THE FOOD BENEATH YOUR FEET

Foraging for wild plants with L.A.'s foremost survivalist

BY COREY LEVITAN

      About a month ago I walked by a homeless guy begging for change in Santa Monica. As usual, I fixed my gaze downward and pretended not to notice.

      "Smile," he said. "You might be in my place one day."

      Wrong, I thought. If I were ever homeless, I wouldn't beg for change or scrounge through Taco Bell bins for half-eaten Chalupas. I'd live off the land like my Native American ancestors.

      That's big talk, especially considering that my ancestors were all Jewish city-dwellers. 

      But I did read an article once explaining how edible plants flourish all around us. Not just a commodity of the forest, they sprout from cracks in sidewalks and in any suburban backyard not aggressively manicured for "useless weeds."

      Was I fooling myself, though, or is living off the land a realistic possibility? With Y3K fast approaching, it was time to find out.

      Christopher Nyerges is L.A.'s premier survivalist. A 45-year-old Highland Park resident who grew up in Pasadena, Nyerges runs the School of Self-Reliance in Eagle Rock. He conducts wild-food workshops and outings, has authored four books on the subject and is the "Nature Man" correspondent for Fox-TV's "X Show."

      Nyerges claims living off the land is not only possible, it's preferable to the produce section at Ralph's. He enthusiastically accepts my challenge to make a salad out of foliage he finds growing in odd places around the South Bay. I agree to eat this salad and then see if I die.

      Nyerges arrives at the Daily Breeze armed for our mission with only a backpack full of dining utensils, a bottle of Trader Joe's salad dressing and the knowledge gained from 30 years of foraging. 

      His first order of business is to make fun of how I've prepared. I have a spray bottle to clean the plants before I eat them. It's filled with vegetable wash I bought from a health-food store, since L.A.'s tap water was recently found to contain unhealthy levels of arsenic.

      I never claimed I wasn't a nut job.

      "Do you bring that bottle with you to restaurants?" Nyerges asks, "because their plants are much more dangerous than the ones that grow in the wild. They contain waxes, dyes, fungicides, herbicides, pesticides..."

      Ah, I point out, but dogs don't do their business on the house salads at the Olive Garden, do they? 

      "Dog waste can't hurt you," Nyerges responds.

      I don't like that last statement, but I don't exactly know how to argue against it.

      We park the car on Palos Verdes Drive North, where Nyerges spots a trail winding through the backyards of some houses on an ocean overlook.

      "In the '60s I used to go backpacking in the Angeles National Forest," Nyerges says. "I carried all my food in cans, which were really heavy. Then I met a guy who studied wild foods with Indians. I used to think that when Indian people lived here, they didn't have supermarkets, so it must have been a harsh existence. 

      "But that's just not the case."

      Once at the trail, Nyerges treads as eagerly and carefully as the first detective at a murder scene. Seemingly aware of everything, his eyes train on a patch of what look like giant clovers on the edge of a runoff ditch.

      "This is nasturtium," he says, plucking about 10 leaves and stems for our salad bowl. "It's native to the west coast of Peru. Taste."

      I spritz the leaves with my trusty bottle. Then I take a few cautious chews and prepare for nausea, paralysis and imminent renal failure. 

      Instead, I experience only a spicy sweetness that freshens my breath. I pull out another few sprigs on my own. Soon a party of flavor is commencing in my mouth.

      "Most of what you'll find out here tastes a lot better than the salads you're used to," Nyerges says. 

      Next up, we encounter what looks like a darker-green nasturtium. It's the mallow plant, which Nyerges says is boiled to make medicinal marshmallow (not the sugar-burdened candy). It's slightly bitter, but no more so than those "spring mix" salad bags. A sour but pleasant aftertaste hits, like lemons. 

      No kidding, this stuff is good.

      Similarly pleasant introductions follow to wild mustard, sugarbush, chickweed and fennel, all of which Nyerges gathers for our salad.

      "Before agriculture, these were the plants that humans lived on," he says.

      The way I grew up, natural food meant a Whopper with no condiments. It is fast becoming apparent that we "civilized" humans indeed do surrender our capacity to utilize nature. If only those Blair Witch kids knew about the appetizers growing all around them...

