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Tuesday, May 19, 1998 Published at 18:04 GMT 19:04 UK

Back to nature - New York style

The New York sky-scrapers hide a wealth of natural food

This week, those with environmentally-friendly aspirations in the United States have been celebrating Earth Day. People have been encouraged to do their little bit to get closer to nature and look after the planet. Miles Warde joined some aspiring environmentalists and survivalists in New York for a culinary tour of Central Park.

The queen of New York gossip is a writer called Cindy Adams. People describe her as an institution, and with her piled-up hair and smirky little mouth, you can easily see why.

Cindy writes every day for the New York Post. Her subject is simple - who is doing what to whom, and why - and her column always ends with the same line. Only in New York, kids, she says, only in New York. But only when I met Wild Man Steve Brill did I begin to understand what she meant.

Listen to Miles Warde's report in Real Audio
Wild Man Steve Brill - and that is his real name - is not the stuff of gossip columnists, although he was once all over the New York papers. But I will come to that in a moment. No, the Wild Man is merely a talkative 49 year-old with a beard who leads safaris through Central Park in Manhattan.

With his pith helmet and his backpack, the Wild Man travels from 72nd Street on the west to Fifth Avenue on the east, and then back via the reservoir to 86th. Nobody sees anything ironic in this - at least not on my tour - even though there are jumbo jets overhead, and yellow taxis gliding by.

Tours always begin with a roll call - Aaron, Mike, Ronnie, Rafael, Rick, Ramona .... 12 of us in all, and then the Wild Man makes everyone sign a consent form. This ensures that if you are knocked down by a rollerblader then you cannot sue the tour leader for damages.

Then the Wild Man offers everyone some salad, which he has made from fresh-picked lily shoots and ginger, and Mike is handed a pile of publicity sheets to give out, just in case passersby are interested in what we are doing. Many are, but they tend to keep their distance.

Now while the Wild Man is interested in wildlife - at one point on the tour he indicates a hollow tree which might be home to a raccoon - the main focus of his safari is vegetation, and in particular how to cook it.

The fruit of the gingko tree for example should be cracked open, he says, and roasted, 25 minutes at 275 degrees, while the root of the cat-tail is quite good when fried. Dandelion though has a slight bitterness to it, "which is great if you like slightly bitter-tasting food," he says.

And as he talks, he explains the benefits of these plants - gingko is good for the memory; common mallow for indigestion; while mugwort works a treat on menstrual cramps. It is fascinating stuff, and the Wild Man is a natural when it comes to public speaking. "I was born a Jew, and raised a Jew," he tells me, "but boy do I like the ham!"

Ramona, who's a single mother and does not trust modern medicine for her child, thinks the Wild Man might be one of the most important people left on the planet.

'Man arrested for eating Central Park'

On March 29 1986 Wild Man Steve Brill - and this is where we come to the 'only in New York' part of the story - was arrested while on safari in Central Park.

He had just picked a wild dandelion when two undercover members of the New York Parks enforcement patrol put him in handcuffs and escorted him to a police station. There they took his mugshot and his fingerprints, and told him he could serve a year in jail if convicted of criminal mischief for removing vegetation from the park.

On being released the Wild Man called every newspaper, TV station and wire service. "Man arrested for eating Central Park!" ran the headlines. Later he served wild plant salad to reporters on the steps of the Manhattan Criminal Court House, and the press, he says, ate it up. In time the City Parks Commissioner dropped the charges - and eventually hired the Wild Man to lead exactly the same tour he had been running when he was arrested.

I rang up Cindy Adams to see if she remembered the story, but the Queen of New York gossip never returns calls. She's too busy reporting on the rock star who has spent $2m on new windows, or the woman who hired a young Princess Diana as a nanny.

The Wild Man's story was simply too strange; and besides, who is ever been interested in decade old news? But the Wild Man is still in business, though these days he has gone freelance, chatting away to followers who think he might just be one of the most important people left on the planet.

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