Together with a small group of accomplices, the bearded, bespectacled and very gentle Brill gathered a few leaves and stalks of mugwort, violet, burdock, curly (yellow) dock and common plantain on a walk through Central Park.
Three weeks before, the 37-year-old expert, enthusiast and advocate of wild edible plants was arrested, handcuffed and booked for the criminal misdemeanor of picking and eating weeds in the park.
Just two days before, he was arraigned ("not guilty, Your Honor") in Criminal Court, much to the delight of observers who relish the absurdities of the law.
But Wildman's tour on Sunday was sanctioned by the Parks Department. At the West 72nd Street entrance to the park, Janice Melnick, acting director of the Urban Park Rangers, explained the situation.
There was to be no eating on this trip ("It's a question of liability, in case someone gets sick," Melnick said with only a trace of embarrassment) and a park ranger would go along to make sure.
The department is working out a set of guidelines to allow Brill to guide his clients in their search for the edible garlic mustard and the not-so-edible marsh marigold (it has to be boiled twice and drained to get rid of its noxious properties). The department, Melnick said, will probably drop the charges.
"Their lawyers are talking to my lawyer," Brill added. He is defended by Gustin Reichbach, who noted that the official charge of Criminal Mischief, Fourth Degree, involves intentionally damaging the property of another person. Brill, Reichbach said, is careful not to damage because he picks with discretion.
Brill became "Wildman" about four years ago when he began lecturing and writing about the subject he has been studying for years.
"You should never eat anything without being absolutely certain that it's safe-or have someone else try it first" he said.
Brill learned about berries from his mother when he was a boy in Queens. But he started a serious pursuit of edible plants after he saw a group of Greek women picking wild grape leaves.
He began conducting his tours in the city's parks, beaches and lots in 1981. Lectures in public libraries, botanical gardens and exhibitions of his sculpture of mushrooms followed.
The tours, he said are publicized through flyers in health food stores, word of mouth, and most recently by his getting arrested. He also wears a black T-shirt (painted in wild colors and patterns by his girlfriend, Evelyn Dean) with his Briarwood, Queens, phone number-718 291-6825.
Brill's tours cover the folklore, chemistry, ecology and harmony of common plants, with the emphasis on touching, picking, squeezing, smelling and ultimately eating the subject. The fee, he said, is on a voluntary basis: the suggested price is $15, but he has never turned anyone away.
"You only pick plants where there are many," he cautioned, even if the species is common. It's important to preserve a particular stand of a weed in order to visit the spot at different times of the year to observe its varied stages. For a biennial like the burdock (the deep root is delicious but hell to dig up) you have to wait two years before you see the small purple thistle atop the tall stalk.
Although sympathetic to parks department concern about preventing citizens from damaging the commons, he thinks the city goes to far with the policy of "look but don't touch."
In fact, he said, indiscriminate mowing of weeds and over-pruning by the Parks Department itself causes considerable damage. In Jamaica Heights Park, he said, department workers pruned down to the ground a relatively rare spice bush.