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Memorial Day
Child Hoods End
Shining Bear

Mother's Day

Enter the Forest

Winds Erase

Roots of Halloween


Fertile Lowlands

Extreme Simplicity

Daylight Savings


by Christopher Nyerges

It was a grey winter day driving eastbound on US 422 in northeast Ohio with Peter Gail. The clouds made it difficult to see very far into the rural countryside. The sound of the windshield wipers provided a steady background tempo to our conversation.
The temperature was in the high 30s, and it was about the same temperature inside Peter's van. I was tense from the cold, hunched a bit, trying to stay warm. I'm from California. Peter was relaxed, smiling, pointing out each feature as we drove along. He's a Cleveland resident and used to the cold. Today he was my tourguide to the Amish countryside of Ohio.
Peter Gail's most famous business associate was Euell Gibbons, who authored Stalking the Wild Asparagus and starred in Grape Nuts cereal commercials in the 1970s, and was consequently the butt of comedians jokes about eating everything from old tires to freeway overpasses.
That was a long time ago. During those years, Gail edited Gibbons' articles for Boys Life magazine, and worked with him and others to develop the National Wilderness Survival Training Camp for the Boy Scouts. Together they developed and taught a foraging course at Rutgers University in New Jersey. When Gibbons' had become nationally famous from the commercials and Johnny Carson's jokes, and was overbooked, Gail occasionally substituted for him on the lecture circuit.
Gibbons died way back in 1975 -- no, not from eating a poisonous plant! -- and Peter Gail has tirelessly carried the torch for wild food enthusiasts.
Though Gail has made no cereal commercials, he has appeared on such national TV shows as Good Morning America, Lifetime TV's "Our Home Show", Food TV Networks "Extreme Cuisine,@ has authored numerous books on the subject of wild foods and related topics, and he continues to lecture about the virtues of the ubiquitous wild plants and those people who still use them as a part of daily life.
While Gail is best known on the national circuit for his ADinner Underfoot and Healing with Weeds@ lectures and workshops, locally he is even better known for his work among the Northeastern Ohio Amish community, the 4th largest in the world. As a Ph.D. ethnobotanist and anthropologist, he has studied the Amish for the last 28 years to discover the lessons their simple life style has to teach us. He now interprets that in books, articles, and his tours for those interested in learning more about these people who seem firmly rooted in the technology of a century ago.
Perhaps Gail's most popular book is his Dandelion Celebration, a book which tells you everything you'd ever want to know about dandelions. He's also authored the Delightful Delicious Daylily, Violets in Your Kitchen, The Messy Mulberry and What to do with it, and the Volunteer Vegetable Sampler, which profiles the culinary and medicinal values of 41 of the most common backyard weeds.

The least known of Gail's pursuits outside of Northern Ohio is the educational field experiences her provides for people curious about the Amish and what they have to teach us. Several times a month in spring, summer and fall, he loads up a bus or van, and takes these people into the heart of the Northeastern Ohio Amish community. These are day-long affairs, where his people are treated to a lunch at an Amish home, are told the history and beliefs of the Amish, and are taken to their stores to look at and buy Amish goods.
Today it's just me and Peter.
We have turned off the main freeway about 15 minutes ago, and it is still drizzling. We are on a secondary road, and occasionally I spot an Amish farm house -- painted white, neat, orderly, and even though it is drizzling and December, nearly every farmhouse has a long outside clothes line full of clothes blowing in the breeze.
If you are unfamiliar with the Amish, they use no electricity and shun most modern so-called conveniences. This means no electric lights, no electric refrigerators, no television, no CDs, very few of the modern devices that most folks take for granted. They have managed to live their lives, and produce most of their needed items, by simple old-fashioned ingenuity. Wood stoves, oil lamps, use of ice, horse-drawn tractors, building houses in such a way to take advantage of the heat of summer, and be protected from the cold of winter, large windows near the work areas, hand tools, and the use of diesel and small gasoline engines to generate power.
The light rain has let up just a bit, and we turn eastward on a smaller road. We're in a completely rural area, where the roads are lined by shallow ditches, where the houses have enough space between them to put an average city block, and no traffic lights, no street lights, no offensive neon.
"Have you ever had really good, natural beef jerky?" asked Peter.
"I'm sure I have," I responded.
"I mean, really good, really natural?"
"Well, just what I purchased at the market."
"Wait til you try what they sell here," smiled Peter. "There's nothing like this."
Before we get to market, we note a farm house with lots of junk and rusty tools and cars piled about.
"That's not Amish," Peter said matter-of-factly, nodding towards the rust and the tallish weeds that nearly obscure them.
"One of the major contrasts between the neat, clean Amish places and the 'Yankees,' as they call us in this region -- is that the Yankees live in that kind of trash -- old rusty cars, junk all around their houses. You won't see that around the Amish homes. We, by the way, are called 'English' in most other Amish settlements.

