When I spoke with Laura Silverman for the first time, after trading emails over the course of a few weeks, she interrupted herself almost immediately. "Oh, there's a bunny." And then picked up where we left off until, "Oh, there's another bunny!" She calls her husband, George, to the window to take a look. Baby bunnies. Two. I can almost see them. "Oh, and they're eating...." She trails off as she mentions the specific delectable in her yard they have chosen for breakfast -- Sweet Woodruff. Of course. The forager-in-chief of The Outside Institute identifies all the delightful edibles you can forage in the meadows and forests, as well as the bunnies' breakfast. It actually makes me hungry and a little jealous of the bunnies in her yard.
Laura has a peculiar way of making you envious of events and moments and recipes and journeys she has taken. She is immersive. Even when she talks about death, you can't help but feel that perhaps she's on to something beautiful, peaceful and exhilarating all at once.
Laura grew up in California, raised in the shadows of the Redwoods. She resembles them too -- statuesque, important and serious. She left home and drank in the energy of New York City for 25 years -- writing and living -- and even moved to LA for nearly three years before returning East. Her time in LA was a whirlwind. At first a bride and then a widow, Laura's condensed life experience seems to have heightened her appreciation for the peace offered by the great outdoors and the secrets it holds, as all living and dying creatures and their timelines intertwine.
In her city years, Laura worked as a freelance copywriter doing fashion and brand work and even a cookbook for Bergdorf's. In 2009, when she was ready to give up city living for good and move to the Catskills, she turned her writing in a more personal direction via her Glutton for Lifeblog while continuing with paying gigs. In Gluttonshe celebrates nature and her love for cooking, and shares her saturated photography and thirst for living. Now, with her blog at its seven-year itch, she has launched a new iteration of it and of herself -- a live manifestation of her dream for everyone to get outside and to immerse themselves in nature: The Outside Institute.
I invited Laura to join me recently on my property with guests for a Bee Blessing, a loosely-sketched event based on a quick suggestion I made to a new friend and local pastor when the shareholder-based bee sanctuary (BSA) was just getting off the ground. Bees forage for their food and I thought it might be fun to see what they found and then to borrow from that to create our own libations. Who better than Laura to lead a discovery mission across the meadows and through the forest in search of good things to eat? If she knows what the bunnies eat for breakfast, certainly she must know what the bees fancy.
As guests were trickling in, I joined Laura on a pre-forage around the property, similar to window shopping in the woods. My meadows and tree-lined paths did not offer up many edibles, a reality that quickly dashed my fantasy of giving up my vegetable garden and future trips to the grocery store. Until we found the Witch Hazel tree, complete with its projectile seeds, and the Black Birch, whose broken bark smells strongly of wintergreen, I was nearly certain that none of the lush plants from across the landscape were anything special.
Joined by a couple dozen guests, including Wes Gillingham, a dyed-in-the-wool naturalist and storyteller who doubles as the region's most effective defender against fracking and other environmental threats (via Catskill Mountainkeeper where he is the program director), Laura and Wes perform a rendition of "Hey, what about this?" where together they uncover blooming and fragrant milkweed, whose buds you can boil and sauté in butter, and its evil twin, Dogsbane, whose nearly identical fruits are better left untouched.
In addition to her special appearance at the unorthodox Bee Blessing, Laura hosts monthly hikes, dinners and other seminars centered on foraging and cooking from locally-sourced and foraged items. She has guided the chef from The DeBruce (a newly reopened inn in Livingston Manor) on a maiden forage of the Inn's property to find items to cook for guests. An on-property foraging entree features edible dirt (aka onion confit) laced with greens as well as varied asparagus or ramps or edible flowers that you are encouraged to eat only with your fingers.
Harvard-educated and at once welcoming and fierce, Laura reminds me of Mother Nature herself. She might scold you for not getting out on a hike to new places or for not recognizing a simple fern, but on the other hand she will gift you the most delicious and creative cocktail, carefully combined from a balance of nectars she extracts from the land in a way that helps you understand her gifts more fully. The land, the air, the waters and their offspring are here for us to see, to breathe, to touch and to envelop ourselves in. If we are not doing our part, we are missing out. And Laura, unknowingly at first and more deliberately now with The Outside Institute, wants you to take advantage of all of these wonders.
The Outside Instituteis new. As Laura puts it, TOIis busy deciding what it wants to be. Like the way she is with each approaching season awaiting all the magic that each one holds, she is patient and also eager to find out what the Institute will become. She invites you to come along and to experience a world that is yours. Getting out helps you connect with nature and through that essential act, you can become the most important you that you can be: a steward of the land. Laura would like to be there to help. And, you probably need her to be.
Get out now, xoxo farmgirl