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Living off the Facts of the Land

Survival skills class reveals some of the joys of a rough life--plus a darned-good natural lunch.


We hadn't walked 20 feet down the sandy path into the Arroyo Seco when Christopher Nyerges said my name just forcefully enough to stop me in my tracks.

"You might want to watch out." Nyerges gestured to the fence mere inches from my face. A pretty green plant with tiny green berries climbed through the links.

"Do you know what that is?" he asked. "It's poison oak."

I took a step back.

"Have you ever had it?" he casually asked.

"No, and I don't want it."

Nyerges, who studied botany in college, plucked a small leaf from the plant, pointing out the three identifying leaflets, and proceeded to pop it in his mouth. This is how he developed an immunity to the poison. "I'm not recommending it," he said, when he finished chewing. What Nyerges does recommend to less hardy sorts is grabbing a handful of sand, dirt or dust and applying it to the area of contact in order to absorb the plant's oil and reduce the risk of a bad reaction.

This was Lesson One in the day's Survival Skills Intensive class. Make that Lesson Two. Lesson One was simply to stay away from the stuff. Nyerges, a handsome 45-year-old Pasadena native with broad shoulders and a graying ponytail, has been teaching survival skills classes for five years through the School of Self-Reliance, which he founded with his wife, Dolores.

Although he's been in the survival skills business for more than 25 years, he bridles at the word "survivalist." "It has negative connotations," said Nyerges. "It means I don't like people. 'Naturalist' is my preference."

Nyerges' classes are held at various sites in and around Eagle Rock, where the school is located. They can be small and intimate, with half a dozen students, or as large as several dozen. The class I attended was unusually small, just three students, including me. The others were middle-aged men: Dude McLean, a Burbank music publisher who has taken many of Nyerges' classes, and Bill Qualls, the vice president of an Illinois software training company, who was visiting relatives.


One of the most seductive aspects of the five- to seven-hour Survival Skills Intensive classes is the fact that lunch, usually a salad, is collected en route to a campsite. And so, as we continued on the Gabrielino Trail, discussing everything from the National Rifle Assn. to Otis, Nyerges' potbellied pig, featured on the school's Web site, Nyerges filled a shopping bag with mustard flowers, lamb's-quarters, miner's lettuce, sow thistle, sweet alyssum and prickly pear cactus.

We three students were quizzed and prodded. Everything was explained. Lamb's-quarters, for instance, "is the single most nutritious plant in the world," offered Nyerges. "Prickly pear cactus is your main water source in the desert." Mullein, which doesn't make it into the salad bag, "makes good toilet paper or pot holders. It is also good for the breathing passages and for dyeing wool green."

Though such information may seem useless--or even worse, quaint--in these high-tech times, Nyerges infuses it with value. "Some people believe that 911 and rescue teams are fine. And if you feel ignorance is bliss and that you can always rely on someone else, then it's fine for you. But the real world often works in such a way that when you need it, you need it. There are a lot of everyday circumstances where so-called survival skills come in handy. If you've never been in such a situation, it's hard to appreciate."

The most fascinating lesson Nyerges taught involved the long, thick leaves of the yucca plant. First Nyerges directed us to pull our leaves apart into fibrous strings. Then, we kneeled by the stream's edge, wetting the strings. Following his example, we rubbed the stringy mess vigorously between our palms. Within moments, a glorious green lather the likes of which any Irish Spring executive would envy frothed between our fingers.

"Some Sierra Club people get real mad because they don't think anyone should touch anything [any of the plants]," Nyerges groused. But nothing Nyerges does is done without care. For instance, the yucca leaves he cut were protruding into the path. And when building shelters, whether a basic lean-to or a body hollow--both of which Nyerges demonstrated--"we don't have to cut a single green thing."

Furthermore, he added, "when you prune dead stuff out of a plant, it makes it grow better."

By the time the four of us arrived at the Gould Mesa Campgrounds, where several Boy Scout troops were splashing in the swimming hole, we were hungry.


But first, we made a quick detour behind the outhouse to see if we could spot the rattlesnake that was rumored to be hiding out. I wondered about my own survival instincts as I dutifully followed the leader. But Nyerges gains people's confidence quickly. And he certainly had mine. Still, I was not crestfallen that the snake had relocated.

Lunch was delicious, healthful and, if you don't count the class's $40 fee, free.

Admittedly, the flavor of our colorful salad was improved by the addition of Trader Giotto's Italian dressing (which Nyerges toted in his backpack, along with all manner of knives, twine and, most conspicuously, wild green onions which we planted along the creek for future use). But what's a little store-bought dressing when you're eating, as McLean did, with elegant chopsticks fashioned on the spot from a couple of skinny twigs?

"When you do without and practice survival skills, you develop an appreciation for the things of civilization and a better sense of self-reliance so you don't have to live in fear."

In that spirit, after lunch, we practiced making fire.

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