We arrived at the market, a small white store set back just a bit from the road. It's very low-key setting. We get out of the van, put on our coats, and enter the small store. It is a meat market, and it smells really good. In the deli counter, I see varieties of cheeses, lots of cuts of meats. Peter talks with the bearded Amish man wearing a white, blood-stained apron, as if they have known each other for years. (I later learn that they have known each other for 20 years) They exchange a bit of news, who's gotten married, who died, how's business. I stand there quietly, listening, taking it all in, considering how out-of-place this simple conversation would be in any of today's jam-packed modern supermarkets. But it is all very simple, very natural, the way people were meant to interact.
"It's over there," instructs Peter, towards me. "The beef jerky."
David Kurtz, the Amish butcher, pulls out the container of jerky from the cooler and puts it up on the far end of the deli counter. Peter rummages through the container, picking out several choice pieces and fills a bag for himself, and I do the same. A lady behind the counter weighs it, prices it. We pay for it and and begin eating. It's fresh, succulent, not rock-hard, and contains an old-world flavor.
"It's really good," I tell Peter. In fact, it's great, but I'm cold, I'm the outsider, I'm just the observer and I don't want to act overly enthusiastic for fear of seeming silly.
"Yes, quite good," I repeat, with a mouth full of the jerky. It turns out that this lady behind the counter was one of Peter's former Atourists," who became so fascinated with the community that she ultimately moved out there, and got a job working with the Amish. They then engaged in another conversation, discussing her experiences over the years since they have seen each other, while I look around at the wall decorations, the products I'd not seen in years, such as the blocks of laundry soap, balm for cows' udders, and candies I hadn't seen since childhood.
I was still chewing on a bit of the jerky as we headed up another rural road, encountering not a single other car the entire way.
"That farm over there belongs to Nora Miller," explains Peter, "who runs a wonderful bakery out of her home."
I'd already begun to hear some of the same names repeated and so I asked Peter for clarification.
"There are some 1600 Amish families in this community. Of them, some 600 are Millers, some 300 are Yoders and some 150 are Bylers. Almost 2/3 of the families have one of those three surnames. It makes it really difficult for the mailman!!"
"Are they all related?" I ask.
"Many are, but not necessarily very closely," he replied. "These names go way back, and a name like Miller originally was a description of an occupation. A guy with that name ran a flour mill or a saw mill or whatever, so people can have such names and not have any blood relationship at all. This settlement was started by a Miller back in 1886, and back in the 50's, one of the local Miller's made the Guinness Book of World Records by having 489 living descendats. That spawned a bunch of new Miller families in this area! For that matter, "Beil" in German means axe or hatchet, so a "Beiler" could have been a logger, or firewood supplier, one who went to the woods with his axe and made lumber. In this area they have Anglicized the name to Byler."

There is a light wind, and the rain has stopped. It's still cold and foggy. I enjoy looking at the countryside, and anywhere you look in any direction would make a beautiful postcard. It's that sort of place.
"This cabinet shop is really going to blow you away," Peter warns me, as we pull into a long driveway up to a white farm house. There is a little sign that says "Custom Wood products." Peter leads the way, not knocking, but entering the shop. He explained that he would never enter a home without knocking but that this was a business entrance. It all looked the same to me.

