There's an old southern tradition of shooting mistletoe out of treetops with a .22 rifle, or even a shotgun. Forrest Altman prefers a kinder, gentler way of harvesting the parasitic evergreen plant long associated with Christmas holiday romance.
For the past 30 years, the publisher and former Guilford College English professor has been leading canoeists and kayakers on an annual "Sprig Outing" along the Upper Little River, where low-hanging swamp branches make the use of firearms unnecessary.
"I do not subscribe to shooting it down," said the 88-year-old Altman, who started the tradition as a fundraiser for a local conservation group. "Everybody who does this claims to be a crack shot and not destroy the mistletoe in the process. But I think it's highly likely that anybody who shoots mistletoe down from trees is going to damage the tree AND the sprig."
Besides, using a gun to harvest what has become a symbol of peace, love and forgiveness seems a bit oxymoronic to the old conservationist.
The origins of kissing under the mistletoe are shrouded in mystery and legend. One story is that the tradition stems from 18th century England, when the plant sprig was carried to the high altar of the York Cathedral, and a public amnesty was proclaimed, Altman said.
Ancient druids believed mistletoe held some kind of magical life force.
"When gathered with a golden sickle — that was the only way to gather it, with a golden sickle — they believed that mistletoe was the life of the oak," said Altman, who writes about paddling and nature. "Because it was still green when the oak... otherwise looked dead."
In Sweden, mistletoe was used to make divining rods because of its supposed power of revealing treasures in the earth. And in Austria, a sprig laid on a threshold is said to ward off nightmares, Altman said.
However it got started, the practice of hanging mistletoe has become an indispensable part of the Christmas tradition.
On a recent clear morning, a group of about a dozen paddlers caravanned to a farm outside Lillington, a farming community about 30 miles south of the state capital of Raleigh. After Altman and river guide Scott Sauer gave a quick lecture on cooperation and leaving the place cleaner than they found it, the flotilla of blue, red and yellow craft launched into the gently flowing stream, a tributary of the Cape Fear River.
Instead of guns, Altman and Sauer use long poles with hooks on their ends. Sauer, who painted his way through college, demonstrated how to hook the mistletoe where it joins the tree branch.
"You put the hook over it and just simply twist the hook," he said, flicking his wrist.
Normally, to "thwart" is to prevent or foil something. But Altman has learned that "thwarting" a group of boats into a platform beneath the tree branches is the best way to keep the mistletoe from sinking beneath the tea-colored water.
Altman promotes sustainable harvesting. The group floated past several immature clumps before finding some with waxy, greenish-white berries.
After a few minutes, Ron Miller was grappling like a pro.
"I think I've hit the mother lode," the paddling instructor from Winston-Salem shouted as he hauled down a huge clump and handed it off to another kayaker. Altman was impressed.
Mistletoe grows on a variety of trees — including apple, maple and even olive — and is harvested commercially in orchards, as well as in the wild. But the sprigs gathered on this expedition were for personal use and gifting.
"There's a certain skill to this operation," Altman said. "And there's a certain requirement of holiday spirit, so to speak."
Joan Monnig had that — in spades.
Floating along in her red kayak and sequined Santa hat, the Chapel Hill woman led the group in "Deck the Halls" and other Christmas carols. Paddling over to neighbor Nate Jackson with a fresh sprig, she snagged his tow line, pulled him close and planted a kiss on his cheek.
"You know, a girl can never have too much mistletoe," she said. "Or too many kisses."