The Times - Your Neighborhood Newspaper Serving Larchmont & Mamaroneck
May 16, 2003
By Michelle J. Lee
Wildman Holding Mushroom

Susan la Sala, back left, Andrew Meeker, middle, and Ian Bloom, right, look on as "Wildman" Steve Brill, front left, shows Mamaroneck High School students and parents a mushroom found in the Leatherstocking Trail

On Mother's Day morning, Mamaroneck resident "Wildman" Steve Brill led an expedition into Ridgeway Nature Area in White Plains in search of wild foods.

While hiking a dirt path underneath the trees, Brill introduced a party of 16 daring guests to a world of edible plants naturally provided by Mother Earth herself: wild leeks and garlic mustard, violets and dryad's saddle mushrooms.

Along the way, Brill told jokes about Bill Clinton and the Spice Girls and played music with his mouth, to the delight of Susanna, 5, and Cassia Schuler, 2, who came on the tour with their mother, father and grandmother.

Brill also pointed out dangerous plants, such as poison ivy, as well as medicinal plants like jewelweed, which can provide a cure for mosquito bites, and spicebush, which can make a tea good for fevers.

"This is really nice. I didn't know we had this resource right in the city," said Claire Kimball of White Plains, who came with her daughters Karyn and Keiko.

Later in the afternoon, Brill rushed home to pick up his wife Leslie-Anne Brill and drove to the Leatherstocking Trail in Larchmont to give another nature and ecology tour to 24 members of the Mamaroneck High School Environmental Club and Woodsie Club.

Sunday was a typical day for Brill, hurrying from one place to another, giving tours or lecturing to libraries and school groups throughout New York City, Westchester, Connecticut and New Jersey.

On Monday, Brill, 54, was able to sit down and talk about how he embarked on his career as an urban naturalist.

A native of Queens, N.Y., Brill originally aspired to be a scientist as a child and eventually earned a degree in psychology from George Washington University in Washington D.C.

In 1980, Brill stumbled upon his future career in a forest park by chance while he was working in the catering business and teaching cooking classes.

"I was exploring ethnic stores, and I was bicycle riding and came across ethnic Greek women dressed in black collecting leaves in the park," he said. "It was all Greek to me, but I came home with a bag full of grape leaves."

Brill worked up from the leaves to other plants and by 1982 he started giving tours in New York City parks. The nickname "Wildman," came to him during a session of transcendental meditation.

"At least I wouldn't have to bring my pots and pans to the class on my bike…I had no idea it would be this successful, but I thought I'd give it a try," Brill said.

In 1986, Brill made national headlines for being arrested by park rangers for eating dandelions in Central Park. Brill's case was eventually thrown out and was hired to give tours for the New York City Parks department from 1986 to 1990.

Since then, Brill's tour business had grown.

He's also written two books: "The Wild Vegetarian Cookbook: A Forager's Guide (in the Field or in the Supermarket) to Preparing and Savoring Wild (and Not So Wild) Natural Food, with More than 500 Recipes" and "Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not so Wild) Places," with Evelyn Dean.

In 1998, his work lead to love when he met his wife, Leslie-Anne Skolnik from Fleetwood, while giving a tour. In December 2001 the couple moved to Mamaroneck.

Brill hopes to continue expanding his work. "I'm having a lot of fun doing this, going to great places, meeting new people. And I'm always getting a free lunch," he said.

The Mamaroneck students agreed. "Altogether I enjoyed it. He's an amazing guy. He had all the anecdotes to compliment the plant information," Woodsie Club and Mamaroneck High School sophomore Andrew Meeker said.

"It's really neat learning about plants that were developed and used for their traditional medicinal purposes for hundreds of years by many (different) cultures," Lia Strasser, 19, of Mamaroneck said.

Julie Speilvogel, 12, of Larchmont, enjoyed eating the spring beauty and mustard garlic plants.

"It's interesting you don't need all this commercial food to survive, like Burger King," Geoff Strasser, 15, said.

If you go ...

For more information on "Wildman" Steve Brill, contact him at (914) 835-2153 or visit his web site www.wildmanstevebrill.com.

Wildman Devours Mushroom Sculpture

"Wildman" Steve Brill of Mamaroneck bites into a model of dryad's saddle mushroom in his home. He has over 80 mushroom models he made by hand.

Photo by Michelle J. Lee