Everything about opening up a restaurant in Narrowsburg made sense to Laura Silverman. The town, two hours from New York City, was starting to get hipster cred. Her passion for foraging and locally-sourced cooking would provide the weekend visitors the kind of farm-to-table experience that they craved.
She worked on the project for two years before she fell out with her partner in 2016.
“I was truly depressed when I walked away from that,” she says. “And I truly felt broken down.”
It was the middle of winter, and money was low. Her husband asked her to write on a piece of paper what she envisioned herself doing. She, grudgingly, obliged.
The first item: Spend as much time out in the woods as possible. A couple of years later, she’s doing exactly that. What happened in those two years is both a testament to how honest she was with herself, and the way in which she’s lived her life.
So let’s start at the beginning, because woods have played a major part in her life since childhood. The daughter of a Spanish literature professor and half-Chicano mother, Silverman grew up in among the coastal redwoods of Santa Cruz.
Interspersed with trips to Spain while her father was on sabbatical, coming of age in Santa Cruz in the 1970s gave her both a deep appreciation of nature and exposure to an international mix of artists and academics. Eager to see a world beyond Santa Cruz though, she went to college at Harvard where she forged lifelong friendships.
The glamour and danger and excitement of New York City was just a bus ride away, so after graduating in 1985 she moved there ready to soak it all in, but without much of a plan.
“I fell into copywriting because I wanted to be a real writer but just didn’t really do it,” she says. “I spent a lot of years not really living from a place of my true passion.”
She landed in the fashion industry, working for Bergdorf Goodman, Saks and Coach, but never stayed too long at any one job. “I never lasted more than a couple of years,” she says. “I get tired of doing the same thing over and over. I like my freedom.”
The writing enabled her to travel, but she loved the confines of the concrete jungle. She fell in love and married a couple of times. Tragedy struck when her third husband fell ill. They moved to Los Angeles, where he later passed, and it was there that she began reconnecting with nature.
“I was under so much stress,” she remembers. “And I found solace in nature.”
A couple of years after she moved back to New York in 2003, she visited a friend who had bought 50 acres in Sullivan County, which is located in the Catskills. It reminded her of Santa Cruz. Soon, she was closing on a cabin up there.
Four years later, she would move up permanently with her new partner, leaving the city life in the rear-view. Sure, she still gets down to New York for dentist and dermatology appointments, but she spends most of her time exploring the trails and the flora and fauna of her adopted home. She began posting photos of her hikes on Facebook, with photos and commentary about the plantlife encountered.
She expanded in her blog, Glutton for Life, with foraging guides and botanical cocktail recipes. The feedback she got gave her the feeling she was on to something. Then, the restaurant idea collapsed, and the white sheet of paper came out.
The Outside Institute was born.
“It really arose out of a desire to bring my passion for the natural world to other people,” she says.
Founded in 2017, The Outside Institute offers hikes and workshops on things like crafting botanical cocktails and tincturing. And it is all Silverman. For example, our conversation was delayed a few days because she was on a foraging expedition.
The Institute recently published its first field guide, a nicely-designed catalog intended for aspiring naturalists, but more accessible than most guides. She’s also put together and hosted a couple of dinner series on foraged food and is currently working on a book on the same subject.
Keep in mind, publishing books, hosting dinner series and creating workshops are all things Silverman has never done before at this level. So how does she do it?
“One fucking foot in front of the other,” she says. “I’m 55 and I don’t understand people that talk about retirement. That’s so foreign to me. I don’t have some retirement fund ready to go when I’m 60. I literally stepped into this place of discovering my passion when I was in my 50s, and I’m just raring to go.”
“I don’t feel old in any way, or older,” she continued, “If anything I feel younger, I feel I tapped into this source of energy of how much I know there is to learn. The more I learn about the natural world, the more I have this feeling of being a novice. I’m new to it. And I have the energy and interest and curiosity.”