"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