We entered the public front for the wood business and no one is about. Peter shows me the various wood works around the room -- intricate wall carvings, toys, benches and chairs, bowls, book shelves, and beautiful inlaid stools. All the work is beautiful, artful, with an attention to the finest detail.
After about 15 minutes of looking about, Peter leads the way to the cabinet shop.
"Remember, they make all this without electricity," he says. "This is really going to blow you away."
We enter the large airy woodshop with plenty of windows. It seems empty at first. There are no lights on, no radio blaring, no TV in the corner. It's quiet. But there is a lone white-haired man off to one side working on an inlaid stool, one of those which we had just seen in the finished state. The man was polite, and deliberate as he spoke to Peter. I highly admired his stool, but he said nothing. Among other things, you'll discover that the Amish eschew self-importance, and to indulge in my admiring words would be regarded as prideful. He chose silent acknowledgment and then Peter and he talked amiably (casually) about community activities, dogs, and the upcoming tour schedule. And then we left.
Though I was born in California, and lived most of my life there, I did live in Chardon, Ohio when I graduated from high school in 1973. One of my jobs was working as a pressman's helper and printer in Middlefield, Ohio, and so I worked among the Amish. However, I never really entered any of their homes or places of work in all those months I lived there. Now I was able to enter into this other-world of the Amish, via my guide Peter Gail. I was visiting Peter as a friend and colleague. Peter wasn't "on," performing as it were, as he might for a regular tour bus. It was just he and I, and so he had the chance to talk with his Amish friends while I listened in and looked around. I found it fascinating and instructive to look at the tools, the devices, the techniques of the Amish as we traveled about.
Here was a people, self-reliant, not relying as much on "the machine" as we do, and they were living well. It took just a bit for an outsider to penetrate into their lives and to see that their lives were not dark and dreary, but bright and cheery and full.
We drove on to another wood shop where we met one of Peter's Amish friends who works with a scroll saw, making fine Victorian fret and scrollwork decorative clocks, puzzles, wall plaques, intricate shelves and wooden candy dish/ trivet combinations. A small nearby gasoline engine powers the scroll saw. The man, Harvey Byler, stopped his work and chatted with Peter. How's business, who's moved, who's started another line of work, who got married, who died. The man showed some of the work that his 10 year old son, who works with him in the shop, has done, beautiful Indian feather designs.
Of course these craftsmen would like Peter -- he brings customers to them. But as I look around the Amish wood shop and listen to their conversation, it's clear there is a mutual respect here, two men from wholly different cultures, finding the best in each other, realizing that they are each valuable links to the other culture. They chat and laugh and Peter discusses a wood carving he wants to buy. Peter realized that the lighthouse would be great with a lamp in it. Harvey didn't know what to say at first. After all, he doesn't live his life with electric light bulbs, so putting a bulb into the lighthouse would not be easy, would be something different, and I could see by the expression on his face that he was not inclined to do such.
Peter changed the subject.
"Harvey, you should come with me to the Columbus Gift Mart in May, and show off your work. You'd really enjoy spending the day there."

Harvey is silent momentarily, and responds that he might not enjoy spending the day with crowds of people, and he says it with a smile in a way that I assume Peter should already know this. Perhaps Peter has already heard this, but persists in trying to get him to go anyway.
We all bid adieu, and Peter and I head down the road towards Mesopotamia to the shop of Eli Miller. This shop has a more obvious sign, and it is clearly a store front, even though it is just as clearly located right next to his home. No neon, no obnoxious billboards, just a modest sign reading "Eli Miller Leather Shop and Country Store."
We enter the store that seems dark and empty at first. Remember, this is December indoors. Walking into the store is like passing through a time machine. My eyes see oil lamps, butter churns, farms tools, cow bells, wood stoves, cast iron utensils -- all that is needed for self-sufficient living apart from the grip of the utility companies. My eyes are still adjusting to the relative darkness, and exploring row upon row of "old fashioned" tools, while Peter is yelling to the back, "Anyone home?"
Way back in the rear, back beyond all the leather goods such as belts and saddles and footwear, there's an answer. Peter motions me to follow him and we meet Eli working on a leather saddle. Eli is a more progressive Amishman -- one who doesn't mind if his picture is taken, and who is very involved in community activities. He, for example, organizes an Annual Oxroast each July 4 weekend, and, even though the Amish eschew violence against persons, he is one of the organizers of a Civil War encampment and re-enactment which they host each year in Mesopotamia. Eli Miller is also one of the most respected leather crafters in the United States, with saddle and tack on mounted police units all the way from Dade County, Florida to Portland, Oregon.
They chat a bit. Who died, who changed professions, who got married, who moved -- the usual stuff, and then Eli starts discussing and showing some of the leathers he works with, and some of the special requests he gets. Hanging behind him is a set of three leather belts crafted from English bridle leather which he has just custom-made for a fellow from Cleveland who had been on one of Peter's tours this fall. His work is awesome to my eyes.
"Do you have a custom belt for my friend from California?" Peter asks on my behalf. I'd told Peter earlier that I could use a good belt, but I silently wonder how much a "custom" belt may cost. Eli simply responds that there are many good ones on the rack that he just finished making recently. I look and find a good black one that fits me, and I pay Eli the ten dollars asking price.
Eli then showed us a new stamp he just received. It's a makers stamp for marking leather, and he'd not yet used it.
"Where do you think I should put my mark on the belts?" he inquired of Peter. We looked at belts, considering front side or back side, buckle end or leather end.
"Put it where you can see it," responded Peter. Eli clearly did not want to be prideful, and wasn't certain. I took off my new black belt and asked him to stamp it right on the front, just beyond the buckle, which he did.
After more conversation, and more looking around, Peter and I depart, and investigate an old pioneer cemetery back behind Eli's shop. It was built up atop a hill as the last resting place for one of the families who settled Mesopotamia back in the late 1700's. The most recent gravestone is dated 1868, 18 years before the first Amish settler set horses hoof on Geauga County's clay till soils.