      "Do you like parsley in your salad?" Nyerges asks, pointing out a patch of pretty green leaves.

      I certainly do.

      "So you would probably eat this on your next walk, right?" he asks.

      It's poison hemlock, the plant Socrates was forced to ingest as his death sentence.

      "This is enough to kill both of us," Nyerges says, holding a few leaves. "In most cases it's a quick, painless death in about an hour."

      This is probably a good time to point out that no one should attempt picking wild plants without an experienced guide.

      "It takes years of field work and study," Nyerges says. "There's no shortcut. It's like, if you don't want to go through what it takes to be an electrician, well then, you're gonna blow yourself up."

      Even with his experience, Nyerges often encounters species he isn't versed in.

      "I don't know if that's edible or not," he says about haplopapus, a spongy member of the goldenweed family whose name sounds like something to see a dermatologist about.

      "When in doubt," Nyerges cites a rhyming rule of thumb, "do without."

      Nyerges claims no one has ever been poisoned during one of his outings, although several people have vomited from allergies or gastrointestinal intolerance, and one man died of a heart attack.

      "That pretty much freaked everyone else out," he says.

      My spraying ritual suddenly seems cumbersome and embarrassing. I'm literally betting my life that Nyerges can tell a good plant from an evil one, and a little dirt upsets me? From here on in, I eat straight from the ground. 

      For someone who won't use a girlfriend's toothbrush because it's gross, this is a breakthrough.

      After only a half hour our bowl is brimming with succulent leaves of unfamiliar textures and colors, and seeds for protein. When the big one hits, I know I'll be able to recognize two or three of these plants again. (Laugh now, civilization slaves, but when your canned goods are depleted in four days, I'll have the salad bar at Sizzler at my feet.)

      Nyerges' theory needs a final test, however. Sure, we can find nourishment on a nature trail, but what about in the heart of the concrete jungle?

      At the corner of Sepulveda and Hawthorne in Lomida sits an abandoned car wash. The lot is used to sell pumpkins for Halloween, trees for Christmas. Right away, Nyerges spots a familiar sight shooting through the cracks in its blacktop. Lamb's quarter, a common weed high in vitamins A and C, tastes a little like raw spinach. 

      Near the car wash entrance, a single stalk of something else stands defiantly. Upon closer inspection, it's an ancestor of wheat. Nyerges suspects the seed was planted when hay was used as a ground covering for the pumpkins.

      Even in manmade wastelands, nature fights back.

      "A better way to say it is that nature survives," Nyerges says. "It doesn't matter what we do, nature survives."

      Hiding in the abandoned car wash is another survivor: Glen McInnish. A former racecar mechanic from Alabama, he is now a homeless person suffering from mouth cancer. The 50-year-old has been residing here for 8 months. 

      I endeavor to get Nyerges to teach McInnish how to spot and utilize one or two of the wild plants around him. The idea that a homeless man might be freed from the shackles of requiring store-bought food seems overwhelming. I'd soon have enough good karma to allow me to continue being a bastard for decades to come.

      But McInnish already knows about the lamb's quarter, mustard greens and mallow growing near his corner of the car wash.

      "I'm an outdoorsman," he says. "I was a hippie in the '60s. You want to hit the woods? Come and see me. The best is the purple flowers you see in the desert. Uproot them and you have wild onion."

      While Nyerges forages in the distance, McInnish barks at him, "Get out of my dinner!" He then laughs at his own joke.

      McInnish is living proof that Nyerges is correct. Living completely off the land is possible. 

      One day, I can be the homeless person I always dreamed I could be.

      Marveling at how fresh and sweet nature tastes without agricultural intervention, we -- probably the world's most unlikely trio of new friends -- share the fruits (well, mostly leaves) of Nyerges' labor while crouched in an abandoned car wash.

      And I don't think I'll ever enjoy a better lunch.  Christopher Nyerges leads wild food outings around various L.A. locales at 9 a.m. on the following Saturdays: March 11, March 25 and April 8. The cost is $15. Call the School of Self-Reliance at 323-255-9502 for info or log into the Web site (www.self-reliance.net).

 

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