Central Park

National Geographic Magazine
May, 1993
By Joel Swerdlow

Central Park

On school days dozens of teachers lead classes to the park. For many children this is their only opportunity to see a world governed by nature's rhythms. Just north of the zoo I join first graders listening to "Wildman" Steve Brill. His outfit includes a pith helmet and a T shirt with a drawing of himself discovering a huge mushroom. The drawing is accurate: beard, rounded forehead, untamed hair, and eyes that look permanently excited.

Wildman, 43, supports himself by taking people on edible tours of city parks. His interest in plants began when Greek women in his home borough of Queens told him that they picked grape leaves in a neighborhood park. He became a professional food gatherer—or forager-ten years ago. Around the same time, he adopted his new name.

Wildman is a natural teacher. Through noises and contortions he transforms himself into whatever living entity he describes. His arms and neck arch and he is a worm looking for apples; the next moment his body bellows outward and he is a walnut tree intent on protecting its turf from other trees. Within minutes he makes me desperate to learn more about the plants I take for granted.

Although he is self-taught, Wildman sounds encyclopedic as he interweaves folklore, history, science, and nature: "Indians used black walnut to dye clothing. Tea from the hawthorn tree can help with heart disease. White snakeroot is poisonous. If cows eat it, they excrete the deadly poison through their milk and pass it to humans. It killed Abraham Lincoln's mother. I'll bet they never teach you these things in school."

The children do not accept everything without challenge. When Wildman tastes an Asian species of raspberry called the wineberry, one first grader tells him, "You shouldn't do that. It's not yours."

"Eating and spitting out seeds helps nature. Concrete and mowers hurt nature," Wildman replies. Heads nod in agreement.

Park regulations prohibit picking, and in 1986 two undercover park rangers signed up for one of Wildman's classes and took him away in handcuffs after he picked and ate a dandelion. Wildman called the media, which made headlines out of his promise "not to eat all of Central Park." Embarrassed officials dropped the charges.

"More than 18,000 people have taken my classes, and they leave the park in better shape," Wildman says. "They become advocates for maintenance of parks." He emphasizes, however, that "no one should pick or eat without learning first. You could harm something rare or poison yourself."

After the children return to school, Wildman invites me to his apartment for a meal cooked from Central Park. "Appetizer to dessert," he promises.

His front door is painted to look like a tree. Dried mushrooms fill half of the front hall closet. Next to it is a freezer filled with nuts, berries, and roots. We munch on acorns, boiled to remove acids, and listen to jazz.

The appetizer is pickled daylily shoots and burdock root. They taste rich and tangy. The main course is a chicken mushroom that tastes like real chicken. The Japanese knotweed tastes like rhubarb.

"Have you ever made yourself sick?"

"Never. Sometimes I study a plant for years before trying it." His voice has an authoritative aura. "Foraging is safer than eating junk food and will never hurt you if you do your homework and prepare everything correctly."

He points to the green vegetable I am eating. "If you prepare pokeweed incorrectly you get sick or die," he says. "You must boil it at least twice, changing the water to make sure poisons drain out. You must also pick the right part of the plant, at the right time of the year."

I push the pokeweed aside.

"I want room for dessert," I say. Wildman laughs at my lack of faith and serves me pudding made from the autumn olive, an Asian member of the oleaster family planted in Central Park as an ornamental bush.