Image by Martyn Thomson
Laura Silverman, a writer and branding consultant, is the Founding Naturalist of The Outside Institute, a space developed in upstate New York to foster a greater connection to the natural world. A desire to share her passion for the wonders of the natural world inspired this venture, and they work tirelessly to nurture humanity’s powers of observation and innate affinity for all living things.
From 2010-17, Laura wrote Glutton for Life, a blog that explored Catskill living, including cooking with seasonal and foraged foods, gardening and communing with nature. She is a regular contributor to Edible Hudson Valley, The River Reporter and WJFF, and was a speaker (“On Foraging”) at Bitten 2018, where we had the great pleasure of hearing her inspirational approach to life, both in nature and at home (which are, arguably, one and the same). It is a sincere privilege to have her join us as our second featured “creator” in our Thought Provoker series. Please enjoy (and stay tuned for more projects to come with the fabulous Laura Silverman!
When do you feel at your most creative?
Creativity is at the center of my life, and always has been. It’s how I express myself in the world. To nurture my creativity, I need discipline, dreams and time alone, ideally in nature.
Have you always been drawn to experiences in the elements, as it were?
Yes. I grew up in Santa Cruz, California, playing in the garden and down at the creek. My parents exposed us to the natural world, taking us to Yosemite and Lake Tahoe, and I always loved exploring our local tidepools and redwood forests.
You began as a brand consultant and writer, work that might not, at first glance, lend itself to interaction with nature. Was there a particular catalyst that inspired the launch of The Outside Institute in 2017?
My husband and I moved upstate full-time in 2009. Although I continue to work as a branding consultant, writer and editor, my deepening connection to the wild led me to create a venture that allows me to share with others my passion for and knowledge of the natural world.
We seem to be increasingly divided during these turbulent political times. Is the connective element of exploration and foraging something you find important, or does this often feel best a more solitary experience?
I believe that a shared love of the land helps unite us. Being alone in nature is a primal experience that benefits us all, but I also relish the opportunity to adventure and learn alongside fellow students and teachers.
Have you always been confident in the kitchen? Or was it something that you had to cultivate through practice?
My mother was a wonderful cook and hostess. I think I absorbed a lot by osmosis, just from watching her in the kitchen and eating at her table. I began to cook after college and have always felt happy, creative and joyful in the kitchen (despite my erstwhile nickname “Kitchen Bitch”).
When or how do you feel most grounded?
When I have work that is meaningful and fulfilling to me. When I am in the forest. When I am surrounded by love.
Running your own company as you do, how do you make time to prioritize yourself? Do you have any routines, rituals or mantras that you regularly utilize?
It’s definitely challenging to find enough hours in the day. I begin every morning with a gratitude practice and meditation, even if it’s just 10 minutes. I go for a walk or to the gym or a yoga class as often as I can. I like to pull a tarot card or medicine card if I need inspiration. I also rely on Bach flower remedies that I custom blend to help balance my mood.
How has that informed how you work and how you hope to develop your career?
Another reason I started The Outside Institute was because I realized that I am happiest when I am in the woods. I’m hoping that eventually I can also do this work in other ecosystems in other parts of the world.
What individuals, public or personal, inspire you?
Robin Wall Kimmerer, a scientist and environmentalist whose writings have greatly enriched my understanding of the natural world. My botany teacher, Richard Mandelbaum (founder of NYC’s ArborVitae School of Herbalism), who is extremely knowledgeable and so generous with that knowledge. The prolific poet Mary Oliver, for the simple grace with which she illuminates the truth. My husband, George Billard, whose patience, optimism and tenacity set a wonderful example for me.
On to more seemingly “frivolous” stuff - you seem to have a personal aesthetic that’s both uniquely “feminine” and elegant yet with a Katherine Hepburn-esque adrogyny. What or who influences your sartorial style?
Thank you for that flattering description! I have a deep and abiding love of textiles and craftmanship. I like organic materials that feel good on the body. I need clothes that function for work, which means they must offer protection and allow me to move. Staples include vintage workwear, jumpsuits, hats and boots.
You’ve hand crafted syrups and spirits infused with botanicals - what’s an ingredient or recipe you’re currently playing with?
I’m making orgeat with acorns and bitters infused with black walnuts (unripe and ripe). I recently created a cacao shell tea with ground spicebush berries.
What’s a skill or passion project you’re dying to explore?
We’re currently working on the second volume to our Field Guide to the Hudson & Upper Delaware Valleys, which will launch for spring. I’m also looking for commissions to produce field guides tailored to specific sites or regions—like the city of Portland or Storm King or Todos Santos. I want to help people connect to nature in both rural and urban environments and give them a better understanding of the flora and fauna they’re encountering once they do get outside. And, to help sustain this business, I’m developing a couple of products I plan to launch soon.
What were the best (and worst!) parts of being in such an isolated, competitive environment for so long?
Do you mean working as a freelance copywriter and brand strategist? I never felt isolated. Writers are generally used to working alone and I’m often part of a team or at least checking in with clients. As far as competition goes, I try to take the advice of Sara Seinberg, the world’s best life coach, who says, “Keep your eyes on your own paper.”
How do you set goals for yourself, both short-term and longer term? Do you have specific dreams you hope to achieve in the next several years?
I wish I’d been a bit more focused on those long-term goals. I tend to surf life, taking the waves as they come. I’m better at short-term goals, because I make a daily list and I love crossing things off. In the years to come, I hope The Outside Institute will continue to grow and flourish, spreading the call of the wild far and wide. You will see more publications, new products and, with any luck, a permanent spot we can call home.
What are you currently listening to?
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, read by Juliet Stevenson for Audible. The Milk Street Kitchen podcast. Tim Maia, the iconoclastic Brazilian funkmaster. And always Glenn Gould playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations (1955 and 1981 versions).
What is your favorite “recipe” for bringing loved ones to the table? (can be a food recipe or “life” recipe)
I like to greet guests with a delicious drink. We often serve The Eldred, a simple sour named for our little hamlet: bourbon, maple syrup and lemon juice. For those who prefer something without spirits, I’ve always got homemade bitters and soda.