Janet Thomas of Upstate New York forages red clover on a rainy day at Inwood Hill Park in Upper Manhattan. (Photo by Madeleine Foley)

Can You Dig It?

Finding nourishment where others see weeds …a foraging story.

By Madeleine Foley and Audrey Gray

Six months into the Trump administration, any conversation in America about “the environment” is a political minefield. But in fields and forests up and down the East Coast, the vitriol falls away as urban foragers gather together to get their hands dirty. As Lynn Landes, founder of the Wild Foodies of Philly puts it, “You get your military survivalist types on the one hand and your left-wing survivalists on the other.”

Foraging is the adventurous act of gathering edibles from the wild, even if the wild is Manhattan’s Central Park. A new crop of naturalists, dedicated to sharing the art of eating hyper-local, has arisen to accommodate the growing interest in harvesting greens, berries, fruits and roots.

Meet the masters of the ultimate grab ’n’ go snack…

“I was born Jewish, but put me in front of a camera and I turn into a ham,” says “Wildman” Steve Brill, posing here with his homemade burdock root “jerky.” (Photo: Madeleine Foley)

STEVE BRILL

Though he grew up in Queens, “Wildman” Steve Brill has certainly earned his nickname. No casual forager, Brill’s prolific career as an outdoor guru has spanned over three decades. Five books, a digital app, and one foraging-related arrest later (don’t worry, the New York parks department dropped the charges), the East Coast’s go-to guide for urban foraging is always on the move, riding the constant wave of tour requests from those eager to turn public parks into their personal grocery stores.

“Wildman” Steve Brill has been a professional forager for over 30 years. On a rainy Saturday morning, Brill leads a tour of fledgling foragers on a walk through Inwood Hill Park. (Photo by Madeleine Foley)

On a gray Saturday morning, people gather around the chess boards in Manhattan’s Inwood Hill Park, talking amongst themselves about what, or more appropriately, who, had dragged them out of bed this early. Among the nine of them are a pair of budding herbalists, and an amateur forager whose interest was sparked when “Wildman” Steve spoke at her local library eight years ago.

Brill, clad in a protective hard hat, stands confidently at the center.

Over the next four hours, the aspiring naturalists will taste red mulberries, linden tree flowers, lambs-quarters, and mustard garlic, dig up burdock root, and sample the Wildman’s many foraged, vegan recipes. To walk with the Wildman is to see greenery in a new light, and his latest round of students depart with full stomachs and fresh eyes.

The student becomes the master, as Conor Roshford hands off the trowel after harvesting burdock root for the first time. (Photo by Madeleine Foley)
Chuan Lu of Manhattan savors a taste of freshly-foraged mustard garlic while on a tour with “Wildman” Steve Brill. (Photo by Madeleine Foley)

“This is the missing piece of our emergency,” says foraging teacher Dan De LIon. (Video by A. Gray)

DAN DE LION

The philosopher’s forager, Dan De Lion is an East Coast nomad, traveling from state to state teaching classes on natural living. Dan himself lives out of his van and mostly eats what he can forage or hunt (he’s not adverse to bow hunting and roasting squirrels). He chronicles his path—literal and philosophical—for followers around the world at Return to Nature.


“Have you ever been arrested for trespassing?” we asked. “In my life?…Have you Googled that?” replied Siller. (Audio by A.Gray)

DAVID SILLER

A lot of foragers teach for a living—and New Jersey-based David Siller does a little of that—but Siller is one of the rare wild-edible gatherers who has also learned to market the goods he collects by hand. For the last 10 years, Siller has run a business selling foraged berries, roots, mushrooms, greens and fruits to a shortlist of elite East Coast chefs and wholesalers.

Siller has been referred to as a “Life Artist,” a title he happily accepts. He once even caught and cooked a groundhog…in a stew. His review? “Relatively pleasant but not bangin’, a cross between beef and chicken.”


COULD YOU BE THE NEXT FORAGING FRONTRUNNER?

For aspiring foragers willing to chart a DIY route, “Wildman” Steve Brill has recently launched a foraging app.

Despite recent Congressional actions, the United States still has over 618 million acres of public land. Whether out with a guide or armed with an iPhone, that’s plenty of room to source your next meal.

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