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Ways of Seeing: Foraging for New Sources of Nourishment

A few hours walk through Central Park has forever changed the way I see the world around me.

Sounds dramatic, I know. But there is no other way to describe the shift that has taken place between how I perceived the world before the walk and now.

Let me explain. Take a typical road trip – say you’re traveling up the Taconic Parkway from Manhattan to the Hudson River Valley. On a typical July day, if you were a passenger like I was last weekend, you might look outside your car window, appreciating the green of the trees, the whites, soft reds, warm yellows and bright oranges of the flowers growing wild along the roadside. Say you idled, briefly, at a rest stop, to take a smoke break, eat a snack or walk your dog. Your eyes would have briefly registered the greens of the weeds growing alongside the parking lot. If you were particularly observant you might have noticed some of the delicate shapes of their leaves or seedpods, glanced at the clover and wonder if there were any lucky four-leaves. Had you walked a little ways into the woods, your shirt might have caught on some brambles, and if you knew what to look for you, you then might have found some perfectly right black raspberries, waiting for you to pick, eat and savor. But all in all, if you were like me before my Central Park experience, the drive would have been mostly a visually-pleasing journey, with perhaps a few wild berries as a treat.

Last Saturday I drove up the Taconic, but it was following a 4-hour tour of Central Park, foraging for wild foods as guided by “Wildman” Steve Brill, a wild foods enthusiast who has been guiding the curious and uninitiated – like me – for more than 30 years. And while I expected to have fun, learn a few things, and gather some food, I had no idea how dramatically he would shift my very perceptions of the world around me. In teaching our group to observe the plants around us, name their characteristics and discern which parts are edible, which are delicious, which are dangerous and which to discard, he provided a new framework for me to interact with the world.

Let’s return to the Taconic Parkway. I had just learned that careful discernment along the edges of the park, amidst the wood, in the weedy patches, could lead to unexpected nutritional bounties. If one pays attention to the shape of the leaves, their arrangement on a plant, the small little cues, you can easily discern where the poison ivy is hiding, the difference between a berry that will kill you, and a berry that will delight your tastebuds. Thanks to some careful looking along the edge of the northern pond, before exiting the park at 110th street, my fellow adventurer Emory and I had found a half dozen red clover flowers, prized for their sweet taste. As Emory drove up the Taconic, I looked out the passenger window, lazily dreaming about the kind of foraging that the woods of our destination in Columbia County might provide, as I noticed the red clover out the window – vast sweeps of it. So many flowers meant food to my newly acquired way of seeing. I could have covered a 100 wedding cakes with the purple/red petals! Then, day lilies. Much like the squash blossoms that sell for ~$6 a small box in the Union Square farmer’s market, day lilies are edible and delicious. Just take the flowers, remove the green ends and stuff the petals with cheese, other spreads, fruit or grains. Many people grow them in their yards, and for good reason – their bright orange petals make them a vibrant addition to summer gardens. But they also proliferate along roadsides, especially near creeks, during the summer. As we passed dozens of stands of the flowers, all I could think about was the marvelous food growing along the roadside, like an endless farmer’s market with a neon sign that read “free for the taking – all you can pick.” We stopped just south of Hudson, watching the sun begin to set over the Hudson River Valley. I read the sign about the history of the area, and then walked along the edge of the parking lot, wondering what I might find. It didn’t take long to learn the answer. More red clover. Yellow wood sorrel – those heart-shaped leaves that get confused as clover, but are actually another plant entirely, as delicious as a slightly tart strawberry. Lambs quarters, a green that you can eat like spinach, growing bountifully. I walked up the little path, encouraged by what I might find. Caught on the thorns of a bramble bush, I found those ripe berries, a real treat. Further back, a stand of garlic mustard, which I harvested for its seeds.

Now I’m back in Brooklyn, and on my morning run today I noticed less of the cracks in the sidewalk, and more of the plants along the way. More lambs quarters, dandelion greens (which sell for a couple dollars a pound), and so much poor man’s pepper that I could make feast worthy of Cruella DeVil. There’s a lot of talk in cities these days about food deserts and food justice. We live in a society so out of balance that for people living in poverty, the challenge is rarely lack of calories, it’s lack of nutrition. Changes in global food prices result in real shortages – much has been written about the links between the Arab Spring and global food prices. Andrew Zolli & Ann Marie Healy begin their book Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back with the case of the Mexican “tortilla riots” of 2007. As a kid, I learned that food came from packages you get from the grocery store and markets, originating in farms and factories. The only real link I had to foraging was a dim memory, when my grandfather was still alive, of the whole family going to hunt morel mushrooms in the wooded hills of Southern Indiana. Like the truffle pigs of southern france, Grandpa had a real knack for finding morels, those delicacies that go for $25 or more in many markets. But foraging seemed like a thing of the past.

If I had only known – when I was a kid picking those heart-shaped faux clover leaves, that I could have been getting a tasty and nutritious snack at the same time. If my parents had only known – how to show me how to recognize these treats among the weeds. If our society only knew how much is waiting to be harvested, even here in the city.

My personal shift seems to be part of a much larger one. Farmer’s markets, organic farming, paleo diets and gluten-free foods. More and more people are beginning to recognize the perils of being so far away from the source of what we eat, of the dangers of highly processed food. As affirmation of this, corporations seem to be coming up with clever new ways to package “all-natural” food to sell to us. But that’s not where we will find our lost vitality.

The wild foraging tour gave me a new lens with which to see the world. Everywhere I turn now, I see food ready to be eaten where before I saw weeds – if I noticed them at all. The plants that grow in the cracks of the city won’t easily provide all of my nutritional needs yet in the past six days I’ve had many meals with foraged items serving the role of key ingredients. Foraging for wild food connects me more to the world right in front of my eyes, and the present moment. Part of resiliency is having an arsenal of tools at one’s disposal, to adapt to shifting changes. The ability to see and harvest the plants around me as food and medicine makes the 4 hours & $20 donation for the tour an incredibly smart investment.

Check out Steve’s website for information on joining tours of Central Park, Prospect Park and many other locations in the tri-state area. His site is a treasure trove of information, and his iPhone/iPad/Android apps have even more. Note that he also provides significant details on discerning between edible and deadly plants, and that it is important to be cautious when first learning about edible wild foods.

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