Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Talking about Hedgerows on Friday

My friend Dave Coulter, who coined the name "post-modern hedgerow," organized a symposium on the topic and invited me to take part, along with several other participants. All things hedgerow will be discussed at the Chicago Botanic Garden this Friday during the annual meeting of the Midwest-Great Lakes Chapter of the Society for Ecological Restoration. I'm looking forward to the discussion, and to meeting other hedgerow aficionados.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Hedgerow Hypotheticals: Our Cities and Suburbs Need Hedgerows Too

Part Three 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. Part Two, "Just What is Hedgerow? A Few Notes on History, Form and Function" can be found here.
Ecological Network: “a coherent system of natural and/or semi-natural landscape elements that is configured and managed with the objective of maintaining or restoring ecological functions as a means to conserve biodiversity while also providing appropriate opportunities for the sustainable use of natural resources.”
~International Union for the Conservation of Nature, 2001

My Illinois home
Chicago has been described as "a flood waiting to happen"
Cook County, Illinois, which basically means Chicago and an accompanying flotilla of suburbs, is home to some five and a half million people and their cats, dogs, parakeets and goldfish. How the City of Chicago, strung out along the southwest shore of Lake Michigan, arrived at its present state is a conflict-ridden, bloody, fascinating story.

Prior to European incursion and settlement, few people, if anyone, lived on the swampy, marshy, waterlogged, muddy ground that is the natural terrain on which our gleaming towers, our great cultural institutions, our parks, our middle class neighborhoods and our slums are built. In those times, people sensibly gathered on higher ground in large summer camps along rivers such as the Illinois and Des Plaines, dispersing in winter family bands for hunting. Each family needed approximately five or six square miles to provide enough meat through the long, cold winters. The lake and connecting waterways made the place a good trading nexus through which goods and people flowed, not only by canoe, but also along trails that hugged the natural low ridges left by the glaciers and thousands of years of fluctuating lake levels.

The beaver trade and resulting wars among the French, British, and nations and tribes such as the Iroquois, Potawatomi, Illini, Sauk, and Fox brought turmoil to the region from the 17th century onward; the city was not fully established until the Americans took over and in the 19th century commenced completely altering the terrain to their liking, a process that continues to this day. Chicago owes its continued existence to some of the largest, most audacious engineering projects for water management in history. It continues to be a transportation and trade hub.

As in many US cities, it is possible to reside here and, other than snow in winter and heat and humidity in summer, never know what ecosystem you’re in, that the lake is nearby, what the landscape was, or that wolves, bears and cougars were at one time a presence. Yet despite all, Cook County remains one of the most biodiverse in the US, thanks in part to early establishment of 68,000 acres of forest preserves, shoreline restoration efforts, parks, community gardens and backyard gardens. However, much more could be done. Hedgerows, for example.

Cities are the perfect place for miles of post-modern hedgerows

While hedgerows in rural and exurban landscapes have a long history, cities and suburbs are another question entirely. When people think about hedgerows, windbreaks, fencerows and other forms of “linear forests,” as permaculturalist Peter Bane calls them--if they think about them at all--they mostly associate them with bucolic settings, perhaps as in an aerial view of England or Ireland: small green fields bordered by a network of beautiful green hedges, forming what is called “ancient countryside” in the UK.

Why don’t urban areas don’t boast complex networks as well? Hedgerows are linear, natural boundaries, and when siting them it’s good to look for natural edges and linear elements in the landscape that could benefit from hedgerow augmentation. Cities and towns are nothing if not linear, full of boundaries and borders, large and small. And many neighborhoods already contain single-species hedges of one sort or another; wherever sad ranks of privet, box, barberry, or yew stand in an over-pruned row, with little more effort a biodiverse, native shrub hedgerow (aka mixed shrub border) could thrive. You’d think you could walk the streets of an average residential neighborhood and see green infrastructure galore, including raingardens and bioswales, not to mention hedgerows. But no.

Won’t public greenways and natural areas suffice?

Since the late 20th century quite a few examples of large-scale greenways and wildlife corridors have been developed, often on a regional or even continental scale.

Chicago’s forest preserves that form riparian corridors along the Chicago and Des Plaines Rivers are a good, early 20th century example of this kind of thinking, planning and implementation, as is the restoration of Montrose point on Lake Michigan where natural shoreline along with its attendant vegetation has been restored, including its “Magic Hedge,” to the benefit of multiple species of birds as well as people. Other examples include the North-South corridors that will ultimately connect national parks along the Rocky Mountains, and the new Hackmatack Nature reserve that will cross the Illinois-Wisconsin border. In California the Sonoma Valley Wildlife Corridorallow cougars and other wildlife to move across an otherwise built-up landscape and even the Highline Park in New York City features green space created on old elevated line. Other large scale regional planning includes greenway projects along rivers or incorporated into new development.
Hackmatack Nature Reserve: corridors connect natural areas

To effectively plan and implement large-scale greenways and wildlife corridors takes the cooperation of multiple governmental entities (federal, state and municipal), citizens’ groups, public institutions, planning agencies, landscape architects and ecologists. They are well worth doing, though they can take years to accomplish. They have the potential to and in many cases actually either have helped landscapes retain some ecological integrity, or have altered over-built landscapes for the better. They are of vast importance for providing wildlife habitat and enabling wildlife species to move across an often unfriendly matrix and they can help preserve natural areas by helping focus new development to less sensitive zones so the natural terrain can maintain its coherence.

