Fellow adventurist Laura Chávez Silverman wants to help us connect to the healing and transformative powers of nature. She’s also created a modern field guide to reacquaint us with the plants, critters, and curiosities that roam right outside.
Spring is in the air. Trees are good company. We talk to her about the joys of foraging in wide-open spaces.
You call yourself a naturalist (and we love it); what is a naturalist?
A naturalist is a student of nature. There are levels of expertise but, for me, it’s an endless education.
“Humanity’s extreme disconnection from the wild runs contrary to our true nature”
Tell us a little bit about The Outside Institute and what inspired you to start it.
Coming into greater alignment with nature radically changed my life for the better and turned me into a bit of an evangelist. Humanity’s extreme disconnection from the wild runs contrary to our true nature and we’re feeling the call to get back to where we belong. So, I founded The Outside Institute in 2017 to help people reconnect to the healing and transformative power of the natural world.
Foraging and Balancing the Ecosystem
Where do you forage and what do you most love to forage for?
I forage in the Catskills, where I live, but also wherever I travel, from California to Greece. My favorite local forage might be black trumpet mushrooms. Or ramps. Or paw paws. Or spicebush berries. OK, I can’t pick just one thing! I do love it when I find a delicious plant that’s deemed “invasive” — like Japanese knotweed, mugwort, garlic mustard and so many others — because then foraging also becomes a great tool to help balance the ecosystem.
What surprises you the most about foraging in the East Coast?
I’m delighted that I continue to discover new wild edibles — like toothwort, a plant whose roots taste like wasabi! And last summer I had a wonderful time fermenting almost every flower I could find, from black locust to goldenrod. The resulting fizzy elixirs were magically delicious.
What would surprise others?
Others might be surprised by how easy it is to forage in urban environments.
I routinely encounter people who want to rely on rules of thumb they learned from their Russian aunt — like “all brown mushrooms are OK,” which is akin to saying all white people are OK. This is not good information!
How well do you know your mushrooms?
The mushrooms I know, I know very well. But there are about 10,000 named mushrooms — and this is just a fraction of the totality. It’s a steep learning curve. Many varieties are toxic and some can be deadly, so it’s vital to be absolutely certain you have identified a mushroom correctly before you eat it. (This holds true for all wild foods, really.) I routinely encounter people who want to rely on rules of thumb they learned from their Russian aunt— like “all brown mushrooms are OK,” which is akin to saying all white people are OK. This is not good information! The best news is that lots of the most delicious wild mushrooms, like morels, hen of the woods, black trumpets and lion’s mane, are quite easy to identify and have few toxic look-alikes.
“Foragers need reliable field guides”
If we wanted to do this ourselves, forage in your neck of the woods (sorry for the pun), how would we go about it?
Foragers need reliable field guides. Anything by the extraordinary Samuel Thayer is a good place to start. Euell Gibbons, another of my foraging heroes, once said that you can try to describe the difference between a head of iceberg lettuce and a head of cabbage, but actually showing it to someone is a lot more effective. So, a real life mentor is invaluable. I offer a series of monthly foraging classes that runs from May to September. I also incorporate some of this education into all my nature walks, pointing out whatever edible plants and mushrooms we encounter.
What to Look for This Spring
It’s nearly spring — what do we have to look forward to in the next couple
Early March is the moment to tap birch and maple trees for sap. Young, tender greens will soon start to emerge — like wild daisy, garlic mustard, nettles, and all the cresses. Then, it’s time for ramps — those funky wild leeks. I also love cattail shoots with their fresh, cucumber-like taste and Dryad’s saddle, a mushroom that smells a bit like watermelon rind. Next, we’ll be on the lookout for morels. I can feel my pulse racing.
Creating Accessible Field Guides
You’ve created a really lovely set of field guides. What inspired them, and what’s inside?
I realized that field guides with lots of Latin and dense botanical information were a bit intimidating for many budding naturalists. So, I decided to produce a more accessible introduction, written in lay terms, to the most prevalent flora, fauna and fungi of this region. They include detailed illustrations, clear descriptions for identification, facts about medicinal, craft and culinary usage, and even some recipes highlighting wild flavors. The volumes are seasonal, so you can take them out into the field and more easily identify what’s around.
Which love came first for you, writing or nature?
Definitely nature. I grew up in Santa Cruz, California, where the redwoods meet the Pacific ocean, and the natural world has always held a deep fascination for me. My passion for words and language is in my blood, though. I come from a long line of teachers and writers.
A Perfect Pairing: Nature Walks and Cocktails
We hear your cocktails are a bit famous?
A favorite offering of The Outside Institute is our “Walktails” — a walk in nature, followed by drinks (with and without spirits) that feature wild ingredients. I call this botanical mixology. Flavors vary from season to season, with ingredients as diverse as rose petals, milkweed blossoms, hickory bark and black walnuts. I’ll be popping up in May, July and October this year at Troutbeck, a charming inn in Amenia, NY, to lead foraging walks followed by cocktails in the woods!
Laura shares her recipe for a Butterfly Kiss “Walktail” here.