When naturalist Steve Brill started a friendship with Leslie-Anne Skolnik on a park tour he organized for singles in April 1998, he promised to follow her to the ends of the Earth.
It was a marriage proposal, "and she took me up on it," said Brill, 53. But he also wanted to get across his willingness to literally travel with Skolnik, 39, who has set foot on every continent.
The word "Earth" had other connotations for Brill as well as his prospective bride. Both love the outdoors.
Brill is known for leading tours in parks in the city, Long Island, Westchester, New Jersey and Connecticut. He organized the singles tour as one of his outings.
He came to public attention in 1986 when the city arrested him for eating edible plants he points out to his guests on the four-hour walking tours. But instead of prosecuting Brill, the city ended up hiring him for four years, he said, to run the tours that he has since made into a career.
On Friday, he's going to "eat" Marine Park in Brooklyn, which, he says in his tour promotion material, "offers all the best wild foods of the rich seashore habitat," garlic mustard, field garlic, daylily shoots and more.
"We'll be looking for stands of sweet wild parsnips, peppery common evening primrose roots, as well as highly flavored wild 'carrots (Queen Anne's lace)," Brill said.
On Saturday, March 30, the "Wildman" is coming to Flushing Meadows-Corona Park to look for winter cress - a bitter cabbage-flavored green wild chickweed, dandelion greens and spicy garlic mustard leaves.
While foraging for wild berries, vegetables and fruits, Brill educates his tour groups with scientific information about the plants and their environment.
He also regales them with stories, folklore and jokes he derives from the history of plants, and he entertains them with jazz played on what he calls the Brill-O-Phone, in which he cups his hands over his mouth to produce recognizable melodies in a somewhat metallic tone.
"I'm the only one who can do that," he said. "I learned it from (my late) father."
The open-air, educational jaunt Brill leads on weekends and holidays attracted Skolnik, a medical writer and editor. She joined Brill's singles tour trek through Central Park last spring.
"I was always looking for outdoors things to do," she said, and "I was very impressed not only about his knowledge of wild foods, but the health benefits and the scientific reasons for them. He made it very understandable and fun. And he was very good with kids, and very personable."
Brill knew she was the woman for him when he learned she "always loved nature. She was the best thing I ever found on my tours. She liked the tours and the plants, and gave me her phone number and we started seeing each other". "Before I met Steve I made a point of trying to spend as much time in nature as possible," Skolnik said. "Every weekend I do some kind of nature activity. I do a lot of walking, biking."
She has spent time in the Galapagos - a chain of islands off Ecuador famous for their abundant and unusually tame wildlife. Brill joined her for that trip in 2000 and on a visit to the Antarctic in January last year.
The couple are both Queens natives, but Skolnik said meeting Brill "was my real introduction to Queens." She was born in Flushing and was about 5 when her family moved to Scarsdale.
After living in Queens all of his life, Brill, who was born in Kew Gardens and lived in Briarwood, moved out of the borough last December to set up house in a Westchester co-op with Skolnik, whom he plans to wed June 16:
"We're getting married in a park (Glen Island Park in New Rochelle) by the water," Skolnik said. "It's on Long Island Sound."
They will honeymoon in the Adirondacks. "We will hike, canoe and swim, and of course forage for wild plants," Brill said. And they will ride a tandem bicycle he bought before he met Skolnik.
"I figured if I did meet someone who would be compatible with me, she would like bike riding," he said. "She would come to Queens and we would ride through the various parks. That bike was the best investment I ever made. We're perfect for each other. We have all the same interests."
The couple also have in common their appetite for the wild foods they find on Brill's March-through-December tours in the parks he loves. Foremost among them is Forest Park in Kew Gardens, where his grandmother took him as a child and where he developed his love for nature. There Brill finds sweet cicely, "a plant that tastes like licorice"; the chicken mushroom, "which tastes like chicken meat"; black walnut and hickory nut trees; mulberry trees; and horse balm, "which has the flavor of citronella."
Cunningham Park in Bayside yields wild raspberries and "a whole grove of wild apples." Flushing Meadows-Corona Park is good for greens and herbs. A wild persimmon tree grows next to the tennis courts in Kissena Park in Flushing. Alley Pond Park in the Douglaston-Little Neck area has cherry trees.
The wild plants are more healthy, have more vitamins than things you buy," Brill said. "They are not genetically altered. They're not sprayed with chemicals. These are the natural state these plants have been in since before humans ever ate them. They are tough survivors. People have them in their gardens and say they are weeds."
Exercise is another benefit tours that Brill tours. "You get fresh air and moderate exercise. Four hours of walking, and the sunshine is important, too. A lot of people don't get enough Vitamin D, which they need. If four hours is too long, they can leave early, and if they get lost they'll know what to eat."
He augments his earnings from the tours with lectures. He also arranges birthday parties for children, and is publishing a cookbook in April. Many of the edibles from his forays are in recipes he concocted for his "Wild Vegetarian Cookbook," to be published by Harvard Common Press. Excerpts appear on his Web site: www.wildmanstevebrill.com.
"I've been experimenting with natural foods," said Brill, a vegetarian.
"I used to teach people how to make an omelet without breaking an egg, and ice cream with no dairy products or sugar."
Now he and Skolnik - who said she is almost a vegetarian - are whipping up meals together.
"We both like to cook the things we find," he said. "They're delicious food," she said. Such as sauteed dandelion.
"Before the flower comes up, the dandelion leaves are incredibly delicious," Brill said.
The "Wildman" continues his excursions, no longer fearing he will run afoul of the Parks Department.
"They don't seem to want to arrest me again," he said.
"As long as his tours are not destroying the landscape, we let him do his thing," said Jane Rudolph, a parks department spokeswoman. "Our concern is that somebody might eat the wrong thing or might destroy some vegetation. But we have found he is respectful of the landscape. He's a good guy."