Clearly, these necessary projects can positively impact the ecosystems and ecology of whole regions, leading to great benefits for human and non-human residents. However, from a different angle they could be seen as another way of keeping nature corralled and in its place, as it were--still another iteration of the old American model of “nature over there, humans here.” Even within a context of urban green corridors, on a more granular scale neighborhoods, parks and individual properties may be completely “non-natural.” There may be no vegetation at all, or if there is, it is either weedy, as in abandoned properties, where as soon as the asphalt cracks, pioneer plants start growing, or fiercely controlled. Who has not experienced “green space” featuring the few species of non-native trees and shrubs tightly corseted by mulch and chemically controlled turf grass that constitutes much landscape design at every scale from corporate campus to the building owner who buys a few shrubs, species unknown, from the big box store to dress up the property? Admittedly I’m painting with a broad brush. There are plenty of more enlightened municipalities and homeowners, plenty of neighborhoods where pollinators, birds and other animals do well, but from a broad perspective, say, that of Google earth, or a migrating bird, this is how it often looks.

According to the authors of  Designing Greenways, the four “indispensable patterns for ecosystem functioning” in anthropocentric landscapes include: ”a few large patches of natural vegetation; connectivity between the patches; vegetated corridors along major streams; and ‘bits of nature’ scattered through the less ecologically suitable matrix.” As in Chicago’s case, many urban areas have “large patches” in the form of nature reserves of one kind or another, and they may have “vegetated stream corridors,” both of which might be planned and managed by large agencies and/or citizens groups. Managed “connectivity” might appear in the form of other greenways, roadside plantings, and parkway trees.

However, nationwide, there is a crying need for vastly more “bits of nature” in the form of all kinds of gardens, large and small, utilizing native plants and natural, ecological gardening practices, and even more of a need for vastly increased “connectivity” in the guise of hundreds if not thousands of miles of hedgerows of one sort or another, bordering properties, acting as living fences, and sheltering gardens.  Right now, most examples reside in my own imagination. As I walk or ride around neighborhoods in the Chicago area, if I’m not scouting out existing or potential pollinator habitat, I’m often taking mental notes of potential hedgerow sites. And of course, the two overlap. Out in the leafier suburbs, there are plenty of examples of beautiful mixed shrub borders, but there too, the questions remain: Are they largely native species? What kind of connectivity they help provide? Do they include a full compliment of understory and ground layer plants?  If individual ecologically managed properties are surrounded by zones where overly restrictive homeowners’ associations hold sway, or where one individual’s property is bounded by a road and other properties governed by neat and tidy, non-native landscaping, they function as islands in what are basically biological deserts.

In short, the time is ripe for an urban revolution of sorts, a post-modern American urban hedgerow movement. The vexed question of what we do on our own private properties is of deep importance to our cities’ future resilience. Urban hedgerows have a potentially large part to play in a climate changing present and future by adding biodiversity and connectivity, providing habitat, managing water and storing carbon. And for humans at a time of economic uncertainty, when we need to develop sustainable, resilient livelihoods in cities just as in the country, managed hedgerows can provide fuel, food and materials.  They can be considered a form of meliorative restoration, or rewilding that benefits humans as well as other species.

A few suggestions for urban hedgerow design and practice

Once upon a time long ago, I attempted to plant and grow an English perennial border in the continental climate of northern Illinois, using plants recommended in books purporting to be all-purpose gardening manuals. It failed of course and I began the long journey towards better understanding of the biogeographical place where I actually live. That and other failures (and successes) lead me to make the following suggestions, particularly for those just starting out. The first is most crucial and of inestimable importance for a host of reasons that extend well beyond garden design.

1. Learn the terrain

I’m assuming that if you are reading this, you are interested in or already practicing some form of urban gardening, or are engaged with your landscape as landscape in some other way—as opposed to the New Yorker who once said that the outdoors was the space between the door to her building and the waiting cab. It’s possible to simply plant an assortment of (hopefully native) shrubs and companion plants along a fence. However, experiences such as my English garden disaster tell me that it is always wise to gain knowledge of the larger landscape in which one lives. Start to learn the terrain and read the landscape, not only of the neighborhood and larger urban surroundings, but of the region.

