The Urban Forager



“No person shall deface, write upon, sever, mutilate, kill or remove from the ground any plants, flowers, shrubs or other vegetation under the jurisdiction of the Department without permission of the Commissioner.”

– Statute 1-04 (b.1.ii), New York City Parks Rules and Regulations



Steve Brill steps on to a bench at the West 72nd entrance to Central Park. He climbs over a waist-high fence behind it and scoops up a handful of seeds under a ginkgo tree. “The kernel here you wash off and roast in the oven for 30 minutes at 300 degrees, stirring occasionally. Then you crack it open with your teeth like a sunflower seed,” he says. “It tastes like a combination of green peas, soy beans, and limburger cheese.”


“Can you eat them raw?” asks one of the dozen or so tour participants, smelling and surveying the seed a few inches from his lips.


“I wouldn’t advise it,” Brill replies casually. “They’re poisonous raw.”


* * *


Brill, a self-taught forager and New York City native, has been running his 4-hour tours, nine months out the year, in parks in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania since April of 1982. In 31 years, he’s attracted more than 30,000 tour-goers—environmentalists, health enthusiasts, tourists, and students on class outings among them—in groups as small as few people and as large as seventy. Even gourmet chefs like France’s Michele Bras have been known to attend. Though no one is turned away for lack of funds, almost everyone forks over the $20 suggested donation.


Brill may not give the appearance of a seasoned entrepreneur, but between revenue from the tours, and sales from his vegetarian and wild food cookbooks, t-shirts, DVDs, foraging flashcards, a high-power magnifying lens “ideal for botany nature studies,” and $7.99 Wild Edibles app, he’s made a decent business out of what began as a quirky pastime. But Brill says he’d be leading tours even if didn’t pay. He says it’s a calling sooner than a job, and it’s given both pleasure and meaning to his life. On weekends, he gets to bring his nine-year old daughter Violet (yes, deliberately named after the edible flower) to work with him. And his wife of eleven years, Leslie-Anne Brill, a freelance medical writer and poet who he had met on one of his singles tours, sometimes joins him, too.


Over three decades, Brill’s dark curly hair and boyish features gave way to a pith hat and a gray beard. At 63, more than ever before, Brill looks the part of a “Wildman”—a nom de guerre that came to him during a session of “transcendental meditation” in the early eighties. A lot has changed, but nothing in these 31 years has seen more ups and down than his relationship with park authorities, namely New York City Parks Department and the Central Park Conservancy. 


* * *


It all began on March 29, 1986, when undercover park rangers posing as a married couple attended one of Brill’s tours. After four hours of scavenging, the male ranger ducked behind a tree. “'All right, there he is on 81st,’” Brill says in a mocking gruff voice, imitating the ranger. “Every park ranger in New York City popped up behind the bushes,” Brill recalls. He was handcuffed, hauled off to a police station, and charged with criminal mischief. At his arraignment, an unshaven Brill served “Wildman’s 5 Borough Salad”—comprising illegally picked cattail shoots, violets, greenbrier shoots, wood sorrel, Asiatic dayflower, lady's thumb, and dandelion flowers—to reporters and passersby on the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse steps. Footage from the event shows a man in a suit eating the salad, a contemplative expression across his face. “This is not a crime,” he pronounces in between bites. “This is picking weeds.”  


Then NYC Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, whom Brill referred to in interviews with the press as “an enemy of the ecology,” eventually dropped the charges and—amazingly—hired Brill to run the very tour he was arrested for giving only a few weeks prior. Stern even wrote a blurb praising the tours for one of Brill’s foraging books. Recounting the bizarre episode on David Letterman the following May, Brill explained the inanity of it all as follows: “Picking dandelions is fine, cutting down trees is not, and the law doesn’t discriminate.”


* * *


Four years after the dandelion episode, a less pliable adversary came on the scene. Newly appointed Parks Commissioner Betsy Gotbaum didn’t revive the defeated arguments about the sustainability of the New York City parks. Instead, she framed foraging as a public health issue. “I certainly wouldn’t want to encourage people of the city of New York to eat things out of the park where dogs may have urinated or where there’s a lot of carbon monoxide,” she said at a press conference. Brill could continue his tours, but on the condition that he inform tour-goers that food foraged in the park is unfit for human consumption and, for this reason, ought not be picked. He refused and resigned, continuing the tours without the imprimatur of the Parks Department. After the media attention Brill marshaled the last time they put him in handcuffs, the Parks Department chose not to come after him again. Brill was de facto free to carry on as before.


