If you ever read fishing magazines, you know there are these cool, woodsy guys who can walk up to any trout stream, take a quick look at which insects are hatching, and tie convincing dry flies on the spot using simple tools and found materials like feathers and elk hair.
That's how I roll, too, except that my woodsy art form is a little different—and a little disrespected. Every year, using natural materials gathered from the forests, backyard gardens, and Hobby Lobbys around my hometown of Santa Fe, N.M., I make very nice Christmas wreaths that I give to select women—including aunts, my sister, assorted females-in-law, and my wife's friends.
Both the hand-tied dry fly and the hand-sculpted wreath inspire powerful reactions. When a trout sees a well-crafted fly, its eyes bulge and it shoots toward the surface like a buzzing torpedo. When a woman sees one of my wreaths, she shoots toward it like a buzzing womenedo. The trout gets yanked out of the water, patted on the belly, and released. I get hugged until my eyes bulge, patted on the head, and released. Though, sometimes, the woman chases me down and hugs me all over again.
If you know as much about guns and engines as I do about evergreens, florist's wire, and delightful decorative ribbon, guys acknowledge it with a slap on the back. But the guys I know acknowledge my yuletide work with the comment, "Let's just not talk about it, all right?"
Even the old ladies sometimes sell me out. A few years ago, I made an excellent wreath for a friend's mom who was in town for Christmas. After I dropped it off and left, she said, "This is the most beautiful wreath I've ever seen." Then she paused, looking confused and staring into space. "He's married, Mom," my friend said after an awkward few seconds. "His wife's name is Susan."
It wasn't supposed to be this way. When I started making wreaths several years ago, as a natural outgrowth of my chainsaw-powered firewood-gathering expeditions, the self-image I nurtured was that of Everydude, circa 1955, stomping into the woods with his ax and Fudd cap to chop down a Christmas tree. While he was at it, he slashed a few pine boughs and manhandled them into something resembling a circle. Presto! Wreath.
I follow the same routine. The only difference is that I play to my female audience by adding perky stuff like sage sprigs, rosemary stalks, and dried seed pods. Arguably, these special touches push my work too far in the direction of "flower arranging." I'll admit that I happen to know something about that feminine science. In college, I worked part-time as the hard-shoveling yardman for a woman who ran a florist business out of her home. Sometimes I would watch her apply finishing touches to an arrangement, and I picked up a few tricks that you simply cannot learn from books.
(Don't tell anybody else, but the secret is to start with flowers that have stiff stems. Get a vase. Then jam everything into that vase and futz with it until it looks right.)