Glacial kame at Bluff Spring Fen, 
Cook County Forest Preserves
Over 80% of continental US residents live in urban areas of one sort or another, and we like to think we know our places.  But for too many of us, “our place” means the mostly concrete template set on top of the landscape: residential neighborhoods, roads, transit lines, favorite restaurants, shopping areas, and places of work. Professionals who work with plants recognize a widespread syndrome we call “green blindness,” in which the sufferer (usually urban) sees plants as a curtain or backdrop and doesn’t notice them other than in generic categories such as “tree,” “ bush,” “grass,” and “flowers.” (This is a variety of “nature blindness,” an even more widespread malady to which US residents are prone. What percentage of urban dwellers have a good working knowledge of birds besides crows and robins, or can speak the language of the land, knowing the difference, say between a bog and a fen, or how a kame is formed?)

If we are interested in knowing where it is we actually live and purposefully making room for wild nature, there’s so much more to learn. Why is your town hilly or flat? What is the climate? The underlying rocks? The hydrology? Are you near a river or lake? How does it affect the landscape? What are the native plants and animals? Are there any in your neighborhood? What is the human history of the place, and how did previous peoples interact with the land? What is the soil like on your property, neighborhood, and region? Where are the local nature reserves or other pockets of nature that may include parks, riverbanks, vacant lots, and railroad rights of way? Much of this you may already know, though perhaps organized differently in your brain. This kind of systems knowledge can be the deeply rewarding study of a lifetime.

Obviously this is too much to learn quickly, especially for those fairly new to an area. Yet it is possible and important to get a good overview before focusing on one’s own property, or in company with others, making and implementing a plan on a block or neighborhood level. One good way is to look at maps of all kinds: Google earth, road maps, atlases, topographical and geological maps will all help get a feeling for your place.  Maps help us get an overview of where greenspace is, in the form of parks and backyards, and where potential links could be made. Field trips and exploration are vital. With one's "ecosystem eyes" on, any trip around town, no matter how short, can be an opportunity for observation and learning. Looking at guidebooks of native plant species and visiting natural areas where pre-European settlement landscapes are protected are also of inestimable importance. You could even begin to keep a small field notebook to record your observations and thoughts. Much of this kind of knowledge is fundamental to basic permaculture. Yet prior to permaculture, it has meant the difference between life and death for many peoples, and on a less fraught scale, it directly relates to the success of any gardening venture no matter how small.

A warning comes attached to this project. Often, as people proceed, the more they learn, the more they seek out nature, and the more understanding they gain of their place, the more the land works on you and the closer they come to an “indigenous” point of view, in the sense that  identity begins to incorporate biogeographical place dependency. One's life, priorities, and ethics, that is, ideas about what’s important and how people should live, might change in surprising ways. In the ensuing years since my first disastrous project, I first learned enough to plant and maintain a pretty nice, if small, perennial border, and then progressed to a point where my yard has become a tiny, semi-natural ecosystem and learning lab that produces some food for my family and habitat for wildlife. I got deeply involved with restoring natural areas and teaching others about these kinds of subjects. My definition of beauty expanded. My spiritual life changed. Now, whenever I look at any piece of ground, I first wonder what the soil is like. Next I consider whether bees and other pollinators and beneficial insects would be happy there. (These little creatures are fine indicator species. If they can't thrive, little else will.) Then I wonder what it needs and how to help.

Naturally one does't have to know all this in such detail in order to get started on an urban hedgerow, especially if you are in contact with others who do have this knowledge and experience, but some kind of broad overview will help prevent failures. And finding mentors can help ease the learning curve.

2. Assess and understand your situation and purpose
Perhaps you are already doing some urban farming, or gardening, or perhaps you live in a suburb with a nice large lot. Perhaps you live in an apartment but have a park or community garden down the street that you already or would like to utilize. Wherever you live, odds are it’s anthropocentric to the extent that it’s unbalanced.

To me, urban gardening of any sort, whether ornamental landscaping, in parks and other urban green spaces, or for community or individual food production must address several questions: How will this garden and its plantings take its place in and benefit local ecological functioning and the wildlife that live in the area? How will it help create beauty? How will it help the people who live in this place and what will they use it for? Will it, overall, tend to sequester carbon, regenerate the soil and manage water? (Residents of rural areas could also profitably answer these questions, to be discussed in a future post). When planning an urban hedgerow, considerations also include what the property owners’ needs are, and how the hedgerow should function—as a living fence? As a source for human food and wood? As a privacy and sound screen? As wildlife corridor and habitat? Often, of course, the answer will be “all of the above,” and then the next challenge will be to fit the hedgerow to the space.

3. Design the hedgerow to suit the place
When I imagine a city full of hedgerows, I imagine them in many guises. The definition of a hedgerow is so elastic, and the styles and variations so various, that they could be designed for almost anywhere and tailored to almost any situation, large or small. Wherever a line of weedy species has grown up, wherever there is need for fencing or privacy, wherever there is a chain link or wrought-iron fence with a few Eurasian shrubs straggling alongside, urban hedgerows could be an answer. The important considerations are purpose, structure (including management) and species of plants used. These are important because not only are human needs being taken into account, but also the needs of wildlife, including insects, and issues such as water management and quality of life. Trees and shrubs would be chosen to fit the space, and hedgerow purpose and design. Plants would be largely native, because native plants really do better help support important beneficial insects and pollinators and when birds eat the berries, they will not later be spreading the seeds of invasive non-native shrubs. I am not recommending specific plant species, because where readers live determines what would be most appropriate. Management would be ecological. Leaf litter would remain on the ground, pruning would be selective, and if appropriate, understory plants and ground covers could be encouraged to grow.