But was there some truth to Gotbaum’s arguments? That people might get sick eating vegetation picked out of city parks is no doubt an appropriate concern for a Parks Commissioner. Brill acknowledges that vegetation within 50 or so feet of traffic can be contaminated, that occasionally dogs do their business on or near edible vegetation, that some edible plants (young cattail shoots, for instance) bear a close resemblance to poisonous ones (daffodil)—in short, that for a novice forager to go off on his own would be a bad idea indeed. But guided by Brill’s expertise, three decades of tour-goers have chowed on sheep sorrel and drank spicebush tea without falling ill.


The policy implications stemming from this fact are wildly counter-intuitive: the most sensible measure park authorities can take to prevent newbies from eating the wrong thing may be to rehire Brill and bring foraging aboveboard. Short of a harsh and very public crackdown on the practice (fines, arrests, etc.), unauthorized foraging will continue despite park regulations as it has in the past. The only viable way forward may be through smart policy aimed at educating the public about what can be picked safely and sustainably and what cannot. And Wildman Steve Brill may be just the man to run such a program.


But park authorities think otherwise. In the last few years, the Central Park Conservancy has once again taken up a campaign against foraging. On the organization’s website, it reads: “Foraging damages the Park's plants, deprives wildlife of food and threatens the Park's horticultural diversity… While a single pluck may seem harmless, a single pluck repeated 38 million times (by each of the Park's visitors annually) wouldn't leave much.”


“The argument of ‘what if everyone did something?’ is specious,” Brill says. “What if everyone rode a bicycle into Times Square? Should we ban bicycles? The fact of the matter is that everyone does not do every activity, that many people do many different activities.” Brill concedes that in a hypothetical scenario where millions of foragers descended on Central Park, foraging would become problematic. But Brill has been leading foraging tours since 1982, in large groups and in the same places for the same plants. And he maintains that everything he picks—mostly weeds the Conservancy has been trying for years to eradicate—continues to regenerate. “Ask them,” Brill says, “where is there one spot where the garlic mustard is gone? Where are the violets gone? Where did the walnut tree fall over because we ate the walnuts? Where have all the squirrels died of starvation because we collected a few acorns?”


The Conservancy isn’t satisfied by this logic. In an e-mail to this reporter, Neil Calvanese, Vice President of Operations at the Central Park Conservancy, wrote: "Central Park is man-designed, man-made, and man-maintained. It's not a self-sustaining natural landscape—the only thing that keeps it sustained is the work the Conservancy does in the field. It's as managed and planned as any one of the City's botanic gardens—the only difference is that there's no admission. No New Yorker would ever think about picking a plant from a botanic garden, and the exact same should hold true in Central Park."


Before responding, Brill clears his throat by mentioning that Calvanese didn’t always subscribe to this “bureaucratic way of thinking.” When Calvanese still worked at the Parks Department, he had asked Brill to do a tour just for the Urban Park Rangers. “The idea that the only difference between the botanic gardens and Central Park is admission is simply asinine,” Brill says. “Anyone can see the difference between a bed of cultivated flowers and a thicket overrun with weeds. Anyone with knowledge of the history of Central Park knows that [Central Park architect] Frederick Olmstead was trying to create a naturalistic park that would be the opposite of the formal garden parks of his day.” (Incidentally, the New York Botanical Garden does have some wild areas, and they’ve hired Brill more than once to lead foraging tours through them.)


* * *


This, I regret to inform the reader, is a tale without a conclusion. Brill and his emulators have had little success spurring a permanent change in officialdom’s attitude toward foraging. And for its part, officialdom hasn’t managed to stop them either. For the foreseeable future, park authorities and foragers will continue to uneasily coexist. The Wildman has no intention of retiring. He is perennial and invasive and more difficult to get rid of than the hairiest of weeds.




Follow David on Twitter @davidkortava



Conservation, Ecology, New York City, Urbanism