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Fertile Lowlands

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Christopher Nyerges

[This article originally appeared in the Pasadena Herald Tribune, now defunct, and the Victorville Daily Press.]

In March of 1996, I attended the Preparedness Expo in North Las Vegas to promote my Guide to Wild Foods book, telling visitors the many valuable reasons to learn about wild foods.

Most of the people I spoke with were residents of the Las Vegas area who expressed skepticism with my message. They told me that they didn't believe any wild foods could be found in the large desert flatland which made up their city. I responded that in the few times I'd driven around the outskirts of town, I'd seen at least a dozen common wild foods. Cattails, for example, were very common in shallow waterways, and there are at least six good foods that can be prepared from cattails.

Still, most folks didn't think they could survive in the wild outskirts of Las Vegas if that was their only food source. Before I ever visited Las Vegas, I'd read that the Indians who once lived throughout what is now modern Las Vegas survived eating such things as white sage leaves and seeds, grasshoppers, yuccas, cacti, creosote bush, willows, acorns, many seeds and nuts, and countless other desert foods. Surprisingly, I didn't meet a single Las Vegas resident who knew the meaning of "Las Vegas" in English. The fact that it means the "fertile lowlands" indicates that this sprawling valley has long been a very special desert locale.

One man who I spoke to still wasn't convinced. He went home, collected a large bag of all the wild plants in his backyard and neighborhood, and brought them back for me to identify.

As I emptied the bag and identified each plant and told of its uses, a small crowd gathered to hear about each plant. He had collected sow thistle, a dandelion relative whose leaves are edible raw or cooked, and whose root can be made into a coffee substitute. He found filaree, a common desert plant that somewhat resembles carrot tops. The leaves and stems of filaree are sweet and tasty in salads, juices, and soups. The plant is sometimes called heron's bill or scissors plant. The man had found hedge mustard, a relative of our common mustard, but with a tangier flavor somewhat like horseradish. Several people stepped forward to taste the hedge mustard leaves after I ate a few and declared them delicious. He had also found desert dandelion, two wild buckwheats, pepper grass, and two or three plants which I didn't recognize. The man and his companions were convinced that food was abundant, even in that most unlikely desert city of glitter, lights and gambling.

I was aware of the Indian traditions of the Las Vegas area, and so I knew that there were resources to be found. Given enough time, I'm convinced I could have found most of my food along the canyons and waterways that surround the flat valley where Las Vegas sits.

One man told me that he was certain I could not survive in the "wilds" of the hills and canyons surrounding Las Vegas. "There's no water around here," he told me. I had to agree with him that the current population is far too large for the desert to provide all the needed water -- which is why water is piped in today. Still, there is water in and around Las Vegas. This Las Vegas man did not know that Las Vegas was originally an Indian village, where they had springs and a few streams for water.

"But how would you get water today if you were out in the wilds around here?" he insisted. I explained that if I lived in Las Vegas like he did, I would have found out long ago where all the natural sources of water are located. [I learned later that Las Vegas gets approx. 40% of its water from its own underground sources.] Plus, I told him that the abundant prickly pear cactus would provide me with water, and the young cattails would provide me with needed moisture. Plus, if I could find cattails, I'd know that water would be found by digging not too deep. I also explained that in the desert you stay in the shade during the day and come out when it's cooler. I then explained how it was possible to collect dew from rocks, to set up catchments for the rain, and to dig and construct a solar still.

As in most cases, resources from nature and from other people are everywhere, and it is only our pride and our ignorance which keeps us impoverished.