City lots. OK, so you live in a townhouse, or your lot measures 25 or 30 feet by perhaps 125 or 150 feet and much of that is taken up by house and garage. While there’s no room for a full-on hedgerow,
What not to do:
boxwood, mulch, chemical turf
there is likely room for a low hedge in front along the sidewalk. The tiny front yard could then be planted to native flowers and ground covers, or even vegetables and herbs. In the back yard, three shrubs in a corner could constitute a mini-hedgerow, or a small flowering tree with low shrubs underneath and : a corner forest garden, as it were, incorporating herbaceous species as well.

Suburban properties. Between two larger suburban properties the owner or collaborating neighbors could create a 15-20 foot wide, mixed shrub border that includes a few conifers, small flowering shrubs and even a small tree or two, planted fairly close together so gaps fill in. This would provide beauty, privacy, and help serve the area’s wildlife needs. The shrubs could be faced down with grasses and flowers for an American-style perennial garden. Herbs and vegetables could be mixed in. A neighborhood full of such properties would be a leafy green haven.

Alternatively, such a border could be a linear forest garden, either on one person’s property or serving as a sort of commons between two properties. Fruiting trees and bushes would naturally be a part of this, as would bushes that respond well to coppicing. In sub-developments where rows of properties back up to one another, hedgerows could extend a long way if owners decided to work together.

A young hedgerow and herbaceous understory plants
add beauty and usefulness for humans and other species

Community gardens and urban farms. Many urban areas boast wonderfully fertile and well functioning community gardens. Since these are agricultural production sites, often slotted in between buildings and can range in size from a single city lot to several acres, it makes sense that many could well use the addition of a small mixed hedgerow full of native flowering shrubs along a back fence. Laid or pleached hedgerows along building walls or perimeter fences could add needed biotic functionality and beauty to the site by offering shelter to (insect-eating) birds and beneficial predatory insects and nectar and pollen for pollinators. The understory, full of leaf litter, perhaps some logs left to decay naturally (and inoculated to grow edible mushrooms?), and low native plants such as wild strawberry and native ginger would provide habitat for predaceous ground beetles and potential overwintering habitat for other beneficial insects.
Hedgerows would add good ecological function and help optimize crops

In a multi-lot space, hedgerows could be wider, and managed for berries, coppiced for a supply of usefully sized wood such as bean poles, or even basket-making materials. A small rock pile could be constructed for small critters, or “beetle bumps,” small areas of raised earth planted with native perennial grasses to serve as habitat for predatory beetles could be put in place. Flowers such as milkweed could be included. Here again, learning your landscape and learning the plants and beneficial insects native to the ecosystem is crucial. I have never understood why I’ve met so many food gardeners, including urban permaculturalists, who, though often brilliant horticulturalists and designers, have so little real understanding of the suite of native plants and animals of the Chicago region or how to incorporate native plants into and exclude overly invasive plants from their gardening and permaculture schemes. A row of native serviceberries are a blessing in early June when the sweet deep blue berries ripen, Aronia’s somewhat tart berries make good jam, and native wild roses produce good hips for tea.

This  park  needs a hedgerow
The whole park would be improved
Parks. Often chain link fences form park boundaries, and here, laid hedgerows could be
constructed that, while not especially wide or tall, would add beauty, habitat, and, if composed of thorny species, a measure of security to a space usually dominated by shade trees, grass and play equipment. If not laid, less thorny species could be woven together or pleached to good effect. One obstacle to this is that park districts often have restrictions regarding shrubs for security reasons. Yet smaller shrubs along a fence would not really compromise security, particularly if composed of deciduous species.

Soccer, baseball--and hedgerows?
Athletic fields and golf courses. These can be huge, windy spaces; because the landscapingnecessarily is turf, they usually function as chemical-laden biological deserts. Here, shelterbelts made of a mix of native trees and shrubs on the side with the prevailing winds could help improve microclimate and biotic functioning while also potentially providing improved water management, and some carbon sequestration. The fields, while remaining completely anthropocentric, could become more of an ecosystem asset. Athletic fields are often situated close to busy roads, and sometimes, natural areas are nearby. Because of the possibility for greater scale, length, and width, post-modern windbreaks and hedgerows could function a little more like rural ones and could help link separate neighborhoods across the matrix. 

