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Fine Dining for Free
Steve Brill, who was once arrested for eating dandelions, is adored by even the most finicky fifth grader.

Photo of Steve Brill"Krista has just volunteered to be bitten by a mosquito! Help! 911! She's dying of itch-itis!" Krista pulls her shoulders up like a turtle and grins sheepishly as 15 fellow campers huddle around her giggling.

"Wildman" Steve Brill, clad in quick-dry khakis that zip off at the knees and brand any true nature nut, is taking a group of 11-year-olds into New York's Central Park on a tour of the city's finest wild edible plants. With quick, theatrical motions, he folds a leaf several times and mashes it up to get the juices flowing before dramatically rubbing it on his arm. "If you've got a mosquito bite, do this for 15 minutes," he says. "It's good for anything that hurts your skin." He unfolds the leaf and wraps it tightly around his forefinger. "A Band-Aid!" comes a voice from the gaggle.

Brill has been teaching the group of fifth graders how to identify an inedible, weedy looking plant called the common plantain -- oval leaf, parallel veins, grows on lawns. As the morning goes on, they learn to identify wood sorrel -- "tastes like lemonade!" -- amaranth, lamb's quarters, lady's thumb, and a few not-to-eats like poison ivy and white snake root (good for poisoning teachers, though, Brill says, inciting another round of giggles).

Brill is selling himself as much as the great outdoors. Yet while teaching kids about their natural surroundings is a business for him, it's clear his motivations run deeper. In the mid-1990s, there was a precipitous decline in outdoor education and experiential learning that corresponded with the ramping up of standardized testing. Some educators and psychologists believe that children are now suffering from the disconnection of their lives from the natural world. Brill isn't out to fill that void, per se, but he's certainly helping by getting kids interested in the environment.

At lunchtime, Brill has an hour to himself. He sits not too far away from where the kids are playing stuck-in-the-mud with their counselors -- his tour is part of their summer camp program -- and pulls an aging Tupperware container from his backpack. He peels off the top and digs into what appears to be lasagna. With his mouth full and operating on overdrive, he rattles off the ingredients: mushrooms, tofu, peppers. He considers his vegan diet a protest against the havoc factory farms wreak on the environment.

Brill had never given much thought to where his food came from until the late 1970s, when he saw a couple of Greek women harvesting grape leaves in Cunningham Park in Queens, New York. He was working as a chef at the time, so he followed suit. He began collecting books about local plants, and when he wasn't wandering around the American Museum of Natural History or the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, he was reading up on the environmental impacts of traditional agriculture.

By 1982, he knew enough to lead weekend nature walks in Central Park. "By the time I started teaching others about edible plants I was a dedicated environmentalist." Four years later, he was arrested by two undercover park rangers for eating a dandelion on one of his tours. His newfound infamy was his "big breakthrough," he says.

Brill made amends with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, and within months, he joined its ranks as a park naturalist. In 1990, he went private again and began to focus on educating children. Working with kids is now Brill's bread and butter. He still runs weekend tours, but this summer he spent several days a week leading day camp field trips throughout the New York metropolitan area.

As Brill bounds up a narrow trail, an eager train of kids bunches up behind him, hooked on his magic. From a distance, you might mistake him for the Pied Piper of Hamelin.
-- Laura Wright

One Painter's DaVinci Code
The contemporary artist Walton Ford has been called "Audubon on Viagra." His work is a kind of anti-homage to the nineteenth-century artist he loves to hate. The Red Kite
Like Audubon, Walton Ford is renowned for his dazzling draftsmanship. But there the two men part company. Ford's paintings are a vehicle for intense moral narratives that deal with how humans relate to the animal world. Here he describes the origins ofRicordazione , his interpretation of a childhood dream of Leonardo da Vinci, which was included in his most recent show at the Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York City.

In one of Leonardo's notebooks there's this weird aside where he tells of making sketches of birds in flight. One of them was a red kite, this enormous but nimble bird that was common in Europe in those days. Leonardo says that when he was a baby, a red kite came down and put its tail in his mouth and then flew off. I believe he took this bizarre pseudomemory as an augury of his genius. The kite is like a messenger that's been sent to him, like a dove in a painting of the Annunciation. And when I painted the baby, I was thinking of a lot of Renaissance art where the Christ child is rendered in ways that anticipate its future greatness and sorrow -- in its expression, its body language. So here the baby is grasping the tail of the kite and thrusting it into its mouth, as if that's an image of Leonardo drawing in his genius.

I've always been interested in how the animal world informs human culture, and vice versa. As Oscar Wilde wrote in The Decay of Lying, there may have been fogs in London for centuries, but we never saw them until artists painted them. He's right: We don't know about certain things in the natural world until art or culture points them out. So this story of Leonardo's was one that just seemed ready-made for me as an artist.

It reminded me so much of Audubon, who also had an animal story that had a huge and lasting impact on him. His father was a sea captain who had brought home quite a menagerie of exotic pets, including a red howler monkey and a green parrot. Audubon was feeding the parrot one day when the monkey walked over and strangled it. After that, he said, not a day went past without his thinking of the parrot, and that was what caused him to become a bird artist. And then, of course, he ended up slaughtering hundreds of birds, and not just as models for his paintings. He'd just blast away at them as they flew by and then watch them limp away. There was a kind of redneck malevolence to the whole thing. I don't want to tear down Audubon's accomplishments. He was a brilliant naturalist, and he was a persistent -- if not brilliant -- artist. But let's be honest. He wasn't exactly your Audubon Society type. He was more of a Nascar, I-love-my-gun type. But it's his complexity that makes him so interesting. What irritates me is when people say, oh, you can't judge him by modern standards, he has to be judged by the standards of his time. To which I say, fine -- judge him by the standards of Thoreau and Emerson. Thoreau wouldn't have harmed a fly.

More Frontlines
Wind Resistance
Auction Madness
Back to School
Eat Me, Iím Safe
Fine Dining for Free
One Painter's DaVinci Code

Frontline Fact

LAKES IN SIBERIA have vanished in the past 30 years as a result of melting permafrost. The total surface area covered by lakes declined by about 6 percent over the same period.

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Photo: Steve Halin
Painting: Courtesy of Paul Kasmin Gallery and the artist, photo by Adam Reich
OnEarth. Fall 2005
Copyright 2005 by the Natural Resources Defense Council