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Zez says: The Call of the Wildman

Published 3:24 pm, Monday, August 18, 2014
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As a homebody whose idea of communing with nature is to open the windows, I could never see the forest for the trees, or even the mushrooms for the pizza, which is why I went on a nature walk recently with a guy who knows all about trees and mushrooms. He also makes his own pizza.

I naturally refer to "Wildman" Steve Brill, a naturalist who is a natural at taking people on nature walks, not just because he knows which mushrooms are good on pizza and which can kill you, but because for him, joking is second nature.

"I'm a funny guy," Wildman told me when we met at Belmont Lake State Park in West Babylon, N.Y. "And when I see mushrooms," he added, "I'm a fungi."

Like a fungus, Wildman's delightfully corny jokes grow on you, even though the 25 people who had signed up for the walk didn't see any corn.

"If you walk far enough," he told me, "you may develop corns."

Wildman, whose beard and mustache grow on him, and whose glasses and pith helmet make him look like a jungle professor, is billed on his website (www.wildmanstevebrill.com) as "America's Go-to Guy for Foraging." At 65, he has seen the forage for the trees for 32 years, during which he has taken nature lovers and mushroom pizza aficionados on excursions throughout the Northeast, including Fairfield County.

He was even arrested by park rangers in 1986 for eating a dandelion while giving a tour in Central Park in New York City.

"I was charged with criminal mischief," Wildman remembered, adding that the case was eventually dropped. "I guess they were afraid I would eat the whole park."

There was no such concern on our walk.

"Will we see a lot of flora?" I asked Wildman as we got started.

"I don't think Flora is in this group," he replied, "but it would be nice to see a lot of her."

The first thing we saw was the common plantain, a lawn and garden weed that not only can be used on mosquito bites (you have to apply the juice to the affected area), but also can be eaten, as Wildman proved by producing some leaves he had cooked at home and passing them around so we could munch on them.

"I garnished them with parsley, sage and rosemary," he said.

"Not thyme?" I asked, referring to the lyrics in the Simon & Garfunkel song "Scarborough Fair."

"That's Scarborough unfair," said Wildman, who also showed us a plant called Curly Dock. "Not to be confused," the Three Stooges fan noted, "with Moe Dock and Larry Dock."

Then we saw and tasted succulent, delicious wineberries. "They're dangerous because you can die of happiness," Wildman said as he popped some in his mouth. "They're berry good."

One thing that can kill humans is poison ivy, but only if you light it on fire and breathe in the smoke. "Do you know the only person who is immune to poison ivy smoke?" Wildman asked the group. When no one answered, he said, "Bill Clinton. He doesn't inhale."

Poison ivy flowers, Wildman added, are "beautiful but deadly, like my ex-girlfriend."

Then there are mushrooms, only about 1 percent of which are poisonous, such as the amanita. Wildman held one and said, "It's even worse for you than school lunch."

Most others, he added, are perfectly safe to eat, like the bolete.

"They're good with just about anything," Wildman said as he showed us a large specimen he had dug up from the ground.

"It's a 'shroom with a view," I offered.

"I'll have to remember that one," Wildman said.

His entire nature walk was memorable, the perfect combination of education and entertainment.

"I make foraging fun," Wildman said when the walk was over. Then he handed me a hunk of bolete to take home.

"It'll make a great mushroom pizza," he said. "Any way you slice it."

Stamford native Jerry Zezima is the author of "Leave It to Boomer" and "The Empty Nest Chronicles." Visit his blog: www.jerryzezima.blogspot.com. Email: JerryZ111@optonline.net.