Thursday, March 13, 2014

Foraging for Blackberries along a Hedgerow in Norfolk

Hedgerows in Norfolk
One night during my October visit to the British historian's cottage the wind blew hard from midnight on, roaring in off the North Sea, carrying on in unabated vigor all the way from Iceland. I'd woken at dawn, listened to the wind and rain for a bit and gone back to sleep before getting up for a late-ish breakfast. The rain continued in spurts all day, and in between showers we went out and did garden chores, such as spreading well-rotted horse manure in a new garden bed where some raspberry canes would be planted in spring and planting out garlic and onions. It seemed strange to me to be planting food crops in autumn, after harvest. The process brought new understanding of why the ancient peoples of this land could celebrate the New Year directly after harvest: planting season lasts all year, nothing ever seems to stop growing, and little appears to go completely dormant in the way an Illinoisan understands the word.

After the weather cleared a little more, my friend and I went for a walk along a narrow lane edged on both sides by hedgerows in order to pick blackberries from eight-foot tall brambles that were growing up through a tangle of roses, sloes, buckthorn, small oaks, holly, hawthorn and all kinds of other things--a crowded community also including turf grass, nettles, nightshade, English ivy, bindweed, creeping Charlie, poppies and dandelions. Again, as in the cornfield we had traversed previously, I had an eerie sensation of familiarity, as though I was slipping between continents. We Americans might not grow sloes, and consequently not produce sloe gin, as the historian's friends do, and our oaks and hawthorns are of course different species--yet it was easy to recognize the plants. It was even odder to see buckthorn, that bully of the Midwestern woodlands and savannas, behaving itself--no more and no less than a citizen of the hedgerow.

Blackberries have a deeper, wilder taste than raspberries, almost smoky, if you were describing them like a wine. My friend makes a compote that is a delightful topping for the breakfast muesli and milk or yogurt. Her aim was to gather enough--the season was almost over--to put up enough to carry through for several more months. We addressed ourselves assiduously to walking and picking, water falling off the leaves--still green!--on our hands and coats, our boots going damp from the low plants and grass at the verges. Proceeding at this rate can take a very long time to get even a hundred feet, so we were truly lingering, which gave ample opportunity to observe what was growing. There were a few late raspberries, too, that I ate and savored as we went.

Though there seemed to be a luxurious abundance of hedgerows in the area I was visiting, they are endangered in England, for many of the same reasons that Midwestern fencerows, once the refuge of birds, wild plants and beneficial insects, have all but disappeared. On the train through Cambridgeshire I had seen fairly large American-style fields, all plowed furrows inhabited by big tractors with nary a hedgerow in sight. I imagined getting off the train to go talk to those farmers: don't repeat our misdoings, I would say. Learn from our mistakes. You'll be sorry, someday, in the way that some of us in Illinois are sorry, with our nitrogen and phosphorus run-off, atrazine-laced groundwater, our plowing up of even marginal land, our lost habitat and consequently lost species (and our own lost selves?). But there's money to be made, they, I'm sure, would answer, as almost any Illinois farmer would. Though one good sign lately is that a few of the latter have started to put small areas of erstwhile corn acreage into produce production. Some have been taking classes to learn how to grow not-corn and not-soy. The new US farm bill even throws a pittance of support at what are called “specialty crops,” e.g. fruits and vegetables. And once Illinois farmers truly embrace fruits and vegetables as worthy of growing, can rejuvenated fencerows and hedgerows be far behind? One hopes, fervently.

However. The Cambridgeshire farmers perhaps haven't gotten that far along through the wreck-regret-repair cycle, and the train carried me on to Norfolk, where plenty of these diverse, edge habitats remain and people dedicated to their preservation seemingly prevail. According to the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, Norfolk has lost nearly half its hedgerows, mostly since World War II. But that has slowed down as people have come to understand just how valuable they are as a way to store carbon, provide habitat for rare and endangered species--and berries for foraging. The Trust defines a hedgerow as "any line of trees or shrubs, over 1 meter tall and over 20 meters long, less than 5 meters wide at the base and with less than 30% of the hedgerow being gaps." This definition neglects the understory and ground cover layers of grasses and forbs, yet seems reasonable. The 5 meter dimension is interesting to me, since hedgerows here in the States can potentially be well over 15 feet wide, especially when they involve large trees such as hickories and unless someone keeps the osage orange trees seriously chopped back. Still, that width does seem appropriate. Wider than that, and what you have is probably another kind of woodsy area that is no longer a hedgerow meant to separate fields and line roads.

Workers laying a hedge
Also, it might be wise to distinguish between those hedgerows maintained according to the ancient craft of laying, in which branches are interlaced and pegged down so that everything grows together, forming a living fence, and the ones such as those between which we were ambulating, which clearly were not, though they obviously had been kept trimmed.* There is an old story that laid hedgerows never caught on in the U.S. because Americans were just too lazy to go to all that trouble. Alternative explanations claim that American farmers were too busy establishing farms and then lighting out for the territories shortly thereafter, so there was no point in taking on a project that could last a lifetime to do right; or that we just plain had too much space to enclose and had to do it quickly.

At the time it didn't occur to me to ask how English hedgerows are maintained these days, much as I'm sure casual visitors to the woodland savannah I help manage usually don't wonder how in spring and summer it is so full of wildflowers growing in such profusion. It's easy to imagine humans had nothing to do with it. In my experience, backed up by that of many native peoples I have read about, a landscape in the middle of the continuum between un-peopled wilderness and the manicured suburb, where people dwell as citizens of the ecological community, can be managed in a way that is beneficial for other species besides humans. Even though it is cultivated and has been "tamed," a patchwork, mosaic landscape with hedgerows, coppices, and managed woodlots as well as less managed areas like wetlands and riparian bottomlands can be a healthy landscape, abundant and fertile, with room and habitat enough for all.

Note: You can see the Norfolk Hedgerow Action Plan here:  http://www.norfolkbiodiversity.org/actionplans/habitatactionplans/hedgerows.aspx

*Update 4/18/14:  British nature writer Richard Mabey has this to say about a hedgerow in Norfolk:
"The hedges that line [the lane] aren't the planted strips of hawthorne you find in planned countryside ...And they hadn't been laid, but coppiced, cut back to the ground level every eight to ten years as was the local tradition." (From Nature Cure, U of Virginia, 2005)
Related Posts
Walking through a Cornfield in Norfolk
A Day in the Country
The Last Tomatoes

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

After reading this post, I am thinking that my husband and I need to "lay" some hedgerow near our roadsides. I need to do some more research on how this is done. I think MOTHER EARTH had an article on this topic. Enjoyed your post.

margaret gurney said...

Enjoyed both posts from Norfolk, and look forward to the next one on hedgerows.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hi Anonymous, thanks for stopping by. I believe layed hedges can be very useful in the right situation. You've given me the idea to research some sources for Americans.

Hi Margaret, Glad you enjoyed.