New York City is not a place I associate with fresh food growing on front lawns and city parks. If I were in the mood for a quick snack, I wouldn’t look to the streets. Well, not until my recent trip to Portland and to Central Park with “Wildman” Steve Brill and his 12-year-old daughter, Violet Brill, when I learned New York City’s streets offer more than meets the eye.
Like most New Yorkers, the closest I come in a year to thinking about nature is wondering what the weather’s like. I have no need to look beyond that. Unlike people who live off the land, I live off supermarkets and bodegas. There simply isn’t a need for me to keep track of seasonality or growing periods, merely whether or not extra layers are required. This widespread disconnect is at its height in the NYC summertime. For the majority of us, summertime signals many of the same, long-awaited events. It signals free concerts, movies, and outdoor seating. It signals a return to the parks and a reopening of beaches. But for a select few, the summer signals far more.
For roughly 2 out of every 10 people, the summer signals a long-awaited period of reconnection punctuated by harvest and feast. For these people, New York is more than it ever was to me in my 25 years living here. They see the city as a living ecosystem rather than just overpopulated streets and concrete blocks.
In late October, my friend and I drove to Portland from Seattle on our way to the Grand Canyon and eventually Denver, Colorado. He’d decided to move back to Saint Cloud, Minnesota (Seattle wasn’t for him anymore).
When we’d arrived in Portland, we meandered about for a few hours, and eventually arrived at Spokane Street.
In a word, Spokane is opulent. What first caught my eye was a tomato patch growing beside the paved road. It’s vines stretched out onto the sidewalk like frog’s fingers tipped with green, red, and orange bulbs. Then I noticed the colonnaded porches towering above stepped front lawns full of herbs and vegetables: squash, lemon cucumbers, chives, mint, lavender bushes, more tomatoes, and rosemary bursting over brick edging. This abundance grew strong under the partial shade of apple trees filling the street with their fragrance, overpowered only when nearby green grape vines were so ripe that the smell saturated the air.
We started with the tomatoes—soon enough we were gnawing at everything. My friends and I ate freely, innocently. I thought at any moment we’d be reprimanded. As I walked and ate and marveled, I wondered about childhood on Spokane.
My childhood was undeniably more woodsy than the average New Yorker’s. I traveled to Colombia for long summers, trudging in dirt and damming up rivers, milking cows and feeding fires, catching tadpoles and gutting pigs. In New York, I spent countless hours unearthing worms, centipedes, and mill bugs that I fed to spiders I’d captured in the building’s basement. I whittled arrowheads from fallen shale roofing and dug holes in my building’s lawn where I would hide them, hoping future archeologists might one day uncover them and wonder at their origin.
For all my imagining, it never once occurred to me that I could eat from the streets of New York. One day I was dared to eat a worm. I did. And that’s as close as I’d come. It’s understandable. There is nothing appetizing about streets littered with trash and blackened gum.
After my walk on Spokane, I resolved to revisit the streets of my childhood, in search of the one thing I hadn’t years back. Nourishment. So I contacted “Wildman” Steve Brill, a legendary environmentalist and forager in New York City, who agreed to take me on an urban foraging tour of Central Park.
In simple terms, foraging is combing the earth for vegetables, mushrooms, roots and other plant life that you can eat. Since the 1980s, urban foraging gained popularity in New York City. Now there are classes available and restaurants where foraged goods are sold expensively. Foraging is hard work. And it’s dangerous. One wrong bite could be fatal.
As we completed our field walk in Central Park with Wildman and Violet, I asked fellow foragers what inspired them to forage. I learned that what draws people to foraging is as diverse as the spread itself. Some people told me it was an interest in medicinal plants. Other’s told me they’d read about it, thought Why not? and decided to come along. Others still were interested in the spiritual benefits of foraging, deepening their relationship to plants as a conduit for tapping into the perennial in us all. By the end of the 4-hour-long walk, everyone agreed that they not only wanted to do it again, but that something had permanently changed in the way they saw the city.
Urban foraging teaches us many things. “We learn about plants, botany, and ecology, as well as how people can participate positively in interacting with their local ecosystems,” says Wildman. In New York City, “local ecosystem” is a slippery term. Parks mix with projects that mix with residential homes that mix with corporate buildings. It’s hard to think of brick and mortar as part of the local ecosystem. That’s precisely urban foraging’s power. It alters our perception and our connection to the land.
Us city dwellers are constantly pulled away from the space we inhabit by all manner of distraction. By work, advertisements, bars, people. That’s why urban foraging has such potential. It brings us in contact with place in a way that taps into our empathy and our dependence on the earth. “People who gain environmental awareness and appreciation take better care of our non-renewable resources,” explains Wildman, “they add more voices to the push for conservation.” This change is especially noticeable in children.
At the age of 12, Violet is an expert forager and a self-taught ornithologist. She ran around the park with such confidence and comfort. At one point she discovered a Polonia seedpod. She’d never seen one before and was overjoyed. Her excitement was contagious. Watching her, I felt like a child again. I wanted to know every plant, tree and mushroom I saw. I wanted to know whether I could eat this or that. I wanted to know the stories behind every tree and bush.
She exclaimed at how cool and beautiful the Polonia was, cracking it open and letting all the silky seeds fly out by the hundreds. It’s that very joy that made her say, “That’s so sad!” when she saw a trampled sassafras sprout. This is what Wildman was referring to. That awe of nature translates into empathy, which motivates her to care for the earth, to share in its successes and its failures. Violet believes in global warming, but more intuitively, she loves the earth and its creatures. At her young age, she is a voice of conservation.
After the field walk, I was surprised at how easily I identified plants and flowers Wildman and Violet had shown me growing all over my neighborhood. I picked up a Honey Locust pod and pressed it between my fingers, feeling for the soft and sugary banana-flavored pulp. I ate it happily. That’s when I started to sense the change in me.
I no longer saw the city as a place where nature lives on the fringes and gustatory delights are available only from supermarkets or restaurants. The houses were no longer mere buildings; the sidewalks were no longer deadened pathways; the tree droppings were no longer litter. I saw vitality. I saw a space tied to the Earth, and I felt myself more primitive, more human, and more connected.