Wreathmaking relies on similar magic—although, obviously, you use a round wire frame as your foundation. After years of trial and error, I've amassed a Faustian knowledge about which materials work well in wreaths and which don't. My favorite evergreens are ponderosa pine and the often-overlooked white fir, with its beautiful, curvy, blue-green needles. My least favorite is any kind of spruce, that harsh, evil jabber of fingers. And don't get me started on the magical—but maddening!—array of pine-cone choices. (OK, get me started: White fir cones are resiny cylinders that can create a sticky mess. Ponderosa pine cones are just right—open, dry, rounded, and nicely proportioned. Most spruce cones are too small for anything other than tabletop centerpieces. Not that I've ever made one of those.)
My other gripe is that it's become way too hard to get my hands on the necessary boughs, and for this I blame the U.S. government. For years, I assumed that buying a Christmas tree permit—in New Mexico, for $10, the Forest Service will let you cut down one small evergreen in a designated patch of public woods—also entitled me to pick up a few branches that had been knocked to the ground by wind. It made sense, since one reason they allow tree-cutting is to clear the forest of "ladder fuels" like white fir, which help create explosive conflagrations when forest fires break out.
But no. Three years ago, I was exiting the Santa Fe National Forest with my tree and a small collection of windfall cuttings. At one point, I pulled over to get a closer look at an intriguing dried sunflower stalk. A ranger rolled up, saw the extra greenery, and—boom!—I got nailed for trafficking in "hot" branch tips. The Pickle Suit threatened me with a $5,000 fine and told me that, in the future, I had to buy a separate permit to do my thing. Since then I've been scared straight, and it's a good thing, judging by the big wreath bust that went down in Florida last month.
But honesty isn't easy. When I called the Forest Service recently, the guy who picked up sounded confused—"I've been working here six years, and nobody has ever asked for a wreath permit." Later, he told me the only place I could collect was at the site of a major summertime chop-down of ponderosa pines. I went there. The boughs, piled in ugly heaps, were brown. Just the thing for wreathmaking fun—with the Addams Family.
I struggled by this year, using piñon branches that I collected—legally—with one of my firewood permits. The wreaths turned out nice, but this option may not be available next year, and the whole situation seems out of whack. I can obtain a permit to shoot an elk or beat trout against rocks, but I can't gather a few ounces of evergreen windfall? Write your congressmen and tell them to "craft" a reform. The happiness of several nice old ladies may depend on it.