinct problems and issues, each requiring unique solutions.

In my interactions with the homeless, I continue to abide by the old well-used Chinese axiom, “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for life.” Yes, it may sound trite, but it’s a good beginning.  It takes both sides to make this work.  And the “fishing” that we need to share and teach involves economic habits, job training, work ethics, personal habits, social habits, etc.   All of this will not be easy, but it can be done.