Eats Shoots and Leaves

09/27/2006 12:00 AM |

“Hey!” yelled the park ranger, ”This isn’t a free-for-all! You’re not supposed to pick the vegetation!”

I freeze. My skin’s been torn to shreds in search of the ripest blackberries, and if I move quickly it will just make matters worse. I look to our leader for guidance; his smile is unwavering.

“Hi, I’m the Wildman!” he says warmly, as if invoking his title might convince her it’s all a misunderstanding.
“I know Steve, I’ve known you for 24 years.”
“They just put that fence in this year—“
“You have to respect the fence, ok?”
“Ok, would you like a blackberry?”
“No thank you.”

We move onto a less ranger-heavy area and continue the tour.

Steve Brill doesn’t respect fences. In fact, he’s made a career of climbing over them and teaching people about the plants they “protect.” The real key to protecting plants, he says, is education. In his opinion, people are more likely to appreciate nature they can touch and taste than that which they can only view through binoculars. He’s been a naturalist for 25 years, and with daily tours of New York area parks, numerous TV appearances, and two books published, he’s obsessively dedicated. His insanely sunny disposition makes it all the more shocking when he denounces the Central Park Conservancy and their attempts at “conservation.”

“The Conservancy are a bunch of jerks,” he exclaims, “they cut down a lot of wild plants and keep putting in fences and lawns. The purpose of Central Park was to be the first park that looked like a natural forest… it’s really terrible what’s happening here.” I look at the lawns, which resemble big green rugs growing out of the ground. How attractive…

According to Steve, that’s exactly the sort of thinking that contributes to the destruction of urban habitats: the idea that “the park should be like a living room, not an ecosystem.” He believes this mentality causes the Conservancy to harm the very park they’ve sworn to preserve. For example, “they remove all the leaves every year, ‘cause you don’t want leaves on the floor in your living room.” This causes erosion, he tells me, as he points out roots that are two feet above the ground.

“Have you tried talking to them?” I ask, thinking they might welcome suggestions from someone with Brill’s expertise.

“There’s nothing I can do with those people,” he says, and proceeds with the tale of his troubled relationship with authorities. In 1986, “there were undercover agents on one of my tours who put me in handcuffs for eating a dandelion.” He was briefly charged with criminal mischief, but the net effect was free publicity; he was “on everything from Letterman to Dan Rather.” Such exposure might have jumpstarted a lucrative career, but when the park offered him a job conducting tours legally for $10 an hour, Steve accepted gladly, working until his resignation in 1990:

“A new parks commissioner came in,” he explains, “and they reneged on the deal [we] had made… I was supposed to tell people ‘don’t eat the plants, buy the hot dogs!’” Given Steve’s vegan diet and taste for plants, this was unacceptable, so he quit. (Steve now conducts tours by phone appointment; for details, visit wildmanstevebrill.com)

I contact the Conservancy to get their side of the story, figuring they must at least have a statement prepared about why Steve is wrong. Past claims against him have been numerous and farfetched: ”The birds will starve,” (he only picks berries in months of plenty); “People will get sick,” (no one ever has); “These plants have carbon monoxide contamination,” (CO is an inhaled, not an ingestible toxin) and “it destroys the park” (the park seems fine). Amelia Alonso, their PR Manager, says she’s never heard of Mr. Brill and needs to do some research. A few days later, I receive a chilly “no comment.”

This grumpiness is baffling, as foraging with the Wildman is both educational and fun. Steve’s vast knowledge and quirky personality have attracted a large following; today, there are 23 people paying $12 each to taste what the park has to offer. They’re from all over (the Bronx, New Jersey, Japan), and they laugh uproariously at his silly jokes, which he tends to recycle from tour to tour. Nobody, including me, seems to mind; we’re getting the Steve Brill Experience. We even chuckle nervously at his relationship woes.

“Wood sorrel is shaped like hearts, reminds me of my beautiful wife,” he says. “Clover has no heart, therefore it reminds me of my ex-girlfriend who ran off with another guy on Valentine’s Day eleven years ago.” Repeated references to her don’t fare as well, but I’m impressed he can picture his ex girlfriend from eleven years ago while looking at clover, white snake root, deadly nightshade — no easy feat of the imagination.

It also takes imagination to come up with appealing comparisons for some of the plants we find. For example, I try a fruit called the “may apple” that Steve plucks from the ground, saying it tastes “like lemon custard”… instead it makes my glands hurt.

“It’s a little sour,” I observe.

“Yeah, it’s like lemon custard,” he agrees, in the buoyant, Wonka-esque tone that seems to carry him through each day. Though some finds taste like things I shouldn’t put in my mouth, others are delicious. The pale green sheep sorrel, as Steve says, isn’t “ba-a-a-ad,” and the spicebush smells wonderful.

“This is one of the best herb teas in the world and you can’t buy it in the store,” he says of the bush, “alternate leaves, that means each leaf is alone on the stem… because they’re lonely, they’re shaped like teardrops. Waah!” He cries convincingly for 15 seconds. He also tells us that if we were to hide behind a tree “really early in the morning, and peek out at the spice bush, if you’re very lucky you might see one of the Spice Girls.” I find myself laughing… perhaps it’s the berries. Everyone else is laughing, too.

He tells us facts about each plant’s uses throughout history (did you know that little Turkish boys were once given cherry branches to use for swordplay practice?), and while walking, he serenades us on the “Brillophone,” an “instrument” consisting of two cupped hands held in front of his open mouth. He asks me almost as many questions as I ask him, and seems genuinely interested in everyone. He doesn’t drink or do drugs, meditates regularly, and has a young daughter, Violet, with his wife of four years.

In the end, Steve is just a nice guy with a passion for nature. Though he once attended anti-Vietnam protests, he eventually decided that teaching was his true calling. “You have to find your own direction of how you’re gonna contribute… I waited until I was an environmentalist to get arrested.” He sincerely believes he has an impact, reasoning “If you teach people and let them go out and pick the stuff… they’re obviously gonna care more about the habitats where they grow and the planet that produces them. Any five-year-old kid will know that.” And any number of five year olds who have gone on his tours, “natural foragers” as Steve calls them, would probably agree. If only they could convince the grownups, we might be on our way to a new understanding of what it means for urbanites to be citizens of the environment.