Crabapple trees need companionship
Along berms. A common landscaping feature in the US is the berm, possibly topped with a few tightly mulched conifers or other small trees, used as a sound and sight barrier along a busy road. In the UK, certain styles of hedgerow involve banks topped with shrubs. In the US, hedgerows incorporated into the design of berms would add to their shielding purpose, while adding complexity to the landscape. These could be very informal mixes of native flowering shrubs, conifers and small trees allowed to grow naturalistically and would only need to be selectively pruned, rather than subjected to the rigors of mow, blow and go landscaping that passes for care in these kinds of situations.

Shielding natural areas. I know of several small natural areas such as savannas and pocket prairies where the stewards have left a strip of woody growth between the restored area and road. Often these are full of buckthorn, Eurasian honeysuckle and other weedy species. What if other native shrubs and small trees such as American hawthorn, wild plum, elderberry and even Osage orange were planted in these strips as the buckthorn and honeysuckle are removed?  These could be managed as semi-wild shelterbelts full of native savanna plants. Since the wider a corridor is, the better it is for wildlife, here, as in athletic fields, the potential for greater width could be an immense benefit.

It seems clear that how we treat the land within cities could make a difference on multiple scales for multiple species, including us. If individuals and groups consciously bring more nature into the city by creating small semi-natural areas using native plants, practicing ecological gardening and adding connectivity with hedgerows and fencerows composed of diverse native species, cramped urban areas and over-manicured suburbs would dramatically transform. Our urban areas would become more resilient, ecological networks incorporating all four essential landscape patterns. This is already happening in some places, but so much more could be done. The potential benefits are so abundant, by so many measures, that it seems as though the transformation should already have taken place.

Note: Thanks to readers Thomas Rainsborough and Jason Heppenstall for information and suggestions regarding hedgerows in the UK. Also thanks to Resilience.org editors Luanne and Bart for their useful comments.

Related Posts:

In Praise of Native Shrubs
Where Do We Find Beauty in a Landscape?
Just What is a Hedgerow: A Few Notes on History, Form and Function
Flowering Plants that Native Bees Love
"Farming with Native Beneficial Insects" Means Solving for Pattern

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

If We're Serious about Saving Bees and Butterflies, Here's What We Should Do

In June 2014, President Obama appointed a Pollinator Health Task Force to develop strategies for improving the health of insect pollinators. In November the Task Force held public listening sessions and invited written comments regarding best management practices, public-private partnerships, research, education opportunities, pollinator habitat improvements, and other actions. This is an edited version of my submitted comments that was originally published in Wild Ones Journal (subscription required).

Best Management Practices: a general statement

Because I use judiciously applied herbicides to help control invasive plant species in the forest preserves, I respect both the power and usefulness of these toxic chemicals [see note below]. However, out of this respect and long professional and volunteer experience grows a conviction that pollinator, beneficial insect, and general ecosystem health will not improve unless: 1) large scale pesticide use is curtailed on agricultural land, on public land such as roadsides and city parks, on large corporate and institutional campuses, and in private backyards and gardens across the nation; 2) agricultural and landscaping practices designed to enhance biodiversity and ecosystem health are instituted on a large scale in rural, suburban and urban areas; and 3) widespread IPM methods are instituted, again on a large scale.

The studies, practices and tools already exist to improve pollinator health 

If the EPA and USDA (and Congress) can disengage from the smothering embrace of big agricultural and chemical companies and their lobbyists, the agencies will find that important work is already being done (some of it funded through your own programs and recommended on your own websites (!). We already know that pesticides (particularly broad spectrum, systemic ones such as neonicotinoids) and fragmented and destroyed habitat impair pollinator health. We already know the kinds of farming, gardening and landscaping practices that will foster pollinators and beneficial (pest destroying) insects. Anyone familiar with the work of science-based organizations such as the Xerces Society knows that we know this. Anyone who gardens for biodiversity in their backyard knows this. What is frustrating is that while EPA and USDA sub-groups such as the NRCS are doing good work, a corporate-lobbying-induced blindness seems to prevail at the policy level, which I believe ultimately is damaging to the land and people of our nation. You cannot have it both ways. You cannot continue business as usual and expect to actually halt pollinator declines. If pollinator health is made a priority, to be successful much current policy and practice must change.

Habitat: The more diverse and native plant-oriented, the better

  • Ramp up efforts to help (require?) large-scale commodity farmers to increase pollinator-friendly, biodiverse native plant areas on their land such as hedgerows, buffer strips, insectaries and the recent USDA sponsored bee-pastures.
  • Encourage efforts by municipalities and local organizations. For example, West Cook Wild Ones, homeowners and the park districts of Oak Park and River Forest are planting pollinator gardens, creating a broad east-west corridor between Columbus Park in Chicago and Cook County Forest Preserve land along the Des Plaines River.
  • Require conventional farms to establish shelterbelts that keep pesticides in their own fields. Drift from neighboring cornfields should not harm plants and reduce pollinator diversity on land I help care for in central Illinois.
  • Increase mixed-use farms that utilize agroecology, agroforestry, managed grazing, and crop rotation and diversity.
  • Increase habitat along roadsides and change management practices to favor reduced pesticide use, reduced mowing and increased biodiversity.
Partnerships: Find people who are already doing good work and help them out

So much great work is being done by so many individuals and organizations that forming partnerships beyond the usual trade associations and corporate councils should be a huge priority. Seek out these stakeholders who have scientific and practical expertise, who are already partnering with and educating municipalities, farmers and homeowners regarding land management, landscaping practices, use of native plants, and even urban green infrastructure such as raingardens, bioswales, and green roofs. Tap into the local and sustainable food movement. 

