CREATING MAGIC WITH NATURE: Meet the Rockland Forager Paul Tappenden

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 An empanada garnished with wild watercress and barbarous
An empanada garnished with wild watercress and barbarous

Within South Nyack is an unmapped location called Hobbit Halls where Mason jars containing herbs, flavorings, oils and what looks like magical potions are created.

“I do a lot of preparation here,” Paul Tappenden smiled, leading the way to his basement (dubbed by his daughter). “There’s a large interest in the health benefits of natural plants, herbs, spices and the like.”

The sprightly, 68-year old educator runs workshops on identifying, harvesting and preparing wild foods and those herbs and gives multimedia presentations about his experiences.

How did you get started?

Oatmeal raisin cookies and apple pie, both made with acorn flour
Oatmeal raisin cookies and apple pie, both made with acorn flour

“When I was a kid we used to go out and forage all the time,” the United Kingdom native said. “My parents used to make wine and jams, and we’d go out and collect blackberries and other plants. That was my beginning, really, and I forage every day now.”

Travels to South American included visiting the Ecuadorian Rainforest and headwaters of the Amazon with a tribe that lived strictly off the land. “I was so fascinated that I decided I was going to learn about it,” he determined.

He 1979 arrival in New York got him reading about wild plants and survival techniques. “There’s so much information online, and I try to stay abreast of all the recent findings,” he said.

When subsequent health problems necessitated a kidney transplant, he vowed to make health his top priority; fourteen years later he’s kept that promise. “I cleaned up my diet and started researching about herbal ingredients and what to do to stay in good shape. It’s worked,” he smiled.

What is the biggest misconception that people have about living off the land?

 A lattice crusted pie (pheasant), made with 3 typed of acorn flour, and garnished with Black nightshade berries
A lattice crusted pie (pheasant), made with 3 typed of acorn flour, and garnished with Black nightshade berries

“There’s a profound theory that whatever you need in your life, nature sends you,” he said. “Whatever’s growing on my property I use it. Even if it’s considered toxic, I’ll find a way to use it. It helps to know the plants, what you can eat and what you can’t.”

For the past five years he’s been teaching at The Nature Place Day Camp, where the kids will gather wild foods and have a campout in the evening, cooking their own meal.

Rockland Farm Alliance’s two one-week sessions during its Summer Junior Famer Program at Cropsey Community Farms. “The kids love it. This year it really came home to me how much these kids have learned since I’ve been going there,” he said. “When we go out on walks now, they tell me where everything is and how to use it.”

Director of Communications Suzanne Barish met Tappenden years ago and became friends. “He values education so he comes to each session and talks with the kids about what he forages” and then cooks or makes into salves or medicinal oils,” she said.

Paul Tappenden
Paul Tappenden

What’s your secret?

“As I said, reading, and mixing with people who do as I do,” Tappenden said. “If you use something in the right way and in the right quantity, (then) it’s beneficial; if you don’t it will become poisonous.”

He constantly researches to learn about plants, fruits and herbs and has become more intuitive to what plants offer. “I don’t take drugs and have been making my own medicines for years. They’re much more effective than pharmaceuticals because you don’t get the side effects but they’re really good.”

Tappenden recalled painting a Murphy bed during his movie industry days. “I was in the city and used to work in the movie industry and was painting a Murphy bed that was sitting on a wagon. It fell over and shattered my shoulder blade.”

A visit to the doctor for x-rays yielded strict advice.

“He told me to wear a sling for three months, they have physiotherapy for three months, and then I’ll have full mobility, like this,” Tappenden said, raising both arms above his head. “I walked into his office two and one-half weeks later and raised my hands above my head and said, ‘How’s that for full mobility?’ It was completely healed.”

Producing a tiny glass bowl filled with tinier dark purple berries, he pointed. “Black nightshade berries taste like sweet tomatoes,” Tappanden said. He was right about the taste.

When he does food shop he visits A Matter of Health and shuns GMO products. “I live so differently than the rest of the population, very anti-store and rarely go shopping. If I do I go to a place that has organic products.”

About the artist . . .

Introduced to the movie industry by his wife and chief taste-tester Kathy, Tappenden became a scenic artist whose murals hang in Nyack Village Hall and Nyack Hospital.

South Nyack resident Joanne Ciuccio met Tappeden in 1990 on stage crew at Nyack High School. “He taught me how to properly wash my paintbrushes, along with many great techniques for set design, and, reinforced the good work ethic that I had been taught at home.”

During the years they collaborated as artists. “I worked for him when he was doing faux designs in people’s homes, another great learning experience, hard work and fun.”

“Paul has made foraging his art, which speaks volumes about its importance in today’s world and in his life,” Ciuccio said. “With so much engineering of our food and medicine, we are truly lucky to have Paul on the forefront of herbalism and local food.”

He is passionate about life, about nature and healing, she said.

“As a forager, Paul is a beacon of hope. The treatments, cures, and foods that my great grandmother knew of and used in Italy and brought with her to America (she was the midwife of the Island of Ponza) are alive and thankfully, well. All is not lost in a world that is increasingly processed and toxic.

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