Dear Parks Commissioner Betsy Gottbaum:
This can't wait until the next time we ride circus racing elephants together in Flushing Meadow Corona Park. I write now to urge you as parks commissioner to interdict "Wildman" Steve Brill. I make this call for mobilization after witnessing his incursion into Cunningham Park woods last Saturday. For Brill, the foray was another return to his life's "turning point."
A podiatry school dropout and a one-time tournament chess player and a student of culinary arts, Brill was biking through Cunningham Park one day in the mid-1970s when he spotted some Greek women foraging in the woods. "They showed me how to collect grape leaves and made me aware that more wild food than berries (which my mother had shown me) grew in parks. This was a turning point."
So on Sept. 1, 1990, deep into the wilds of northeastern Queens, away from the civilized traffic of Francis Lewis Blvd. and Union Tpke., the Castro-bearded revolutionary led a battalion of his followers (Brillos?). Equipped with knapsacks and/or plastic and paper bags, magnifying glasses, and copies of his illustrated manual for identifying edible and poisonous plants, they marched for hours, far from the beaten paths, living off the land. These were clearly guerilla maneuvers, albeit consistent with that jungle species' vegetarian diet.
I know you said you didn't want 'war' with Brill. That was back in June when he resigned as a Parks naturalist rather than submit to the mind-constricting benefits of bureaucratic discipline.
Your agency was quite correct to insist he punch a time clock, take one-hour lunches at prefixed times, submit for approval all correspondence connected with the parks foraging study program he created, and desist from engaging in art exhibits promoting the program. Exceptions from procedural routine for the sake of creativity and spontaneity cannot be tolerated. That would run counter to the kind of civil service mentality which such regulations seek to inculcate.
The individualism he demonstrated in 1982 as a private citizen devising park excursions spotlighting weeds as wondrous things to touch and taste should have been sufficient to identify him as a subversive influence threatening our urban lifestyle. Your predecessor Henry Stern, unlike his forerunner Gordon Davis, initially recognized the implicit danger posed by Brill acquainting city denizens with the delights of dandelions.
Whereas Davis granted Brill permission for hands-on field walks in city parks, Stern had Parks Rangers conduct an undercover and underbrush investigation leading to the botanist's arrest March 29, 1986, on criminal mischief charges: to wit, munching wild onions.
Up to that point Stern had been properly stern. But then under a landslide of editorial lambasting, the commissioner wilted and let Brill wangle a job as city parks naturalist to do legally what he had been arrested for allegedly doing illegally.
This surrender to the ecological adventurer continued nearly four years until your appointment as parks commissioner early this year. Soon thereafter Brill was sent word to shape up, snap to, and salute or ship out.
When the rule-book squeeze succeeded in' forcing his resignation, accompanied by his announcing plans to resume private foraging tours in the parks, you promptly fired off a letter reminding Brill of Article Ill Section 7a. It bans removing vegetation without your permission as commissioner.
Your closing phrase ("... and I will not grant permission for you to do so") will long ring through the annals of parks' history. It was the gauntlet tossed down, the line drawn in the sand, the chip placed upon the shoulder. Bully show, Betsy: you're quickly becoming New York's own Margaret "Ironlady" 'Thatcher!
But incorrigible Brill still bounds through brambles and trudges through thickets, heeding not your prohibitions; he and his devotees continue eating wild berries, thereby giving your words the raspberry.
Saturday they started, two dozen strong, or reasonably so considering the grey hairs predominating. There were some old-hands and a few novices, going bravely where no joggers and muggers have gone before, into seemingly virgin parkland unrecognizable as department property due to the absence of garbage, graffiti, and disrepair. The cultural shock inflicted upon the city dweller's psyche by such exposure must not be underestimated.