Besides national organizations such as Xerces Society, Wild Ones, American Community Garden Association, and National Wildlife Federation, others have much to offer, e.g. native plant growers and nurseries; ecological landscaping associations and their member firms; organic farm associations; and conservation organizations.

Education: Find, encourage, and create formal and informal education programs

Much of my work is directly involved with teaching others about ecosystem- and pollinator-friendly land use practices. For example, I partner with my school’s environmental science and ecology instructor to lead experiential learning opportunities for students. Our sustainable ag tech program teaches pollinator-friendly farming practice. We are currently collaborating to help a high school in an underserved community create a school food garden that will include perennial native plant areas to serve as pollinator and beneficial insect habitat. 

Education needs to start at an early age and include families. I know of school butterfly gardens that have been replaced with turf grass because parents lacked knowledge about pollinators. Children are taught to be afraid of rather than understand and respect bees and other pollinators. Frequently, educators themselves lack the information to be able to teach about these things. Consequently, elementary schools and forest preserve nature programs are a good place to start.

High school science programs and college sustainability, science, agriculture, horticulture, landscape architecture and design, urban planning, and civil engineering programs should all be educating students about ecosystem health, reconciliation ecology, and practices that promote species diversity, including pollinators, in anthropocentric landscapes. To do this will require professional development and training for instructors, and changes in policy, learning outcomes and curriculum. In addition, interdisciplinary collaboration will be required among departments and instructors.
This work is already being done in many places, but could use encouragement and federal dollars to be successful. 

A plethora of other groups desperately need educating, including: Homeowner and condo associations; landscaping companies; golf course managers; school and park districts; large commercial growers; and last but not least, legislators.

Research: We need more, but already know enough to act

The scientific research that is presently going on is phenomenal and much basic research remains left to be done. Certainly, studies regarding honeybee health and best practices for beekeepers are crucial. Little is known about the many species of wild native bees that inhabit our continent. And, though much is known about the biodiversity-enhancing practices that enable beneficial insects to thrive so that pesticide use can be reduced, more can be found out. Citizen science programs involving activities such as butterfly monitoring and bee spotting are vital.

However, even though there is a necessity for such large-scale studies as the STRIPS program in Iowa, we already know enough to be able to foster diverse, healthy pollinator populations. Any citizen scientist with moderate natural history skills will observe the following: Areas with few (particularly native) plant species where pesticides are used will have fewer pollinators. This is observable at any scale, from the back yard to large acreage and I, personally, have done so. 

For example, an upscale, manicured suburban neighborhood will have fewer pollinators than a less kempt one and a conventional institutional campus will have fewer pollinators than a biodiverse one. (I once planted a small demonstration rain garden in the middle of a large area of turf and concrete walkways. Pollinators immediately showed up.) Conventionally farmed monocultures will have fewer pollinators (or beneficial insects of any kind, or birds) than biodiverse farming operations implementing IPM practices. By extrapolation, millions of acres planted exclusively to corn and soy in Illinois will have fewer pollinators than the biodiverse Chicago region. 

In my opinion, at this point we need pollinator-friendly policy and a will to act as much as research.

Policy: Pollinators should have standing

Obviously, fostering pollinator health goes far beyond bees into issues of overall ecosystem health, the types of subsidies we give, and the laws we create that favor one type of crop and style of farming or one type of urban/suburban development over another. None of the suggestions I’ve noted above can be widely implemented without good policy and law. Right now, owing to money and legal expertise, the large agricultural and chemical corporations are overly influential on policy. This is made abundantly clear by the types of policies that are enacted and from the resulting toxic-chemical-laden state of our soils and waterways, from our declining bird populations—and poor pollinator health. 

When developing policy and law, independent scientists, organic farm organizations and groups such as Xerces Society, Wild Ones and Center for Food Safety should have a place at the table and equal voice. This will be difficult to insure, owing to disparities in organizations’ available funds, but the policy situation will not improve until some kind of parity is created. In addition, when reviewing pesticide effects and environmental impacts, the EPA and USDA should not be relying on studies sponsored by the companies whose products are being reviewed. As a private citizen, I am extremely frustrated and disappointed that large corporations have more say in such matters than the people who have to live with the consequences of corporate-influenced government policy. We would not be in this crisis situation regarding pollinators if other groups had equal influence on policy, and had the ability to help craft policy beneficial to, and indeed prioritizing, land use practices that promote pollinator, and ecosystem, health. Recently, I reread the legal classic “Should Trees Have Standing?” In this case, very clearly, pollinators should have standing.

