Gardens

A Cage Fighter Reintroduces an Ancient Art to Maine Yards

Crowsneck Boutin’s wattle fencing blends seamlessly with the landscape.

Crowsneck Boutin pounding stakes for wattle fencing
TEXT BY SARA ANNE DONNELLY
PHOTOGRAPHED BY DAVE DOSTIE

From the October 2021 issue of Down East magazine 

It’s the hardwood that’s going to last,” Crowsneck Boutin says, standing in front of a million-dollar home in Biddeford Pool, surrounded by piles of saplings. “Like this one.” He picks up a slender piece of yellow birch with peeling parchment-colored bark. “This particular type of birch has this ability to grow under so much duress. Not only grow, but grow straight and grow good.”

He’s describing the best materials for weaving wattle fencing, an ancient technique that involves interlacing native shoots, saplings, and branches. So far this morning, Boutin has staked a row of chest-high birch, cherry, beech, and maple saplings around the homeowner’s vegetable garden and woven branches crosswise in a lattice to about knee height. For Boutin, a career bending trees is a gift so precious it keeps him up at night, imagining how he’ll build his next wattle and marveling that he gets to build wattles for a living at all.

Advertisement

Crowsneck Boutin gathering material for the fence
stakes for the wattle fence
Crowsneck Boutin

ABOVE Cheap materials, strength, and longevity are among the advantages of wattle fencing, though it’s time-consuming to build.

Born Nicholas Boutin and adopted by his grandparents when he was nine, he grew up on a seaside farm without running water or electricity in the down east township of Trescott. In the beginning, he ran away so often to the narrow dirt road where he’d lived with his mother, called Crows Neck, that his grandmother nicknamed him Crowsneck — or simply Crow. Hard work inscribed his days: clamming with his grandfather, wiring wreaths with his mother and grandmother, blueberry raking with friends. His grandfather taught him to weave wattles, and he fell in love with the meditative blend of physical and mental challenge. Life on the farm was a respite in an often brutal life. At school, he fought constantly. After his grandparents died, when he was 14, he dropped out and bounced for years among relatives’ and friends’ homes. By 26, he says, he’d been arrested 25 times for fights and bail violations and was living on the Portland streets.

Boutin credits the Choi Institute martial arts school, now located in South Portland, for turning his life around. In 2011, the institute’s Jon Pinette hired Boutin to work at his landscaping company, trained him as a mixed-martial-arts fighter, and let him live in the gym, where he slept on a mat in the cage. In 2014, fans voted him the New England Fights league’s mixed martial artist of the year. Two years later, he picked back up with his childhood love, weaving wattles. Now based in Cape Porpoise, Boutin still trains at the Choi Institute, but he no longer competes. Instead, he says, his life centers on raising his six-year-old daughter and on his work, which includes twice-a-month hikes into woods he leases near Machias to harvest trees, which must be freshly cut and pliable enough to weave.

Advertisement

wattle fencing, an ancient technique that involves interlacing native shoots, saplings, and branches

At the trophy home in Biddeford Pool, Boutin is doing what he calls “the fun part.” The sun is bright and high as he levels a cherry sapling at his waist like a tightrope walker, eyeing a place for it in the wattle. He tucks one end into the lattice and pushes the middle, looking for give. The tree fights him and, for a minute or so, they wrestle, Boutin shoving it inch by inch into place in a process called “tapping.” Finally, he steps back, red faced and smiling. “Anything that breaks you down a little bit,” he says, “usually means it’s worth a damn.”


10 Comments

  1. Sue Ellen Sevigny

    My husband and I are proud to call Crow “ Our other son”, and we are so blessed to know and love him. We were incredibly honored to be gifted a Crowsneck original wattle, and we cannot wait to see what the future holds for him. Crow is an artist, a fighter, a soulful human and a wonderful father.

    • Crow Boutin

      Sue Ellen, you are possibly the sweetest person I have ever met. You and Rocco are such a delightful pair- stoic and observant, sensitive and multifaceted. It’s an honor of mine to know you both. Your laughter is like the music that plays at a welcoming port.

  2. Kellie

    What a lovely sentiment. His work is so organic and unique, but ancient and soothing as well. Great job on that wattle fence in Biddeford. True Mainers are a unique bunch.

  3. Ian Sawyer

    I just finished reading this article and am left with a feeling of prife and happiness and a smile on my face from one ear to the other. I knew Crowsneck, well Nick when I knew him, when I lived in Machias and attended the University of Maine @ Machias.
    After reading this article I’m speechless as to where Crowsneck has ended up in life. It just goes to show people are most certainly capable of change and never judge a book ny it’s cover.
    Keep up your hard work and dedication to this amazing trade and if I could wish one thing for him it would be he finds a troubled young adult to take under his guide and let them apprentice with him. Let your gift come full circle.

    • Crow Boutin

      Ian, thank you so much for your kind words brother. I remember those old times. I find some troubled youth within my martial arts training world- I am affective there and can generate tutelage and guidance. In the woods I am silent and typically on the verge of tears the whole time because it’s where I go to grieve.

      I hope you are living your best life with health and smiles. If you need anything from me anytime, I am here for you!! 🙏

  4. Jodi Carroll

    How can I get information on having one of these built?

    Thanks

  5. vickie

    Beautiful work! So good to see craftsmen continue the old ways. This is the second story I’ve read about wattle fences in the last twenty-four hours. I hope Mr. Boutin mentors someone to carry on the tradition.

  6. Carole

    This is one of the best articles that I have read in a long time. Thanks for sharing. It is a genuine story of the strength of character released when nurtured. Crow, you are as insightful and inspiring. Your wattle fencing is beautiful and it is wonderful that you are helping the craft continue. I wish the best for you and your family.

  7. Patty

    Reading this story was such a wonderful start to my day. I may try to make a very small lol waddle fench as my hands are old and stiff but I am so intrigued by the beauty of them. Such an inspiration you are as well. Beautiful story of perseverance and strength. Keep on keeping on!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *