Friday, August 7, 2009

Living off the land in Central Park

Well, I finally did it. I went on a Central Park foraging trip with "Wildman" Steve Brill. Years ago, in our Mother-Earth-News-let's-live-off-the-land days, my husband and I knew quite a lot about wild edibles. I've read all of Ewell Gibbons, and some of it has stuck; I regularly harvest the purslane and chickweed that comes up in my garden. But years of living in New York have dimmed my foraging fervor; Though nettles are one of my favorite spring greens, I don't pick them myself. I buy them at the farmer's market. So though I've known about Brill's trips for years, I'd never before summoned up the energy to go on one.

While we were waiting for all 50 of us to get there, I did a little mental math. Fifty people at $15 a pop, times a hundred-plus foraging tours a year (only a fraction of them in Central Park) - this is not a bad business to be in. Of course, a trip on a cold February day probably doesn't get 50 people; on the other hand there are school demonstrations and private events, and book sales...

It is also a lot of work. We didn't walk fast, we stopped often, but after four hours of ups and downs around the northern part of the park, I was pretty bushed.

I went, as you can tell from my opening calculations, as a bit of a skeptic. I was waiting for Brill to produce something new, and when his first three stops were for blackberries, wood sorrel and chickweed, I began to feel let down (especially as the blackberries were behind a fence and not yet ripe).

But by the time we were chewing on black birch twigs

and digging for sassafras roots,
and nibbling garlic mustard and poor man's pepper, I was hooked. I knew that crushed jewelweed leaves are a remedy for poison ivy. But I didn't know that you can make a skin lotion out of jewelweed stems and witchhazel. I didn't know (and am not sure I believe) that there is a cancer-causing toxin in raw mushrooms - at least according to Brill - and you should always cook them. I may once have known, but I had most certainly forgotten, that black birch twigs taste like wintergreen, and though I'd heard of cheeses (one of the many nicknames for mallow) I'd never in my life seen them, much less eaten them.

But though I enjoyed myself, I'm left wondering - what is the point it? It's not as though I'm going to take to the park every weekend in search of food. While Brill doesn't hesitate to climb fences and otherwise break what I presume is a long list of Central Park rules (a ranger we met along the way told us that 25 years ago, she'd been instructed to arrest Brill), I haven't got his hardihood. (Even he has his limits; after we dug up a bunch of sassafras roots, he told us to hide them in our backpacks.
We know that we're not hurting the plant by digging them up, he said, but it doesn't look good to be walking around the park clutching roots.)

But perhaps I can look at my garden with something of a new perspective. And not just at my garden, but at those bits of waste land scattered all over the city. The barrier between food and not-food, it turns out, is permeable. And that's well worth the knowing.

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