Part one of a series on the post-modern American hedgerow, a landscape form that offers benefits to humans and nature.
|Working hedgerows and corridors|
A settled landscape can be beautiful only in so far as it admits room for wild nature
Before we get to hedgerows’ multifaceted functionality and usefulness, and why and how we should plant them, let’s start with beauty, a quality not often associated with the mundane, anthropocentric landscapes, whether urban, suburban or rural, of many parts of the Midwest—or elsewhere in the US, for that matter. Beauty—deep, profound, emerging through complexity, impossible to quantify—matters immensely. As Aldo Leopold and a host of others, most recently Courtney White in Land, Soil, Hope, have pointed out, though there is struggle, suffering and disease, predation and often early death among the wild denizens, enmeshed in the food web as they are, nevertheless, an ecologically sound landscape—wherever it is, however lush, arid or in between—is beautiful in a way a degraded one can never be. Beauty’s necessity is a fact of life for indigenous peoples and for us moderns who have lived close to the land in regenerative fashion, who’ve been worked on by it until we have become re-enchanted, until we’ve have become naturalized citizens of our home ecosystems. Artists, writers, poets, composers and musicians have always known and celebrated this fact, as have certain religious writers, philosophers and scientists. I believe even the most urbanized, nature-phobic among us recognize and understand this necessity, though they may be unaware of it, or may have suppressed this knowledge to the detriment of their own psychic health and much else.
Because of the extreme degradation of so many human-occupied landscapes, some people might only associate beauty with a manicured corporate campus, or Disney-fied theme park, with the neat and tidy in general. Some of these landscapes might be pretty, but they have none of the deep mystery and complexity—and delight—that beauty entails. Others might only associate wild nature’s beauty—and ecosystem health—with nature reserves, national parks, and places of spectacular scenery well away from cities. This camp includes people, even respected conservationists and scientists, who hold the ethos that true ecosystem health and beauty depend on a lack of humans in the landscape, where nature can do its thing free of our interference. This attitude is important and necessary: it is why we need and have our great national parks and nature reserves and must continue to set aside land where other species can live and humans can visit without the threat of shopping malls apartment complexes, industrial farming and, worse, extractive industries, ruining the land.
However, and this is where hedgerows and other forms of greenways such as wildlife corridors come in, human-occupied landscapes can also be ecologically sound, full of a beauty not imposed according to strictly human rules and principles. While an overly controlled landscape or one managed only for short-term gain, function or appearances never can be beautiful, a working landscape will be beautiful if it is managed with close attention to natural processes and room for the messy complexity of wild nature. Unless there is room for wild nature, there will be no beauty or health—and there will be no life, in the sense of all the processes and cycles of living and dying that form that landscape. There will only be that tendency toward cessation, toward depletion, degradation and impoverishment—toward death in its guise of “nevermore,” that is, of finality, of entropy, of extinction, of the dissolution of complexity that is the ruin of any piece of land.
As far as I know, the first peoples understood that humans can be part of an eco-system without destroying it, and that human influence is not necessarily negative. I’m pretty sure that those original settlers of my part of the world never thought about the question of belonging or not in the terms set forth here. Often the question was, and is, one of how humans can fit in properly, can earn the right to partake of the gifts our ecosystem offers, and of what we will give back. This is obvious if you read any of the old creation myths and stories about life on our continent, sometimes called Turtle Island. Humans belong here. The wilderness that Europeans “settled” was actually land that had been lived in and managed by its peoples since the Laurentide ice sheet retreated 10,000 years ago. We humans, if we live and work, think, plan and do as citizens of the biotic community, can actually be of benefit to an ecosystem, but only if we make an effort to follow the rules, sometimes called the “original operating instructions.” This ancient, vital knowledge is only now being redeployed. Combining it with modern ecological science forms a powerful hybrid that can lead to truly regenerative land management practices.
|Commodity farms in the midwest|
Now it’s true that some farmers, the ones who grow commodity crops like soybeans and corn on vast fields, don’t like hedgerows. Nor do many developers, park districts, or conventional landscaping firms. Hedgerows are inappropriate in large prairie areas, whether remnant or restored, where grassland birds require vast, treeless areas on the order of 10,000 acres or so to feel comfortable enough to nest and start families. They are shaggy, messy, unkempt looking. They require effort to put in, nurturance while young, and regular maintenance thereafter. We have fences.
I would never promote use of hedgerows in areas of the country where they’d be inappropriate, such as the desert southwest, or arid grasslands (except possibly where trees and shrubs might occur naturally, such as riparian areas) or large public lands managed for restoration. They have their own beauty and ecosystem complexity. My aim during this series of posts will be to talk about how, in temperate areas of our country that are already built on or farmed, that can’t be restored or set aside, hedgerows can be used to help heal the land. They can be an important component of green infrastructure, complementing bioswales and raingardens.
Further, as our climate changes, hedgerows and greenways could be crucial not only for their carbon-storage properties, but also for their ability to serve as corridors linking larger, wilder areas so that animals and even plants can migrate to more favorable habitats. Some of the plant migration could even be human-assisted, though that is controversial. In all, they are a prime example of reconciliation ecology, the practice of designing human-centered landscapes to accommodate the needs of other species.
Unless you’ve visited places with thriving hedgerows and have seen how they can positively impact a landscape, you may not understand why they are so vitally important. This is partly a case of shifting baselines. You can’t appreciate or miss a type of landscape that nurtures all the creatures that live in an area unless you experience it, and beyond that, have the cultural understanding to value it. In England, enough hedgerows have continued to exist and enough people and organizations have kept the cultural and historical knowledge alive to enable hedgerows as a concept to remain viable, and as a landscape feature to be to be saved and resuscitated. Here in the US, both the concept and the reality are having to be reinvented. A friend of mine, who has been studying hedgerows and advocating their use for twenty years, calls these new efforts “post-modern hedgerows.”
Gardeners, conservationists, permaculturalists and organic farmers are already practicing hedgerow making, particularly in California. By so doing they are reinvigorating ancient art and utilizing modern science that could, if practiced widely enough, help knit back together many of our fractured landscapes, providing habitat for pollinators, other beneficial insects, birds, and other animals while simultaneously providing food, materials, and shelter—in the form of privacy and microclimate enhancement—for humans. Properly planned and maintained, they can increase bio-diversity, store carbon, help manage rainwater, and add beauty and livability for all.
When a farmer plants and manages a wide, ecologically diverse hedgerow, or enriches an old fencerow, or a government agency does the same along a road, they might say they are creating a pollinator reserve, wildlife corridor, game bird habitat, micro-climate enhancer, even a carbon sequestration system. The same goes for those of us who have smaller pieces of land to work with in suburbs or city, whose small yards can link together in beneficial ways. But what we all really are doing is co-creating beauty.