Visiting the Woods With the ‘Tree Tippers’ of Maine
Generations of Mainers have made a living doing seasonal, outdoor work. One of them is harvesting the balsam used to make wreaths.
When the last of the wildflowers turn golden on their stems in northern Maine — when the temperatures drop, fishermen pull their traps from the water, hunters wait in the woods, and farmers gather the final crops — it’s time for “tipping,” or, as the old-timers call it, “brushing.” This is the time of year when people go foraging in the woods for the tips of evergreen branches to use in wreaths and holiday trimmings.
Harbor Eaton, ten, lives on Darthia Farm on Maine’s Schoodic Peninsula with her family. The Eaton family’s primary crop is produce, but balsam harvesting and wreath-making help to extend the farm’s production into the colder, darker seasons. In November and December, Harbor and her family go tipping on adjacent woodlots with the help of their horses, Andy and Starr.
“You go out into the woods and look for a tree with nice foliage. “You take a branch, snap it, and make sure there are no brown spots on it — you don’t want a brown wreath,” Harbor explained.
Cedar, Harbor’s 7-year-old brother, explained that the trick is to stack and collect the boughs into a portable unit using a sharpened stick on one end with four branch stubs sticking out.
“Do that until you’ve filled the stick with branches,” Cedar instructed. “You then put the stick on the waggon. You repeat the process until the horses pull us home with all the full sticks.”
Balsam harvesting is a welcome change of pace for farmers as the season comes to a close. “After 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 physical picking and pulling, as well as the weight of the heavy branches, make tipping a difficult process. Tippers must also keep an ear out for hunters in the woods and remove ticks at the end of the day. Ms. Moran, on the other hand, describes a certain magic to the work: bringing warm treats to eat, noticing the soft patterns in the branches, letting the children play while they work, and listening for the barred owl that lives near the woodlot’s entrance. The crew occasionally sings while working, their voices echoing off the trees.
“The woods provide a very different acoustic environment than the open gardens and fields,” Mr. Eaton explained. “We can hear each other better in the woods if we sing.”
Generations of Maine residents have built their lives around seasonal, nature-based work, such as digging clams, pulling traps on commercial fishing boats, raking blueberries, and processing seafood and crops. This cycle is heavily reliant on balsam harvesting and wreath making.
Geri Valentine began making wreaths in the 1970s, and it is still one of her seasonal jobs. She recalled her early days as a wreather as she wire-wrapped handfuls of evergreen around metal rings in a cosy cabin on Darthia Farm. “It was mostly a cottage industry back then — people would go out in family groups to gather brush,” she explained. “After the fishing season was over, people like clam diggers and fishermen would go out brushing, and it was a way to bring in some income, especially right before Christmas, heading into the lean months.”
Ms. Valentine has decided to live a simple life. She lives in an Addison cabin without electricity or running water, grows her own food with friends, and drives a used car. “I don’t want much,” she explained. “I switch jobs with the seasons.”
“It feels very grounded to live this way,” she continued. People nowadays, she says, can’t make ends meet on seasonal work. “If you have a truck payment, a mortgage, and you want to send your kids to college, you can’t live a life digging clams in the summer and making Christmas wreaths.”
Locals will tell you that the systems have changed. The larger wreath manufacturers, such as Kelco Industries, Worcester Wreath Co., and Whitney Wreath, are most likely responsible for the ones you see at your local grocery store or in catalogues. According to some estimates, such companies employ approximately 2,000 migrant workers in Downeast Maine to harvest materials and work in wreath factories — often the same workers who harvested wild blueberries in the summer and returned to Maine for wreath season.
There is growing concern among migrant workers about low wages, substandard housing, exploitative working conditions, and a lack of access to health care and education. Nonprofit organisations such as Mano en Mano and the Maine Farmer and Rancher Stress Assistance Network offer assistance to seasonal workers, including those in the wreath industry.
This year, local nonprofits partnered with farmers to collect warm clothing, blankets, and supplies for wreath makers, who are frequently unprepared for the cold of New England in November and December. Mounds of donated goods piled up at drop-off locations, so much so that Bo Dennis, a flower farmer and organiser, borrowed a clean cattle trailer to transport everything to Mano en Mano’s Milbridge office.
Weather patterns, tides, fish, frosts, and deer can be popular topics of conversation in rural Maine. Tipping, too, provides a common ground.
“I may have nothing to do with someone the majority of the year,” Mr. Eaton explained, “but if I’m tipping, there’s a lot to relate to.”
While working in the woods, the tippers will occasionally stop to smell their hands. They have a pitchy smell, like the insides of trees. The sap mixes with the dirt. I keep seeing tippers with their palms to their faces, pulling pine needles from their hair. The fragrance is earthy and nostalgic. The wreaths will smell the same way: joyful circles on front doors across the country, formed by the efforts of strangers and made from living trees.