Photo by Bettina Lewin

Laura Silverman, founder and curator of the Outside Institute

Exploring the woods with The Outside Institute

SULLIVAN COUNTY, NY — The bond between humanity and nature is one that often goes unseen and unspoken, but those who want to better understand that bond around the Upper Delaware have a new outlet: The Outside Institute, a new program in the area that approaches nature from exploratory and culinary perspectives. The Institute was founded by Laura Silverman, local naturalist and food columnist for The River Reporter, who also hosts and curates many of the events herself.

“The Outside Institute is a venture that I started in May this year,” Silverman says, “and our mission is to help people connect to the healing and transformative powers of nature, through plant walks, guided hikes—all kinds of outdoor experiences—as well as workshops around different related topics. Everything from making bitters with wild foraged plants and wildcrafting, making tinctures… from medicinal plants, to dyeing with natural dyes.

“I also do a series of dinners at my home for about 12 people—I feature local foods from farms and from my garden and from the wild… I always have a culinary element—even when I take people out for a hike, I always have a trail snack that I provide. That’s really a personal passion of mine, but I also feel like any way that we can help people make the connection between their everyday experiences—like eating—and to nature, that’s a positive thing… The rhythm of farms echoes the rhythms of nature, and all of that affects how we eat—so I feel like it is all connected.”

Figuring out the nuts and bolts of the Institute has been a learning experience for Silverman: “It’s been an interesting few months, because I just kind of walked in, not really knowing if there was going to be support from this community or an extended community. I have had a lot of interest, and there seems to be a certain momentum. I’m still aligning myself with people with whom I can co-host experiences... I would like to bring in other experts in fields that I know less about, like birding. I’m really not a trained botanist or anything. I’m just doing this to pursue my own personal passion, and because I felt like there was a real need for it…

“I definitely had encountered plenty of individuals who owned property up here, or who had lived up here for a long time, and had never really been out into the woods. I think that people have a lot of fear about just venturing out alone. They don’t know where it’s safe to be; they’re afraid of bears; they don’t want to pick mushrooms because they don’t know what’s what. So I thought, ‘Well, I can share what I know.’ So that’s kind of the genesis of it all.

“I think people are really desperate for this kind of outdoor experience. As I’ve kind of counterbalanced to all of the indoor screen time that we have now… That’s one of the reasons that I call it the healing and restorative powers of nature. But also because I believe that, ultimately, when we spend time outside, it helps us reconnect to our best self. We become more aware, we slow down, we become more conscious. People really open up and have a sense of childlike wonder when they’re out in nature, because there is so much beauty everywhere you look.”

In addition to her passion, Silverman also has plenty of ambition for the future of the program. “When we have workshops, I have a large screened-in porch at my home, and that’s where I do the dinners and the workshops. However, in the last few days, several people have asked me, ‘Well, what is your big takeaway after this first season of The Outside Institute?’ And what I have answered is that I would like to find a bricks-and-mortar spot. I would ideally like to find some kind of space with a kitchen where I could hold my workshops and hold events… [where] you would be able to go out the back door and have land that I could take people on. That would be my ideal situation.”

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