Jenna Witzleben

MFA Thesis Blog

This blog contains experiments, project and reading reflections, unanswered questions, and more relating to my year-long thesis as part of my Master's design program. From Sept. 2016 to May 2017, I explored rewilding human beings and the environments we inhabit at multiple scales including investigation around individual fears of nature, regional food production systems, and global overpopulation. The final works of this thesis can be found in my portfolio.

Urban Foraging with Wild Man Steve

A good portion of my research (not all, however) seems to be converging to two broader barriers to our connection to nature. One, lack of love for nature, and two, lack of knowledge around living with nature, both contribute to our fears and distancing. My experience last Sunday afternoon, while addressing both issues, primarily was directed to the latter. How can we be connected with nature without knowing what is edible and what is poisonous?

Last Sunday, my boyfriend and I ventured to Central Park in a rainstorm to meet Wild Man Steve Brill, his daughter Violet, and (somewhat to our surprise) 20 other eager students, for an Urban Foraging class. We spend 4 hours following Steve and Violet through the park learning about the various plants. The pair thoroughly covered identification, flavor profile, uses (culinary and medicinal), seasonality, as well as similar toxic plants to avoid.

At first, this last bit was somewhat discouraging. I thought, "maybe I should just stick to the farmer's market where everything is marked and labeled as edible". But, while embracing the land for small organic farming and stewarding the soil is better than our current relationship, it's still a step away full embracement of the truly natural and wild. So I required an internal perspective shift. Right now the potential for accidentally in-taking a toxic plant is quite daunting. But I imagine a future where I am much more well versed in plants identification - edible and inedible. This potential future knowledge and confidence calms my fears.

A peach tree - in NYC!

A peach tree - in NYC!

Along the way we encountered a surprising amount of greens, berries, roots, and mushrooms. Here's a list of some of the plants we encountered:

Lambs Quarters

May Apple

Cornelian Cherry

Sheep Sorel


Siebold Vibernum


Puffball mushrooms

Peach tree

Foxtail grass

Common plantain

Mountain mint


Sweet Pepperbush

Poor Man's Pepper

Common Spice Bush


Kentucky coffee


Sassafras (yes we can make sasparilla now!


Wood Sorel

Kentucky coffee bean pods

Kentucky coffee bean pods

Anthony using Sweet Pepperbush to wash his hands

Anthony using Sweet Pepperbush to wash his hands

One of my favorite parts of the trek was when Wild Man Steve shared with us a sample of one of the recipes in his cookbook. He took some plain-tasting leaves, baked them with some garlic and spices, and turned them into a delectable treat. I look forward to further investigation of this cook book and his app.

Someone else wanted to snack on the foraged goods too

Someone else wanted to snack on the foraged goods too

Since the class we have successfully spotted Sarsaparilla on the Highline and many instances of Wood Sorel. Even the times we don't see anything we know, I strongly value the new reason I have to take a closer look at my surroundings.

Jenna Witzleben