Wednesday, May 6, 2015 Asked Me a Few Questions

Most of my posts are cross-posted at, a site that functions as a multifaceted, solutions-oriented resource for folks interested in resilience topics such as peak oil, permaculture, climate change, transition, limits to growth, and other matters of interest.

The site is a production of the
Post Carbon Institute, an organization dedicated to providing information and resources that will contribute to the transition to a more sustainable, just and equitable society.

They have started a new series called "Resilience Reflections," which are interviews with regular contributors about their work and motivations. My turn just came up; you can read my interview here.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Getting Beyond the Green Wall: Mary Oliver, Kay Ryan and William Blake

"A Woody Landscape" by William Blake
How poems are like landscapes
So much of what we call reading is actually scanning for the gist, especially online. We do this all day long with email and the internet—it’s a way of managing waves of relentless information. Reading is something else entirely. One can read a landscape, a garden, a tree, a bird, or a poem. This kind of reading involves engagement, contemplation, and associative as well as analytical thinking. It requires time, repetition and memory.

If you scan a poem, you’ll miss it, just as scanning doesn’t work for penetrating the “green wall” and truly observing plants or animals. A bur oak’s genetic makeup can be analyzed in the lab; only prolonged observation out of doors on many occasions in different seasons will enable one to know the species or a particular tree. Aldo Leopold used to test students by taking them to a place in a landscape and then having them read it in detail in order to glean understanding about the inhabitants, human and otherwise, the state of the soil, state of overall ecosystem health and so on.

A poem is obviously not like a tree, garden or landscape. Yet a good one will reward the same kind of alert, repetitive attention that puts us more deeply in relationship with ourselves, with other people, and with the world at large. A good poem pulls the reader away from abstraction and into experience.

Three poems
Very familiar is the Mary Oliver quote that asks, “tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” It is from “The Summer Day,” which gets quoted by newspaper columnists and bloggers as a way to remind themselves and readers of their connection to nature.  Once I saw Oliver read, a smallish woman dressed in black with a calm voice and quiet demeanor. I don’t remember if she read that poem, but like to imagine she did. She must have done, it is so popular. Her poems are touchstones for many nature lovers. Clear, accessible, they articulate for readers the feelings one might have when encountering other species and natural processes. “The Kingfisher” exemplifies her lyric Romanticism.

The Kingfisher

The kingfisher rises out of the black wave
like a blue flower, in his beak 
he carries a silver leaf. I think this is 
the prettiest world--so long as you don't mind 
a little dying, how could there be a day in your whole life
that doesn't have its splash of happiness?
There are more fish than there are leaves
on a thousand trees, and anyway the kingfisher
wasn't born to think about it, or anything else.
When the wave snaps shut over his blue head, the water
remains water--hunger is the only story
he has ever heard in his life that he could believe.
I don't say he's right. Neither
do I say he's wrong. Religiously he swallows the silver leaf
with its broken red river, and with a rough and easy cry
I couldn't rouse out of my thoughtful body
if my life depended on it, he swings back
over the bright sea to do the same thing, to do it
(as I long to do something, anything) perfectly.
Kay Ryan is another species entirely, someone I think of as the anti-lyric lyricist. Oh, she writes short poems full of rhyme and a kind of internal rhyme she calls “recombinant rhyme,” often on natural subjects such as animals, but there’s not much sweetness there, and no fallacy, pathetic or otherwise. She was Poet Laureate of the US in from 2008-2010. When contemplating whether or not to devote her life to writing poetry, she rode her bicycle on a 4,000 mile trip in order to think things over. Her poems sometimes go off like little bombs when you least expect it, and her humor is often of a wry, dry kind. Somehow I associate her work with the ironic science cartoons found at the blog xkcd, though the subject matter is vastly different.

Felix Crow
Crow school
is basic and
short as a rule—
just the rudiments
of quid pro crow
for most students.
Then each lives out
his unenlightened
span, adding his
bit of blight
to the collected
history of pushing out
the sweeter species;
briefly swaggering the
swagger of his
aggravating ancestors
down my street.
And every time
I like him
when we meet.
I was going to add a piece by Jorie Graham, a poet of significant accomplishment who has just published a book of selected poems. Her work is interesting and can be difficult: full of large ideas, elliptic lines and deliberate gaps. But then at a concert I heard Martha Redbone sing William Blake poems for which she and her husband had written gospel/bluegrass/roots settings. Appalachian music keeps traditions alive and Blake’s poems might seem as simple in rhythm and language as old ballads—but that apparent simplicity carries complexities dark and light. Blake is not a safe read, as nature is not safe.

Hear the Voice of the Bard
Hear the voice of the Bard,
Who present, past, and future, sees;
Whose ears have heard
The Holy Word
That walk'd among the ancient trees;

Calling the lapsèd soul,
And weeping in the evening dew;
That might control
The starry pole,
And fallen, fallen light renew!

'O Earth, O Earth, return!
Arise from out the dewy grass!
Night is worn,
And the morn
Rises from the slumbrous mass.

'Turn away no more;
Why wilt thou turn away?
The starry floor,
The watery shore,
Is given thee till the break of day.’


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 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

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