The rain seems to have completely stopped, but I keep my coat on. The last we checked, the temperature was 38 degrees, and rising. We traveled down a two-lane highway, where trees lined the road in places and where the rolling fields showed that the work of the summer was over. Some fields were green, some were brown, some were specked with the common tall weeds of this part of the country, such as curly dock, or teasel, or milkweeds.
It was not uncommon for us to drive through a small, postage-stamp sized "forest," since trees grow up quickly where the fields are not kept cleared.
As we drove to our next stop, the Amish farm houses always caught my attention. In nearly all cases, there were clothes out on the line. Often the clothes lines were attached by a pulley wheel to a room at the back of the house, and would run all the way out to a barn.
There were also gourds suspended in an array like a television antennae, which serve as birdhouses for Purple Martins, which are birds that like to live in colonies and consume tons of mosquitos each season. The Amish are a people of utility and practicalness. The decks of larger porches had benches built into them, something I especially liked.
Now we were turning onto a paved primary road and quickly turned into the parking lot of a modern building. This was the Middlefield cheese factory. I purchased some fresh cheeses, which were delicous, and looked through the large window in the storefront down on the workers making and processing the cheese. It was quite a sight. The factory and the milk are owned by the Amish but since they can't have electricity, they have contracted with a cheese company in Wisconsin to bring in the electric equipment and make the cheese, and they hire Amish people to work for them. It is an interesting accomodation which seems to work very nicely.
We then drove through Middlefield where I once worked at Shetler printing way back when. Middlefield was no longer just a sleepy hamlet, and it wasn't just Amish. The town had been invaded by MacDonalds, Wendy's,. Arby's, Dairy Queen, Subway -- one each at least of every fast food restaurant -- as well as one each of the CVS and RiteAid Pharmacies which now blight the landscape throughout the country.
Middlefield is no more immune to development that the rest of the country, I reasoned to myself. But still, the amount of development I saw in Middlefield after 25+ years is what I have seen in California cities in under 5 years. In other words, to me, Middlefield still maintained its small town character. There were still places at the hardware stores for the Amish to park their buggies, and it retained that small town Americana that seems to be disappearing everywhere.
On our circuit, we passed by a covered bridge, and visited Peter's raw property which he hopes to one day develop into the Goosefoot Acres Research facility. This is a 18.6 acre wild area, complete with a small lake. It's wooded, full of wild herbs and foods, and totally wild. Gail looks around as we explore the thickets, and I can tell he's looking to the future.
"Over there will be classrooms," he explains, pointing to the north end of the lake where the lake rises just a bit. "Students will come from all over the world to study and research, and that's where they'll stay."
"And we'll build our home over there," pointing eastward where there is a clearing near the top of a hill. We nibble on rose hips, and I collect some milkweed seeds to take back to California, look around some more, and finally move on. It's getting late.

