Part two of a series on the post-modern American hedgerow, a landscape form that offers benefits to humans and nature. Part one, “Where Do We Find Beauty in a Landscape” can be read here.
Helping a landscape regenerate includes paying attention to old stories
One of the books I keep by my bedside is a translation by Seamus Heaney of the medieval Irish classic, “Sweeney Astray.” In prose and verse it tells the story of Sweeney, the King of Dal Arie, who, falling afoul of the Christian Saint Ronan, is transformed into a sort of bird-man cursed to spend his life wandering the wild, in suffering and jubilation, from thicket to thicket, riverside to riverside, singing songs and saying poems as he goes.
Sweeney lives as a bird, roosting in trees and eating watercress, wild garlic, raspberries, sloes, and acorns; yet he remains a conscious, highly articulate being able to reflect both on his former life and life in the wild, the latter a life of cold and privation, but including its own leafy green satisfactions and exultations. He laments his isolation and exile, he praises his well-loved land, with all its named birds and animals, trees and flowers. Sweeney becomes the wild man of the woods, or the wild in ourselves made conscious. We humans may at times live in the wilderness, the wild may lodge in the innermost recesses of our beings, may inhabit our souls, but we never have been, never could be completely of the wild, which is why we are the one species that must eternally be learning to live with wild nature without wrecking it. Heaney, reflecting in the introduction about this relationship, and his own deep inhabitancy of the same landscape Sweeney wandered, calls out “the green spirit of the hedgerows embodied in Sweeney.” In so doing, he calls out his own remembrance of a fertile landscape, half domesticated, half wild.
While almost anyone in the UK will know exactly what a hedgerow is and how they feel about it, will perhaps have memories of growing up a “hedge kid” with an understanding of what that “green spirit” is, in the US the knowledge is not so widespread. What is a hedgerow? More broadly, what is a domesticated yet wild landscape?
I’ve lived my whole life in Illinois. Until I first traveled in the UK years ago, my own knowledge of hedgerows was imaginative, gained mostly through stories. After all, other than our forest preserves and some parks, most of the Illinois landscape is as subjugated as a people suffering under an autocratic regime. Growing up, I didn’t know what was missing, or why trips through our cornfields and visits to subdivisions were so depressing. I began to wonder why the landscape had to be the way it is, questions strengthened by what I was learning about our original prairies, savannas and woodlands. It’s true that the original vast prairies are now beyond living human memory, but throughout my life I have talked with people, many now no longer alive, who grew up among what were the small mixed farms of central and northern Illinois, who remembered a different landscape from the one now extant, a landscape of prairie patches, woodlots, fencerows and hedgerows. They spoke of how beautiful the land was in spring, full of flowering plums, crabapples and hawthorns bordering the roads, how their mothers went berrying along the hedgerows in summer in order to make pies and jam, how they themselves, when young, collected nuts in the fall in woodlots and along fencerows marked by tall, old hickory trees. They remembered a landscape full of birds, bees, butterflies and small game—full of life. This had little to do with my own experience, or perhaps the reader’s.
In many agrarian landscapes, wild areas surrounding fields, bordering streams and linking woodlots and coppices until quite recently have been simply part of the terrain. Traditional hedgerows have always been comprised of plants native to their place; have offered humans food, timber, even basket-making materials; offered animals habitat; and if necessary offered protection to crops from grazing animals such as deer. In England, where there have been hedgerows at least since the time of the Romans and possibly longer, they were used, as they were later in the US, as living fences to keep livestock separate from crops. This led to certain types of intensive management, to keep them bushy and dense enough to serve as fences. Farmers employed techniques such as trimming, laying (partially cutting and weaving branches together); coppicing (cutting small trees at ground level so that they produce whippy regrowth suitable for things like fuel, bean poles and baskets); and pollarding (cutting trees several feet above ground level to increase light and also provide fuel and for various other uses). The invention of barbed wire ended this necessity, and as farmers installed it by the mile, traditional hedgerow management–and hedgerows themselves– fell into decline. There’s been some recovery, at least in the UK, during the late 20th and early 21st centuries as hedgerows’ value as wildlife habitat has come to be reassessed and newly valued. An internet search will yield plenty of British sites devoted to the subject.
