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NATURE UNDER A FULL MOON

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Christopher Nyerges can make fire by rubbing two sticks together.

He can feed himself from the nuts, leaves and stems that he finds in the wilderness.

“I’ve eaten some pretty terrible things,” he said.

And he can touch poison oak without getting red and itchy because he has spent the last 15 years building his immunity by ingesting small bits of that plant, too.

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“But I wouldn’t recommend it,” he said.

Nyerges will, however, share any and all of his knowledge of the great outdoors during a moonlight hike at 8:15 tonight in Coldwater Canyon Park. Nyerges is one of several experts who take part in a series sponsored by TreePeople.

Every month at full moon, the organization--best known for planting trees amid the concrete sprawl of Los Angeles--convenes outside its headquarters at Coldwater Canyon Boulevard and Mulholland Drive. The hikes offer an opportunity, TreePeople members say, for people to gain a new appreciation for the city’s night life.

Guests choose from several one-hour treks. On a hike last month, parents with small children could take a leisurely stroll around the TreePeople headquarters and sample the trails that meander south through the park. For the fitness-minded, volunteer Darrell Yuen led a brisk walk that dipped through canyons and climbed along ridges.

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And for those interested in gaining some wisdom about nature, Nyerges conducted an outdoor seminar.

The moon shone atop a blanket of low clouds on the horizon as an owl swooped just overhead. Moving without a flashlight, Nyerges urged his followers to find their way by the silvery night. He pointed straight up, to the Big Dipper, and showed hikers how to draw a straight line through the front of the celestial ladle to the North Star.

“If you get lost at night, you can find your way,” he said.

Even more important, he urged the group to make use of their other four senses in the dark.

“Feel the ridges of the leaf,” he said, pausing beside a toyon plant. “Pinch off a leaf and crush it. See what odor you get.”

An almond scent.

“Would that make a good tea?”

Several people in the group nodded. Nyerges explained that the odor emanates from mildly toxic traces of cyanide in the leaves.

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A little farther up the trail, everyone stopped to sniff at a California sage, otherwise known as “cowboy cologne.” Hunters once rubbed this plant on their bodies to disguise their body odor.

“In the old days,” Nyerges said, “you had to get very close to the animal.”

Then he cupped his hand by his ear.

“A deer has a huge ear,” he said. “You can do the same thing. Focus your ear.”

A symphony of rustling trees and buzzing insects played across the hillside. Small animals fluttered through the underbrush. Nyerges said he developed his hearing by eavesdropping on conversations in adjacent campsites.

Yet another practice he does not recommend.

Finally, he asked hikers to use their sense of taste. There were a number of opportunities along the trail, including pine and mugwort.

“These are edible,” he said, pulling a handful of leaves and flowers loose from the colorful nasturtium. “Please taste one.”

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They tasted peppery.

“I use them in salads all the time,” he said.

And for those who overindulge on the wilderness buffet, Nyerges suggested a beverage concocted of native California Bay, which he described as “nature’s Alka Seltzer.”

Karen Mer, of Studio City, appreciated learning about these plants because she is new to California and wants to learn about native plants. Her 9-year-old daughter, Erica, was more impressed by the scents of nature.

“There were a lot of plants and a lot of animals to smell,” Erica said.

And Christopher has probably smelled them all.


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