Though Gail now resides in Cleveland, we're both originally from Southern California. Peter explains that he got interested in wild foods at an early age in San Gabriel, California after his father died and he collected Agoosefoot, to help feed the family. This is the common lamb's quarter weed -- really a wild spinach and arguably one of the most nutritious greens in the world.
My interest began with hiking the trails of the Angeles National Forest, and wanting to know how the Native Americans found their food in the old days. I was already well-versed in wild edible during high school, and decided to move to my grandfather's farm in Chardon, Ohio after I graduated. Seven months in Ohio was a wonderful experience, and during that time I tasted as many of the wild plants and mushrooms of Ohio that I could find. Since so much of my early training occurred there in Ohio, when I returned to California I at first believed that California had no wild foods, compared to Ohio. I was wrong, of course. The flora of both states is different. And though Ohio is greener, you can generally collect food from the wild in California 12 months out of the year, something not as easily done in snow territory.
I began leading wild food outings in early 1974, and wrote several books about wild food identification, which is how Peter found me. His mother, who lived in Sierra Madre, California, had sent him columns I'd written for the Pasadena Star News, and he'd obtained copies of my now out-of-print Wild Greens and Salads cookbook. He made a point of looking me up one winter while visiting his mother. He twisted my arm to look though my dandelion file for recipes for his book, though I don't think I had anything he hadn't already seen.
Peter Gail and I have not only Ohio in common, but also our interests in wild foods and herbs, and the cultures that use those plants. In his case, he learns from various ethnic cultures including the Amish, and I learn from the Native Americans, and others.
We were heading north now, out of Amish territory, towards Chardon. We've had a long day, and the sun is low in the sky. I'd very much wanted to visit the old farm house where I once lived.
As we drove, I told Peter that we'd all benefit by learning some of the skills of the Amish. Peter has noted an increased interest in the Amish skills especially when times are hard, just like back in the oil embargo days of the early 1970s, when gas lines were common at the gas stations. Back then, there was an increased interest in the way the Amish live, though it was arguably a superficial interest, just enough interest, just in case, but not enough by most of the "Yankees" to actually live that way.
We were finally in Chardon, and heading up the old road to my grandfather's farm. I knew there'd be no farm house or barn -- I'd been told that they had been bulldozed several years earlier by the new owner, but having come this far, I just had to see it all for myself.
Peter slowed a bit, and when we found the driveway with the hickory tree along side it -- now dead -- he turned left into the property. It was both sad and exhilarating to see the old farm property. It took me awhile to take it all in, to recall what it had looked like, and to mentally superimpose my past memories over the current landscape. A lot was the same, but a lot had changed as well. Where there once stood the farmhouse was now just a small barren plot. I was amazed how small the area seemed now that the house was gone and the cellar filled in. The deodar that had been by the front porch grew so big that it overwhelmed the entire area, and where there once was a massive old barn was now just a rocky slope in the outer field. Peter was tired after our day-long tour -- he's getting old and decrepit (he likes to say that), and needs his rest -- so he let me explore for awhile while he napped.

I walked out into the fields which were wet with mud. I looked for the familiar -- the staghorn sumac, the highbush cranberry, the rose hips, the burdock, the milkweed, the curly dock, the old overgrown apple orchard.
It was winter now, so I didn't see any of the strawberry that I recalled covered the entire ground, or the chamomille that I recalled carpeted the area from the garage to the farmhouse. In fact, not a trace of the garage remained. It was now just the wild land, reverting, as it were, to the way it was before people "improved" it. I just wanted to be here, in the land of my grandfather, in the stomping ground of Peter Gail, in the place of longago memories, all tied up as it was with the stories my mother told me when I was growing up. It was too much like going into the past and finding there was nothing here for me anymore. The farm had long ago been sold, and I was just an undiscovered trespasser, looking and exploring. I wanted to feel the feelings, to just be here.
I had long wanted to look again at the old mound just west of the abandoned orchard, and determine if it really could be one of the Indian mounds that dots the Ohio valley. It was a beautiful sight, a graceful and round symmetrical rise from the flatlands. This time I felt more certain than ever that this was not a natural feature of the landscape. I walked to the top, and felt the now light rain in my face, and enjoyed the bracing breeze. I felt electric, as if the millions of negative ions in the air were inside me, and there seemed something other-worldly special about just standing atop a mound, a grass-covered slight rise in an otherwise flat farm and woodland. The view was spectacular. All around me in the distances were the forests that line the edges of farmland, moving in the cool breeze, and the orange house lights in the distance were twinkling on.
I looked, and thought, and remembered. Back in 1973, after filling myself with all the writings of Euell Gibbons, I would often sit on this very mound and meditate and think and read. I recall something Gibbons wrote about Pliny the naturalist smoking coltsfoot leaves, and so I smoked some in my own pipe atop the mound. It was getting late, so I bid adieu to the mound, and walked back through the muddy fields to Peter Gail, asleep in the van.
He asked me how long I'd been gone, and I told him "two hours." It had only been about 25 minutes. It took him a few moments to realize that, and then we both laughed as we drove off in the darkness.