In the US, farmers did not, in general, practice the art of laid hedgerows. Fencerows, as they are often called here, were often simply the never cleared edges of fields. Whatever grew there was what composed the row. During the 18th, 19th and even early 20th centuries, in many parts of the country, fencerows (and woodlots) gave the small farms of the era their characteristic look. In the Midwest “living fences,” or Osage-orange trees planted closely together and severely cut back at timed intervals to form thorny hedges, were popular during the 19th century. In Illinois there were contests and prizes given to farmers who had grown the best Osage-orange hedges.
Even after barbed wire came into use, hedgerows and fencerows persisted. Farmers in the Midwest would install a barbed wire fence along one side of a hedgerow that might include Osage-orange trees, oaks, hickories, and various smaller flowering trees, along with bushes such as gooseberries, currants and wild grape vines. They got the wood for the posts from the fencerow itself—Osage-orange wood has excellent rot-resistance–or nailed the barbed wire to the living trees. These now roughly managed, even neglected, fencerows continued as a source for wood, nuts and berries and served as refugia for all kinds of native plants and wildlife even as the farming around them intensified. But, as Aldo Leopold and others lamented, “clean farming” gradually took hold and fencerows began to be removed to make room for big agriculture: big fields, big machines, big fertilizer and pesticides, big monoculture commodity crops—and no livestock or woodlots. Wildlife and native plant species began to decline. This has only intensified with the advent of full-on industrialized commodity farming (97% of Illinois crops are for biofuels or animal feed), especially as corn prices have increased.
It is important to acknowledge that these early-to-mid 20th century American landscapes were not natural, in the sense that they were domesticated and anthropocentric. Now it’s true that humans have been present on the land, managing on a vast scale since at least the latest glaciation. As the ice retreated in fits and starts, and plants colonized the newly exposed lands, humans were not far behind. However, European settlement, with its concurrent imported social patterns and material culture, brought massive disruption to natural landscapes that had been managed, but had mostly kept their integrity as “places in themselves.” There are huge, obvious differences between cultures that consider their role to be one of fitting into an ecosystem full of gifts for humans who behave properly and those that consider the land something created for their benefit and best managed through transformation and control. The US was surveyed and a grid of townships and sections superimposed on the natural topography. The prairie was broken, rivers channelized, oak savannas destroyed, wildlife killed: one could consider it a form of ecocide accompanying the human genocide taking place at the time. Nevertheless, wild nature hung on—in part because the agricultural, population and globalization pressures of those times were less intense, allowing places like remnant prairies, hedgerows and fencerows full of native plants to thread like ribbons through the landscape, serving as corridors, wildlife refugia and genetic banks carrying valuable plant DNA into the future.
Definitions and distinctions
At present, despite the good work and long struggles of countless individuals and groups over many years, in the US we are faced with vast areas of degraded land from which native wild species have been more or less extirpated, whether we are talking about the approximately 13 million acres planted to corn in Illinois, your typical homeowners-association-controlled middle class subdivision or modern exurban development with its houses, roads and infrastructure. (This is leaving aside major, purposeful destruction such as strip mining, mountaintop removal, tar sands mining and the like.) Most of that land is not escaping human control any time soon. Yet it is not just nostalgia that calls out for a need to let the wild back in. Not only preserving the wild in conservation areas, but rewilding human-controlled landscapes is vital in the effort to help mitigate climate change, environmental degradation and extinction. There are many ways to rewild a domestic landscape, or any particular piece of property. I am focusing on hedgerows (and certain variations) because they are iconic, they linger in people’s memories, and the types are variable enough to to implement at a range of scales. One might ask, do three shrubs make a hedgerow? What constitutes a hedgerow and how does that structure make room for wild nature in a domesticated landscape?
|Remnant Illinois hedgerow
The broadest definition is that a hedgerow consists of a long, fairly narrow arrangement of usually native, woody and herbaceous plants, including trees, shrubs, grasses and forbs (or flowers), and often including vines, which is used as an edge, or border, of a property, a field, or a road or path, or as a shelterbelt near buildings. It could be narrow, perhaps fifteen feet wide, or it could be much wider, looking and functioning like a linear woods, or a long oak savanna. Beyond that, depending on where you live and what your purpose is, the possible variations are nearly limitless. There is no generic hedgerow; it is always completely local, completely placebound.
Key is that hedgerows are tailored to their ecosystem with more or fewer conifers, different tree and shrub species, and different compositions of layers. Some hedgerows are planted on berms or banks, some have ditches or fences along the side; some are still laid, trimmed, coppiced and pollarded, some leave tall standard trees at intervals or corners. It is entirely possible that an urban or suburban yard could encompass a mini-hedgerow and, if neighbors had the same, the individual groups could join to form a functional corridor. A hedgerow is not a windbreak—one of those dreary though functional arrangements of a single species of conifer ringing farmhouses like fences to keep out the strong west and north winds of the northern prairies. Nor is it a line of one or two species of shrub, such as privet, box, or barberry (all non-native, by the way). Plant diversity is fundamentally important.
