"Always watch where you're stepping 'cause you might be stepping on our lunch," he says to the 17 students following him. Resembling troops in an outdoorsy New Age army, the group wanders through Pasadena's Hahamongna Watershed Park, scouring the dirt hills, shallow valleys and parched riverbeds of the land for edible plants as part of a wild food outing that Nyerges regularly teaches.
Nyerges knows what most urbanites don't: that food is in the eye of the beholder. He scans the foliage around him with sharp, knowing eyes, recognizing the shape and veins of a leaf; the texture of bark on a tree; the color of a berry; the gentle slope of a stem crowned with flowers. It's all salad to him.
Those pesky "weeds" that you routinely pull in your backyard might be lambsquarters, greens rich in vitamins A and C that can be eaten just like spinach and are good raw or sautéed. Or maybe they're amaranth, which is also called pigweed. (In Jamaica it is steamed and served with butter and cheese.)
The list of possibilities is lengthy and nutritious. That is, if your palate and stomach enjoy life on the wild side. These plants take getting used to, and if you're not careful you could end up with a belly ache, or worse.
"Wild foods are full potency in terms of vitamins and minerals," says Nyerges, who is the editor of Wilderness Way magazine and has penned a wild food cookbook along with nine other self-reliance titles. "I've had people get sick eating some of them, but not because they're poisonous. We generally eat weak food, and when you eat something that's real, your body might react." (Try telling that to your general practitioner.)
Clad in faded green army pants, a long-sleeved green button-up shirt and a black cowboy hat banded with a patterned kerchief Nyerges, 55, is motion incarnate. As the group walks along a path covered with a blanket of decaying leaves he spots chickweed, which is mild and tender and makes a great salad green. Dropping suddenly to his knees he plucks a leaf and holds it up for all to see.
"At Whole Foods this costs $15 a pound dried," he says of the chickweed. "Then there's a lookalike that has a white milky sap." He peers about him for a moment, grabs another leaf that looks identical to the chickweed and crushes it between his fingers, revealing a sticky white substance.
"So that's not edible?" a woman asks. Her long gray hair is pulled back in a ponytail and she wears Teva sandals. Nyerges looks at her with a long, serious face.
"It's edible, but you'll vomit," he says. Everybody chuckles, and Nyerges smiles.
Still, the point he's making with the joke is deadly serious: You should only eat what you know. If you don't know it, don't touch it.
Down a grassy hill and past an elegant row of acacia trees, the mud from a recent rainfall cracks in large thirsty gaps and Nyerges stops short. "Look at this," he says, pointing at a grouping of flowered plants with wide flat leaves and tiny pepper-shaped growths.
A woman plucks one of the growths and nibbles on it. "It tastes like a radish," she says thoughtfully.
"It tastes like a radish because it is a radish," Nyerges says. "A wild radish."
Nyerges' eyes narrow, and he swiftly rips a plant from the ground beside a radish plant. It has intricate patterned leaves resembling parsley, only not as thickly bunched.
"Here's one you should all be aware of," he says. "That's poison hemlock. It's enough to kill you."
Unnerved, the group peers suspiciously at the contents of their salad bags. Maybe wild food wasn't as fun as they thought. But, then again, a number of people in attendance, including two men who say they are part of a 9/11 truth group, are not there for fun.
Nyerges, who has been teaching for more than 30 years, says that it isn't uncommon for hard-core survivalists to take his class, as well as people with end-of-the-world-related fears. "There have been individuals who have been seriously upset about things over the years. During Y2K they were petrified; now I get a lot of that with the 2012 baloney," he says, referring to what some believe is the Mayan calendar's end date.
"I tell people that society is not going to change, only the individual can change and that's the source of calm that comes from true self-reliance," he continues. "I'm convinced I will never go hungry, I'll never be homeless, I'll never be broke.