Foraging in New York’s Parks with the Wildman Steve Brill
When foraging with “the Wildman” Steve Brill, you don’t feel like you’ll get lost. Nor do you feel that you will drop dead from eating the plants and mushrooms he deems okay to eat. But you do feel a bit like you are hanging out with the host of a children’s program complete with safari hat and “Brillophone,” an “instrument” he makes using his mouth and hands. His shtick is primarily geared towards children, but the two days I foraged with the Wildman, in Central Park and Prospect Park respectively, the number of children waned with the weather.
My first foraging experience with the Wildman was in Central Park in September. It was a sunny day, and there was a group of forty in attendance. On this occasion, the Wildman’s 3-year-old daughter Violet picked plants and ran over to get her father’s approval before sticking them into her mouth. With several children around, the Wildman often repeated his maxim, “Don’t eat anything I’m talking about until I’m finished talking,” since sometimes he’d be discussing a deadly plant like white snakeweed. Other times it is a plant that “tastes like lemonade,” or is “what wintergreen flavoring comes from.” If a plant was safe, we picked it. Children gathered handfuls, shoving them into their plastic bags, sometimes pulling off branches or nearly knocking down a sapling. When the Wildman noticed, he said, “Be careful.” Then he announced it was time to move on.
The tours are long, three hours or more. Having children around means many snack and bathroom breaks. Some of the children in our group that day were homeless, out to experience nature in association with a non-profit group. For some, this was their first time in the park. I couldn’t imagine what they would be doing with all of their booty, but I guessed they could hold the sheep’s sorrel and wild bay leaves up to their noses and be reminded of the walk. There were self-sufficiency aficionados along for the forage in Central Park and Prospect Park. This self-sufficiency crowd was a little older, represented by an aging hippy, or retired nature lover.
Steve Brill began foraging in the parks out of his own curiosity in the late ‘70s. His mother read him his first science book at age 3, and also taught him to identify raspberries and blackberries. He is a self-taught naturalist, and takes pleasure in being able to answer any plant question you throw at him. On each tour, he seems to be wandering through the park alone, identifying whatever comes into his path. For each identified plant there is a story, and often the stories have an anti-imperialist slant. While talking about sassafras, no longer found in root beer since it was banned in 1960, he criticized a study done at the time which concluded that ingesting it can cause cancer. He compared it to beer, which he said becomes carcinogenic in humans at less than 8 percent of the level of the sassafras in the rat experiment. “What have we learned?” he asked. “One: there is a bigger beer lobby in Washington, and two: there are a few rats in the FDA.”
There is no law that prohibits foraging in the park. There is a law, however, that prohibits removing things from and defacing the park. As we were wrestling with burdock root in a less trodden, shady area of Central Park, a park ranger came over to shoo us away. The ranger reminded the Wildman that he is not an employee of the park. He seemed mildly upset, wearing an “after-all-these-years-and-what-thanks-do-I-get” look.
This was not the Wildman’s first brush with the law. In 1986 he was arrested after being caught eating a dandelion in Central Park. After media attention from David Letterman, the New York Times and the CBS Evening News, the park dropped the charges and hired him as a tour guide. That lasted four years, after which time, he struck out on his own again. He now leads tours in multiple locations throughout Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, upstate New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey.
After the ranger halted our burdock tugging, we moved on to the gaggle of apple trees, viewable from the road that cuts through the park at 72nd Street. Leaning against a tree was a long, thick branch perfect for reaching the apples ripening in the sun at the top of one of the trees. We took turns swinging. Like whacking a piñata, each time the apples fell, people would run to collect them. Their flesh was electric pink, a sign that this apple tree was not cultivated from a clipping but grown from seed since seeds always produce unique fruit. Surrounding us were amused picnickers on blankets. Soon an official vehicle stopped on the road and two rangers began making their way towards us. The Wildman rushed us off to the next berry bush, but I had time to point out the branch to one of the bystanders and say, “you’re next!” He smiled. After the rangers left, I turned back to see some of the picnickers swinging the stick, and biting into apples.
It was so rainy and cold in Prospect Park on November 18, that the only child in attendance was Violet. Even then, she barely got out of her stroller, preferring to nap under a coat. We were twenty people in all, a twenty-something Brooklyn crowd out interested in nature, herbal remedies, and discovering another side of going out to the park. It was near freezing, and I had forgotten to wear wool socks in my rubber boots, so my toes slowly turned to ice while we identified the many species the Wildman was surprised to see this late in the season: jewel weed, lady’s thumb, spice bush and lamb’s quarter. We learned that Jules Verne predicted a hydrogen economy in the 1870s; and about a recent study that predicted poison ivy will flourish in warmer conditions brought on by global warming. He also told us about Native American remedies using plants like sassafras and black birch. Two people in our group discussed how they’d both spent the summer foraging upstate. Some had digging implements with them, ready to free a burdock root the size of a baby’s arm. Most of my fellow foragers seemed to feast on the Wildman’s advice. Maybe this is why I was there too; there is a subversive thrill to plucking wild plants and using them.
Foraging has become connected with the local food movement, which espouses eating mostly items growing in the general vicinity of where one lives. Some might say that the term “local” includes nearby states. Others might insist that all food come from the five boroughs. The one thing agreed upon is that it is better to eat seasonally, and to be aware of how far your food is traveling to get to your plate. In my experience, foraging is mostly supplemental, providing spices, a few roots and nuts. The Wildman does not live on foraged food alone. In fact he says he is so busy leading tours and giving lectures, that he usually only eats 10 percent foraged food. When he first began, it was closer to 50 percent.
At the end of the Prospect Park tour, we found a tree completely bare except for the sweet fruit that clung to its branches: wild persimmon. When we shook the tree, persimmons flew in every direction, including into the chest of a passerby who was curious about what we were up to. We told her and her companion while they ate persimmons, and suggested that they should sign up for a tour. It was strange to eat such a sweet fruit on such a cold day, picked from a tree in the park.
The best part of these excursions is returning home in the evening to cook with the loot. The Wildman is a vegan, and has a cookbook that he sells on the tour. I experimented with these wild foods, which are said to contain more nutritional value because of their heartiness for warding off pests. I put my bay leaves in a brown bag to dry. I chopped up some of the apples and made an apple crumble, adding raisins, cinnamon and honey to the mix. I chopped up the wild garlic, steamed the burdock root and added both to the pasta sauce I was making. No one I fed complained, or got sick. Knowing how to identify food items in the park is empowering; I’ll be back next year for free organic pink apples, but next time I’ll travel alone and be more discreet. Perhaps I’ll bring a stepladder.