If pollinators had standing, farm and other policies might shift in surprising ways.
  • Adopt “do no harm” policies regarding chemicals similar to those in the EU.
  • Reduce the pesticides available to untrained homeowners.
  • Require lawn care companies to make organic lawn care the preferred, default option.
  • Require garden center suppliers to label their plants with the types of systemic pesticides used in production. Many concerned gardeners don’t buy these plants because we know that plants treated with broad-spectrum systemics such as neonicotinoids pose a danger to the very pollinators we wish to encourage.
  • Prioritize ecosystem and pollinator health in all landscaping of government property, similar to energy-use efficiency and reduction requirements in government buildings.
In conclusion: ecosystem health = pollinator and other species health = human health

Thanks again for the opportunity to give input to the Pollinator Health Task Force. 
I am sure many other people will be giving the same information and suggestions and hope our collective voice will prove useful to the work of the Task Force. Hopefully the EPA and USDA will create far-reaching policies and prioritize pollinator-friendly practices to the extent that declines of honeybees, native bees, and other pollinators such as monarch butterflies can be halted, that populations of these important creatures can rebound, and indeed, increase. Our lives depend on it.


Note to readers: My work in the forest preserves requires me to be a state licensed pesticide (herbicide and insecticide) applicator. Insecticides are not used in the preserves. I carefully brush a blue-tinted herbicide formula onto buckthorn stumps after cutting to prevent regrowth so that young oaks and native woodland flowers and grasses have light and room to grow. This is only done in the presence of other trained volunteers and never in the presence of children. I do not use pesticides on my own property.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Just What Is a Hedgerow? A Few Notes on History, Form and Function

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. 

Cross posted at Resilience.org.

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?

Illinois farm, painted early 20th Century by W. F. Gingrich
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.

A brief history
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
Subduing the American continent
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.
Post-modern hedgerow/shelterbelt
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.

Related Posts:

Foraging for Blackberries along a Hedgerow in Norfolk

Monday, January 26, 2015

How I Kept the Solstice

Two deer blend  in with the woods near the Des Plaines River
While in the midst of preparing the next hedgerow post (to be up later this week), I wrote a post for City Creatures, the blog of the Center for Humans and Nature. The piece is a reflection about sowing seeds in a cold season on what is called marginal land. You can read "A Private Solstice Celebration" here.

Monday, December 15, 2014

“Farming with Native Beneficial Insects” Means Solving for Pattern

A necessary guide for anyone who farms, gardens, or who wants to learn more about ecology-based land management

Saying no to pink slime solutions

Our culture is awash in pink slime solutions. If you’ve seen "Food, Inc.," you’ll recognize this as“solving” the problem of E. coli in ground beef by concocting an ammonia-containing additive (pink slime) and then building large factories to incorporate it into the beef before it goes to the consumer. Other examples abound. Want to transport people efficiently while lowering emissions and congestion? Let’s build new roads and develop futuristic driverless cars rather than retrofitting to create multi-modal systems with good public transit. Want to “solve” climate change? Some foolish, hubristic people propose geoengineering, or spewing more pollutants into the air, instead of doing all the not-very-high-tech things we already should and could be doing at scale.

Thus does Rube Goldberg’s ghost haunt our culture. Pink slime solutions try to use technology to address problems caused by technological or industrial “solutions” to other problems, instead of taking a fresh look at what is actually needed in the first place, rethinking possibilities, and solving with systems thinking, ecological knowledge, and current technology. Instead of more industrialization, the proven, low-tech method of removing cattle from feed lots and letting them graze could take care of the E. coli problem. Of course, additional new knowledge can augment these systems-oriented solutions, which often require tracing a path back to where the technological fork in the road occurred and changing to an ecosystem-based approach. For example, recently developed managed-grazing practices can help regenerate the land as well as support healthy livestock.

 Given our cultural context, it’s entirely predictable that the agroindustrial complex would push ever more baroque combinations of GMOs and pesticides (a term inclusive of herbicides, insecticides and fungicides) to solve the very real problems of insect pests and opportunistic plants (aka weeds).  Luckily, however, though still a minority, there are farmers, land managers, gardeners, and scientists who are traveling in the opposite direction—rather than adding new technological fixes, they are studying and learning from how nature itself works out these problems and then developing ways to encourage these natural processes on their land. Many of the methods are as old as agriculture itself, some have been developed in the last hundred years, yet there’s so much to learn that ample research opportunities exist for scientists in a wide range of fields. And there is moral agency, as well as science, at work. An ethical stance that humans should function as citizens of the biotic community, that farmers (and, really, all of us) should be, in Wendell Berry’s phrase,
“solving for [the] pattern” of ecological health, is informed by a worldview radically different from that which proposes we should “fix” nature, improve it, or remake it according to our needs. 

