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

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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 within the woods and farmers gather the ultimate crops — the time finally comes for “tipping,” or, because the old-timers call it, “brushing.” That is the time of yr when folks head into the woods to assemble the ends of evergreen branches to be used in wreaths and holiday trimmings.

Ten-year-old Harbor Eaton lives along 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 along with her family and farm employees on adjoining woodlots, with assistance from their horses, Andy and Starr.

“You exit into the woods, try to search out a tree with good foliage. You are taking a branch, snap it and make sure that it doesn’t have brown spots on it — ’cause you don’t desire a brown wreath,” Harbor explained.

Cedar, Harbor’s 7-year-old brother, said that the trick is to make use of a stick that’s sharpened on one end — with 4 branch stubs protruding — to stack and collect the boughs into a transportable unit.

“Do this again and again till you’ve gotten filled the persist with branches,” Cedar said. “Then you definately put the stick on the wagon. You do all of it yet again until the horses pull us home with all the complete sticks.”

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

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

“The woods offer such a special acoustic environment than the open gardens and fields,” Mr. Eaton said. “It’s easier to listen to one another within the woods if we’re singing.”

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

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

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

“Living this fashion feels very grounded,” she continued. Nowadays, though, people can’t survive as easily on seasonal work, she said. “If you’ve gotten a truck payment, should you’ve got a mortgage, if you desire to send your kids to varsity, you possibly can’t swing a lifetime of digging clams in the summertime and making wreaths for Christmastime.”

Once you consult with locals, they agree: The systems have modified. The larger wreath manufacturers, including Kelco Industries, Worcester Wreath Co. and Whitney Wreath, likely made those you discover at your local food market or in catalogs. By some estimates, such firms employ about 2,000 migrant employees to reap materials and work in wreath factories in Downeast Maine — often the identical employees who harvested wild blueberries in summer and who returned to Maine for wreath season.

Among the many migrant employees, there have been growing concerns about low wages, substandard housing, exploitative work conditions and a scarcity 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 employees, including those employed by the wreath industry.

This yr, local nonprofits collaborated with farmers to assemble warm clothes, blankets and supplies for wreath employees who are sometimes unprepared for the cold of Recent 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 hold all of it to Mano en Mano’s office in Milbridge.

Mr. Dennis grows flowers at his farm, Dandy Ram Farm, in Monroe, Maine, and can be 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 search out an entry point to agriculture and rural life. He’s tuned in to the networks of individuals and plants around him and the ways they might need support — and this mind-set extends to the forests.

“After we harvest, we’re pruning a tree,” Mr. Dennis said, explaining that tippers only cut the last 12 to fifteen 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 piece 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’s careful about where he harvests, and on whose land. “As a trans person, I’m hyper-aware that I need to have consent with anything I’m doing, including having consent to the land,” he said.

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

Rachel Alexandrou, a forager and artist who uses the name Giant Daughter, looks in quite a lot of places: overgrown properties which may profit from pruning, weedy land, areas with trees too thick for all of them to thrive. “I also harvest at abandoned sites,” she said, “like an abandoned Burger King that nobody is tending to.”

Ms. Alexandrou uses her background in horticulture and farming to influence the ways she gathers her materials. “I don’t need to be taking away,” she said. “I need to be using what is smart to make use of.”

“I listen to the way in which the plants are growing in order that I do know my harvesting is nice for the ecosystem I’m harvesting from,” she added.

Most tippers will wait for 3 hard frosts before they harvest. If you happen to bend a balsam bough in the summertime, it won’t snap; after a couple of frosts, it should. The frost allows the branches to be harvested easily, at the suitable time within the tree’s growth cycle. This yr, though, the frosts were worryingly erratic. It was warm enough to reap in a T-shirt on some days.

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

“I could don’t have anything to do with someone a lot of the yr,” Mr. Eaton said, “but when I’m tipping, there’s much to relate to.”

Now and again, while working within the woods, the tippers stop to smell their hands. They smell like pitch, just like the inside trees. Dirt mingles with the sap. I see it again and again: 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 fashion, too: joyful circles on front doors across the country, formed by the work of strangers, and made out of trees that proceed to grow.

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