In March 2020 while winter waned and Corona raged, tree branch prunings started to pile up. We had needed to make a livestock fence on our property border. But it would have to run right down the middle of an existing hedgerow of trees, shrubs and other perennial plants.
It would have been easier to just bulldoze the whole hedgerow. But if we did, what would happen to the orioles, the finches, the squirrels, the woodcock, the partridges, the blue jays, the hawks, the insects and all the other creatures that call it home? Sanity and science prevailed: we knew about the many, many ecosystem services hedges provide: wild and domestic animal shelter, shade, windbreaks, fruit, firewood, carbon trapping, and more.
I decided that I’d chainsaw, prune, shovel and pull enough trees, shrubs and roots to clear enough brush for a laneway for the fence through the middle of the hedgerow.
The resulting brush could have been burnt. Indeed, like many itinerant medieval peasants, I did burn some in a controlled way to make a large amount of charcoal to use later to make bio-char. The majority remained. I dug into a different ancient playbook to make a different sort of hedgerow, an “instant” hedgerow: a dead hedge.
A dead hedge is a fast way to make a hedge, but is far from instant.
After many hours of snipping, cutting, sawing, chainsawing, dragging, heaving, pulling, lifting, tossing, and packing down, we ended up with two dead hedges. The Happy Place ended up with two spines of wood on land.
Dead or alive, a “Wood/land” hedge had a very specific meaning in 1500’s England. In The Illustrated History of the Countryside, Oliver Rackham says a county had woodland if it had hedges. Counties without were called open or “champion.” In 1573, writer Thomas Tusser championed woodland counties as better places to live (Rackham p. 80).
Hedged counties were prettier and had more valuable firewood and fruit. Thus being near a hedge—alive or dead—was to be in a happy place. To be beside one is not to have gone wayward. And a hayward (or hedge ward) was someone who mended hedges, often using hawthorn branches (haw also meaning hedge). While nobody likes to work with a prick, we should hedge our bets and leave some hawthorns around. An ancient saying states “The thorn is mother to the oak”. Thorns protect more valued young seedling and sapling trees.
Just what, exactly, is a hedge?
A hedge is a living edge between two often contradictory activites. Keeping undesireables out of crop fields and gardens is a battle humans have fought for ages.
In Hedges and Hedgerows in Britain: A Thousand Years of Agroforestry, Rackham states that hedgerows—belts of shrubs and trees dividing fields—provided living fences, sheltered the fields, connected habitats, and produced firewood, craft materials, and food in the form of fruit and game.
If you have any European ancestry, for fascinating details about why your ancestors were wild about hedges (and the food they ate and why), read the blog The Lost Forest Gardens of Europe by Max Paschall.
Down the Rabbit Hole: An Insider’s Guide to Hedge Types
Occupying a place on the landscape starting at least as far back as the Stone Age, by the Middle Ages hedges were everywhere. They were remnants of cleared forests, or grew up naturally along fences, or were planted on purpose with things like hawthorn, ash, oak or lime trees and were often specially pruned in coppice or pollard forms. For a thoroughly enjoyable ramble through the world of how your ancestors interacted with trees, see Sprout Lands: Tending the Endless Gift of Trees by William Bryant Logan. For a more hands-on glimpse into this fascinating world, see Mark Krawczyk’s Coppice Agroforestry.