TEXT BY SARA ANNE DONNELLY
PHOTOGRAPHED BY DAVE DOSTIE
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.
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.
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.”