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.)
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.