A woman decorates a wreath with winterberries in Orono in this 2017 file photo. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

Green. That is the predominant color that blooms Down East year-round. That and the color blue during summer months. Vast stretches of primordial forests composed of hardwoods, softwoods and the evergreens take me back to simpler days when opportunities were abundant and so very attainable. 

This is the time of year after the dropping temperature has flipped a switch within the deciduous trees creating a palette of color that stops passersby in their tracks before fading away. As autumn recedes into winter, the hearty evergreens remain after getting a glorious technicolor hug from their brethren of the forest and the blueberry barrens have blushed red — a season’s end lament. 

It’s also the time of year when the boughs of balsam, pine and spruce appear to move on their own without the slightest of breezes, as their tips are cut and gathered throughout the forests of Maine. 

A fresh evergreen wreath is what Maine is known for during this time of year. When temperatures fall, before the snow arrives and typically after a few frosts, many a woodsman — man, woman and child — venture into the woods to harvest evergreen tips. It’s an occupation that goes back a long way and is part of the state’s perpetual story. 

Collected in bunches and skewered on wooden poles, the bundles of fresh tips are tagged and weighed and the final monetary transaction consummated between the wreath maker and the tipper. The tips range in length from 12 to 20 inches. Care is taken by the tipper to make sure there is growth behind where the tip is cut. This will sustain the tree and provide new tips in two to three years, if done properly. Respect for the land is paramount in Maine as is sustaining its valuable resources, especially here Down East. In this bygone place, people depend on the land and what it provides more so because of its remoteness and limited industrial opportunities.

Wreaths have been a part of civilization for a long time. The Roman and Greek cultures would craft wreaths using tree leaves, twigs, flowers and fruits. The laurel wreath in Greco-Roman society symbolized one’s occupation, achievements and status in society. The word wreath comes from the Greek word, “diadema,” which means, “a thing bound around.” The Christmas wreath, many believe, began 1,000 years before the birth of Christ, symbolizing strength and perseverance. Today, the evergreen Christmas wreath is symbolic of Christian immortality; its never-ending shape along with the living evergreen material make the wreath a representation of eternal life.

When the holidays roll around, evergreen wreaths are produced by businesses — large and small — throughout the state. Many begin the laborious chore to keep up with orders beginning at the end of October and going until just before Christmas. With no specific association tracking wreath sales and wreath companies reluctant to disclose sales numbers — a secret that is pretty much observed 99 percent of the time — the annual numbers are almost impossible to come by. Let’s just say it’s a lot!

Maine is authentic. I found this out way back in the early ’80s when I first stepped into Maine and interacted with its land, sea, flora, fauna and the people that live here. It’s easy to see why products from Maine, such as blueberries, lobster and fresh evergreen wreaths are so valued as they are shipped to other parts of the country. Maine is the largest producer of balsam fir Christmas wreaths in the U.S.  With forests covering 85 percent of Maine’s landmass, it’s also easy to understand how probably millions of wreaths are made here and shipped each year.

But I think there is more to the Maine wreath than its beauty and purpose. It is the story that each carefully placed bough of evergreen holds within its branch, needles and scent. When we look at a freshly made wreath, the stories are all there to behold: The story of the tree as it grows year after year; those that brushed by its evergreen boughs on their way through the forest; the sun and rain that bathed and nourished it; the birds and other animals that lived within it; the life of that person who happened upon it one day, chose it and took a small piece; and the person who wove that piece into a tapestry of seasonal goodness and prepared the wreath for its final destination — someone’s home. 

These are the thoughts I have when I look at the wreaths that adorn our home during the holidays. The dark-green tips of the evergreens are gathered from the woods out back and then carefully arranged by my wife. Adorned with pine cones and other items found lying upon the forest floor, they all are carefully placed into position, creating a never-ending circular shape of beauty that tells a story.

RJ Heller, Down East contributor

RJ Heller is a journalist, essayist, photographer, author, an avid reader and an award-winning book critic who enjoys sailing, hiking and many other outdoor pursuits. He lives in Starboard Cove.