Taking to the Woods With Maine’s ‘Tree Tippers’

In northern Maine, when the last of the wildflowers go golden on their stems — when the temperatures dip, fishermen pull their traps from the water, hunters wait in the woods and farmers gather the final crops — the time finally comes for “tipping,” or, as the old-timers call it, “brushing.” This is the time of year when folks head into the woods to gather the ends of evergreen branches for use in wreaths and holiday trimmings.

Ten-year-old Harbor Eaton lives with her family on Darthia Farm on Maine’s Schoodic Peninsula. The Eaton family primarily grows produce crops, but balsam-harvesting and wreath-making is a way of extending the farm’s production into the colder, darker seasons. In November and December, Harbor goes out tipping with her family and farm workers on adjacent woodlots, with the aid of their horses, Andy and Starr.

“You go out into the woods, try to find a tree with good foliage. You take a branch, snap it and make sure it doesn’t have brown spots on it — ’cause you don’t want a brown wreath,” Harbor explained.

Cedar, Harbor’s 7-year-old brother, said that the trick is to use a stick that’s sharpened on one end — with four branch stubs sticking out — to stack and collect the boughs into a portable unit.

Harbor Eaton snuggles into a wagon filled with balsam boughs.

“Do that over and over till you have filled the stick with branches,” Cedar said. “Then you put the stick on the wagon. You do it all over again until the horses pull us home with all the full sticks.”

Balsam-harvesting is a welcome change of pace for farmers at the end of the season’s crescendo. “After spending the majority of our time focusing our energy on the soil and working looking down, we get into the woods and just stare at the trees, looking up toward the sky,” said Liz Moran, who manages Darthia Farm and raises Harbor and Cedar with her partner, Steve Eaton, known as Shepsi.

The process of tipping is hard work: the physical picking and pulling, the weight of the heavy branches. Tippers also need to keep an ear out for hunters in the forests, and pull off ticks at day’s end. But Ms. Moran describes a certain magic about the work: bringing warm treats to eat, noticing the soft patterns in the branches, letting the children play as they work, listening for the barred owl that lives near the entrance of the woodlot. The crew sometimes sing while they work, their voices echoing off the trees.

Mr. Eaton horses on the farm and in the woods, including for the hauling of bough harvests.

“The woods offer such a different acoustic environment than the open gardens and fields,” Mr. Eaton said. “It’s easier to hear each other in the woods if we are singing.”

In Maine, especially in the state’s Downeast region, generations of people have built lives on seasonal, nature-based work: digging clams, pulling traps on commercial fishing boats, raking blueberries, processing seafood and crops. Harvesting balsam and making wreaths play important roles in this cycle.

Tippers often utilize woodlots that are overgrown or have been previously logged.
Keith Arsenault, a farm apprentice, during a balsam harvest.

Geri Valentine started making wreaths in the 1970s, and it’s still a part of her patchwork of seasonal jobs. As she wire-wrapped handfuls of evergreen around metal rings in a cozy cabin on Darthia Farm, she recalled her early days as a wreather. “Back then, it was mostly a cottage industry — people would go out in family groups to gather brush,” she said. “People like clam diggers and fishermen would go out brushing after the fishing season was over, and it was a way to bring in some income, especially right before Christmas, heading into the lean months.”

Ms. Valentine has chosen a simple life. She lives in a cabin in the town of Addison without electricity and running water; she grows her own food with friends; she drives a used car. “I don’t want very much,” she said. “I change my jobs with the seasons.”

Geri Valentine assembles wreaths at Darthia Farm.

“Living this way feels very grounded,” she continued. These days, though, people can’t survive as easily on seasonal work, she said. “If you have a truck payment, if you’ve got a mortgage, if you want to send your kids to college, you can’t swing a life of digging clams in the summer and making wreaths for Christmastime.”

When you talk to locals, they agree: The systems have changed. The bigger wreath manufacturers, including Kelco Industries, Worcester Wreath Co. and Whitney Wreath, likely made the ones you find at your local grocery store or in catalogs. By some estimates, such companies employ about 2,000 migrant workers to harvest materials and work in wreath factories in Downeast Maine — often the same workers who harvested wild blueberries in summer and who returned to Maine for wreath season.

