Rockaway’s Craftiest: Meet ROOTS Man William Francis of Willderness Yard


In this Rockaway Times series, we spotlight the eclectic band of crafty artists living on the peninsula. These individuals stand out not just because of their creativity and indisputable talent, but the oxygen fueling the passion behind their work—living and breathing in Rockaway. We hope this series gives readers the incentive to support these local artisans, who invest their soul, time and energy in producing works of art that reflect what makes our peninsula an unparalleled place to call home.


“Where there’s a ‘Will,’ there’s a way,” and local William Francis truly embodies that old English proverb as he determinedly brought his love for the forest and its medicinal mysteries to not just his hometown Rockaway, but throughout NYC’s five boroughs. In the following Q&A, Francis shares how his passion for nature and healing others led him to create holistic medicine brand, Willderness Yard.


RT: How long have you lived in Rockaway?

WF: My family moved here from Marine Park, Brooklyn in 1987, when I was about three years old. I attended St. Francis de Sales, and finished high school upstate in Ithaca, NY.


RT:  What was your inspiration to get into the field of root medicine?

WF: My mother and her sisters were always into plants. That, and always having a sincere fascination with the natural world and the beauty of nature. I’ve always been drawn to it.


RT: So when did you get the idea to start making your own products out of medicinal plants for healing purposes?

WF: Fifteen years ago, I was diagnosed with Lyme disease, and around the same time, my sister was going through multiple sclerosis (MS), and on top of that, my father had kidney failure. So, it was a trifecta of all of us having serious diseases and sicknesses. I was working with a medicine man upstate, who taught me about the healing properties of mushrooms. So, I wanted to take what I learned from the forest and bring it to the city to help family and friends.


RT: So you learned hands-on in the open, as opposed to a school room. Do you think that impacted your learning curve?

WF: Definitely. The medicine man was Native American, but also had descent to a tribe in Africa. He would take me out and identify plants. I was privileged to have an authentic teacher-disciple type of learning. A lot of people go to school for this, but I learned out in nature, which is priceless because a book could only tell you so much.


RT: How many years have you been studying the medicinal qualities of plants?

WF: Specifically with chaga mushrooms, I’ve been studying for at least 10 years. Before I got into mushrooms, I was studying plants like herbs, roots and flowers, but I find mushrooms have a more direct healing, and are easier to work with people.


RT: What’s your own personal health routine in terms of how you use your products?

WF: Everyday religiously when I wake up, I have a strong cup of chaga mushroom tea with chaga tincture and extracted powder.


RT: What are the health benefits of chaga mushrooms?

WF: Chaga mushrooms reduce stress, boost the immune system and prevent chronic inflammation.


RT: Where do you find mushrooms?

WF: I go upstate, but note that each mushroom has its own place, time and nature, and is entirely unique to its habitat. So how you grow it, where to find it, how to harvest it, varies. Chaga mushrooms mainly grow in the bark of birch trees. However, mushrooms in general can grow from the ground to the top of a tree.


RT: What products do you make out of chaga?

WF: I make teas, tinctures (one with alcohol and one without) and a shea butter infused with chaga. So that’s four products from just one kind of mushroom.


RT: Why did you make this your life’s work as opposed to just a hobby?

WF: Willderness Yard gives me purpose. It gives me strong reasons to get up in the morning because not only does it help me, but I see how my products have helped other people. Also, it’s a great meditation going out into the forest, working with the seasons, time and space, and just learning and being in harmony with nature. I don't plan on getting rich, but it keeps me healthy, my mind strong and I get to meet a lot of beautiful people.


RT: At one point, Willderness Yard was its own brick-and-mortar shop and cafe on Rockaway Beach Blvd. What was that experience like?

WF: The reception was great. People really liked the products, and the warm, cozy atmosphere and energy of the cafe. However, at the end of the day, it was hard to pay bills. There wasn’t much foot traffic towards that end of the Boulevard, which I knew could happen, but I still took the chance on having my own shop. Overall it was a good experience, and I’m glad that I did it. Even though it was not fruitful in terms of money, I was able to meet a lot of good people and expose them to the healing properties of herbs and plants.


RT: So, where do you primarily vend your products?

WF: I do pop-ups like for example at the Rockaway Makers Market at the Brewery, and markets all over NYC’s five boroughs. For the month of December, I will be doing a few pop-ups at Zingara Vintage, where I will be selling chaga mushroom goods, lions mane, sage bundles, and other plants, herbs and teas.


RT: We are just a few weeks away from 2020, what are your goals for Wilderness Yard?

WF: I’m starting a ginseng farm in the Catskills, upstate NY, where I am going to cultivate wild ginseng.


RT: Have your Rockaway roots influenced the individual you are today?

WF: For sure. the Native American name for Rockaway is Reckouwacky, which means “land of shining waters.” We are between Jamaica Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, and in my opinion, we are the final frontier of nature in NYC. Where else in the five boroughs can you find sandy beaches, and all this wildlife? Rockaway is a beautiful place for healing, and I’ve always taken advantage of the energy that’s always been here.


RT: What’s some advice you would give to aspiring entrepreneurs?

WF: Follow your heart and do what makes you happy.


For more information about Francis’ products, classes, and pop-up dates at Zingara Vintage, visit willdernessyard on Instagram.