Saying yes to working with ecological systems
For these reasons, the Xerces Society’s newest book, "Farming with Native Beneficial Insects: Ecological Pest Control Solutions" (Storey Publishing, 2014), a companion to their essential "Attracting Native Pollinators" (which I reviewed here), is an inspiring, useful handbook. Like its predecessor, "Farming with Native Beneficial Insects" contains sections on why beneficial insects—those that spend at least part of their life cycles preying on pests—are important, relevant research, the types of habitats useful to them, lists of native plants, and a gallery of insects—who they are and what pests they go after.

Many of the same biodiversity-increasing practices that benefit pollinators also benefit beneficial insects, as the opening section makes clear in its explanation of what beneficials are and how they help control pests. But beneficials have been neglected. While bees are cute, fuzzy little creatures and butterflies are simply beautiful, beneficials are a motley crew of beetles, bugs, wasps and arachnids, many of whom (especially their super-predaceous larva) might inspire a yuck! reaction if looked at live and up close. Darwin even once used parasitoid wasps as an example of why the world didn’t seem to him designed by a beneficent God.  

However, this group also includes old childhood friends such as ladybugs, whose larva feast on aphids, and lightning bugs, whose larva eat slugs and other soft-bodied pests. Watching the fireflies from my back porch summer nights I’ve always loved to see the multitudes that emerge from my garden at dusk. Little did I know that my messy, native-plant centered garden, with its leaf litter and small rock and brush piles, provides a perfect nursery for firefly larva, as well as plenty of nectar, pollen and resting places for the adults.

A book for farmers and gardeners
Because the book is aimed at farmers, it offers very clear, practical instructions for improving and managing beneficial habitat on large tracts of land. Recommendations include use of native plants, hedgerows, insectary strips, cover crops, and buffers, and one of my favorites, beetle banks. These last, an idea imported from the UK, are long, low hillocks made with a plow and sown with native bunch grasses. They form habitat for multiple species of beetles that eat pests such as aphids, slugs, caterpillars, and rootworms. Some even eat weed seeds. Reading this made me want to try things on a much larger scale than my own garden affords, but this section also includes adaptations for the backyard—for example small-scale cover crops and beetle bumps—described so engagingly that any gardener would want to try them at home.  As I read, I began thinking as well about public parks and institutional campuses. Providing habitat in these areas could help reduce pesticide use and increase biodiversity in large swaths of the country.

This book takes a reasonable, evenhanded tone. Though the goal is to help land managers reduce the use of pesticides, and the authors, rightfully, have nothing good to say about neonicotinoids, there is no shrill preaching. The demonstration of results-oriented practices on actual farms seems well calibrated to appeal to many a person who, even if using pesticides now, would like to minimize or stop their use but perhaps isn’t sure how to begin doing so. For this reason, there’s a chapter on Integrated Pest Management, which, though not pesticide free, seeks to minimize pesticide use by paying close attention to conditions in the field, making use of farming practices such as row covers, crop rotation, beneficial insect favoring land use practices such as buffer strips and beetle banks, and only using pesticides as a last resort. 

Significant work is being done in sustainable, regenerative farming that puts it at the forefront of the field of agronomy. The case studies, reports from farms in widely separated parts of the country, are among the most appealing parts of the book; farmers and scientists describe what they have done and how it has improved their farming. The news is not complete, however: themes of wanting to find out more, of incomplete knowledge, and the need for more experimentation run throughout the book. Instead of trying to use technology to keep doing things the same old way, these people are making a new path forward; here is a record of old/new knowledge being discovered in real time, a record of farmers, scientists, and others finding practical ways to work with nature. 

One can imagine the need for an updated and revised version of this book as more farmers and agronomists try new methods and publish the results. Spin-off books with a more in-depth regional focus—as though each regional case study, plant list and so on were made into its own book—would also be useful, as would guide's specifically for urban gardeners. Based on my own experience, I would certainly want to enlarge the plant lists for my part of the Midwest, and would want to know more about how farmers in this region are utilizing these methods and what modifications they’ve made for their own situations. And if only more of our universities would get seriously involved in studying and developing and publishing region-based sustainable farming methods to help farmers find alternatives to the one-size-fits-all, land-wrecking, industrial-ag model.

It’s exciting to think of the growers who are experimenting with these techniques, exciting to think of the farms that are growing biodiversity as well as crops. You don’t have to be an expert or become an entomologist, but it’s important to learn about the other species with which one shares a piece of land. And for anyone, thinking about the role beneficial insects play in the landscape is one more door into ecosystem thinking. Paying attention to pollinators’ needs by planting native flowers and grasses helps beneficial insects, and vice versa—and birds. Working at replenishing the soil, by growing cover crops and adding compost, winds up helping the insects while also helping replenish ground water supplies while adding fertility. Everything is so connected that no matter where you start, as you go on, the virtuous feedback loops and proper complexity will develop that are the hallmark of healthy land inhabited by humans who are deeply, ethically invested in solving for pattern.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Where Do We Find Beauty in a Landscape?

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.

Some caveats
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.

Prairie restoration
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.

Related Post:

Foraging for Blackberries along a Hedgerow in Norfolk