In the days when humans were fewer and wild areas larger, there seem to have been few concerns about the necessity for wildlife habitat–about hedgerows and shelterbelts being designed for other species– because other species were not so in danger of extinction as they are now. While no longer necessary for livestock containment, the post-modern hedgerow makes wildlife habitat enhancement explicit, enlarging the traditional definition using principles of corridor ecology. That is, ideally, a hedgerow should “improve the ability of organisms to move among patches of their habitat.” Hedgerows can serve as habitat and corridors through a larger, often unfriendly, human landscape (“the matrix,” in ecological terms). Thus, when designing a hedgerow, we should be thinking about what wildlife (including pollinators and beneficial insects) live in the area, and what connections will be gained. This is also an argument for hedgerows being as wild and as wide as possible, for reasons that will be made clearer later on in this series.
While all hedgerows can positively impact microclimates and help fields retain soil, shelterbelts, or hedgerows writ large, are wider and include rows of trees, both deciduous and conifers, on the windward side that can create truly sheltered conditions for a field or house. Shelterbelts and hedgerows have other, vital roles besides providing protection from wind: For one thing, as part of an agroecological, permaculture, or organic gardening or farming regime, they serve as habitat for the pollinators and beneficial insects so necessary to natural pest control and good yield. Recent studies have shown that many beneficial insects prefer woody, twiggy, perennial plants, aka shrubs. Also important–especially in rural areas–is that a well designed hedgerow or shelter belt can help protect crops, humans and other species from pesticide drift. If this is the case, specific design features, such as a row of conifers on the windward side, can do much to help mitigate negative effects. Beneficial insects are less attracted to conifers than deciduous trees or bushes. Osage-orange trees seem to help against herbicide drift as well, though they are more attractive to the beneficial insects that might be harmed by insecticide drift.
Finally, because they are perennial, hedgerows can serve as carbon sinks. I’m not aware that this aspect has been formally studied. How much carbon can different hedgerow and shelterbelt systems store both in the living structure and soil? Is it roughly the same as grasslands? Closer to that of woodland areas? At the moment these calculations don’t seem to have been made, at least that I could find. Hopefully studies are progressing. It seems logical, however, to posit that hedgerows, with their deep roots and undisturbed, healthy, living soil full of organic matter, could help mitigate some of the carbon loss involved in farming arable fields. While a newly planted hedgerow would produce minimal effects, over time the sequestration would only increase–and hedgerows, if properly looked after, can live a very long time, indeed.
The conscious, ecologically mindful approach recommended here is different from old methods, such as simply leaving alone what was already growing along the margins of a field, or leaving remnants of woods between fields, though these still have their place. It’s also very different from 18th and 19th century English enclosure hedgerows (mostly a single species such as hawthorn) and early 20th century “wildlife management” hedgerows constructed mostly of non-native, ultimately invasive species such as multiflora rose, autumn olive and buckthorn–as though native species hadn’t served that purpose perfectly well for thousands of years.
Post-modern hedgerow design and maintenance, therefore, require thought and intention at severalscales, some systems and biological knowledge, and local ecosystem knowledge. Like Sweeney, and the Irish poet who first wrote his story, old-time hedgerow makers doubtless knew landscapes, ecosystems and their denizens intuitively, in ways we don’t; but they also had greater margins for error, there being more ecosystem tolerance of their actions.
This is no longer the case. Rather than inhabiting a fairly whole ecosystem, we are faced and in future increasingly will be faced with the daunting task of helping marginal, damaged, even dysfunctional and ruined, landscapes and ecosystems recreate themselves. What was the landscape before– fifty, a hundred, two hundred years ago? What grew there in those times? What were settlement patterns? How, even in limited fashion, can we help the piece of land in question convalesce and recover to at least a semblance of its old complexity and fertility? While in residence? And do this in the face of climate change? We must be co-creating with nature, whose complexities remain beyond our current true understanding. It behooves us to learn as much as possible, and to follow nature’s lead so as to be of aid and to avoid doing foolish things. As I have written elsewhere, so much of learning an ecosystem requires imagining backwards, so much of restoration mandates thinking forwards.