A traditional approach for gathering balsam is to use a sharpened stick with small branches at its base to collect and move the boughs.

Among the migrant workers, there have been growing concerns about low wages, substandard housing, exploitative work conditions and a lack of access to health care and education. Nonprofits like Mano en Mano and the Maine Farmer and Rancher Stress Assistance Network provide support to seasonal workers, including those employed by the wreath industry.

This year, local nonprofits collaborated with farmers to gather warm clothes, blankets and supplies for wreath workers who are often unprepared for the cold of New England in November and December. Mounds of donated goods piled up at drop-off sites — enough that Bo Dennis, a flower farmer and organizer, borrowed a clean cattle trailer to carry it all to Mano en Mano’s office in Milbridge.

Bo Dennis hauls a large harvest of boughs to his truck using a recycled grain bag.
Wreath-making is an integral part of Mr. Dennis’s business as a floral farmer.

Mr. Dennis grows flowers at his farm, Dandy Ram Farm, in Monroe, Maine, and is also on staff at Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, where he works on programs for beginner farmers. He offers his farmland for other queer farmers to find an entry point to agriculture and rural life. He’s tuned in to the networks of people and plants around him and the ways they may need support — and this mind-set extends to the forests.

“When we harvest, we are pruning a tree,” Mr. Dennis said, explaining that tippers only cut the last 12 to 15 inches of a tree branch — a sustainable practice. He loaded heavy bags of boughs into his truck, all harvested from a friend’s woodlot, a chunk of clear-cut land that had grown in with thick, scrubby trees.

Mr. Dennis mainly harvests balsam fir, supplemented with cedar, pine and juniper. He is careful about where he harvests, and on whose land. “As a trans person, I’m hyper-aware that I want to have consent with anything I’m doing, including having consent to the land,” he said.

Liz Moran gazes upward to assess the trees.

By percentage, Maine is the most forested state in America; about 89 percent of the land is woodlands, most of which is privately owned. Independent tippers usually (but not always) get permission from private landowners to gather materials on their land — and, as with deer hunters or wild mushroom gatherers, tippers often know whom to ask and where to find what they need.

Rachel Alexandrou, a forager and artist who uses the name Giant Daughter, looks in a variety of places: overgrown properties that might benefit from pruning, weedy land, areas with trees too thick for them all to thrive. “I also harvest at abandoned sites,” she said, “like an abandoned Burger King that no one is tending to.”

Rachel Alexandrou prepares a wreath.
“Once you get in the woods, it’s the best feeling ever,” Ms. Alexandrou said. “Harvesting is so meditative.”

Ms. Alexandrou uses her background in horticulture and farming to influence the ways she gathers her materials. “I don’t want to be taking away,” she said. “I want to be using what makes sense to use.”

“I pay attention to the way the plants are growing so that I know my harvesting is good for the ecosystem I’m harvesting from,” she added.

Most tippers will wait for three hard frosts before they harvest. If you bend a balsam bough in the summer, it won’t snap; after a few frosts, it will. The frost allows the branches to be harvested easily, at the right time in the tree’s growth cycle. This year, though, the frosts were worryingly erratic. It was warm enough to harvest in a T-shirt on some days.

Anne Hurley, an apprentice at Darthia Farm, harvests balsam.

Weather patterns, tides, fish, frosts, deer — these can be the favored conversational subjects in rural Maine. Tipping, too, offers common ground.

“I may have nothing to do with someone most of the year,” Mr. Eaton said, “but if I’m tipping, there is much to relate to.”

Every so often, while working in the woods, the tippers stop to smell their hands. They smell like pitch, like the inside of trees. Dirt mingles with the sap. I see it over and over: tippers cupping their palms to their face and pulling pine needles from their hair. The smell is earthy and nostalgic. The wreaths will smell this way, too: joyful circles on front doors across the country, formed by the work of strangers, and made from trees that continue to grow.

Ms. Alexandrou’s sap-stained hands.

Greta Rybus is a photojournalist based near Portland, Maine. You can follow her work on Instagram.

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