Showing posts with label Hedgerows. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Hedgerows. Show all posts

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:

*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)
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Sunday, February 9, 2014

Walking Through a Cornfield in Norfolk

"A Norfolk Hedgerow" by Edward Seago
In October, I went to visit my friend the British historian and her husband at their home in Norfolk, England. I hadn’t been out of the country, much less the Midwest, in years, and I missed England, to which I have an attachment. My friends live in a very old cottage with solar panels on the roof, a big garden out back, and a share in an allotment. This was just the kind of visit I like: staying in the country, going for long walks, working in the garden, birdwatching at the seashore—so much in so many ways so different from Illinois, though I must say the part of Norfolk where they live is about as flat as the Chicago Lake Plain, and for analogous reasons. Which is how I found myself doing something I’ve done on multiple occasions in Illinois—walking through a cornfield.

One day, after a lunch of cheese, apples and bread, we went to the allotment to harvest vegetables for dinner. We decided to take a long, scenic way back, walking along a footpath along hedgerows and through fields. This is one of the things I like about England, all the walking paths that go across farms and alongside pastures—ancient ways some of them are, even thousands of years old. It seems that landowners have a responsibility to make sure these paths are kept clear, whether by law or not, I don’t know. These narrow paths certainly beat trying to access scenery in the U. S., where what’s private is no trespassing and what’s public is either on the highway or in some park with clearly defined borders. The driftless region of Wisconsin, for example: this is one of my favorite places, an ancient, never-glaciated, enticing landscape of winding little valleys and worn and weathered, pine-covered, rock-girded hills that begs one to get out of the car and off the road to do a little exploration. But can one? No, one cannot. A perfect illustration of what makes the US countryside so frustrating.

So we walked along, me identifying plants and my friend supplying names for those I didn’t know; but when we got to where the path should have been kept open through a cornfield, it wasn’t. So, nothing for it but to trudge through, beating our way through the corn to the next part where the path clearly resumed through a copse. To an Illinoisan accustomed to vast, chemically-saturated, completely weed-free fields where the stalks stand up straight in phalanxes, in legions, in platoons and companies whose genetically modified ranks tower over one’s head, where if you go in far enough you could conceivably get lost, this small field was a novel experience. It was field corn, almost, but not quite, ready to harvest. The stalks, clearly not gmo, and apparently planted at random, lounged in a haphazard, casual crowd whose members stood between four and a half and six feet high. We could see where we were going but couldn't walk far in one direction. The soil was not hard clay, but was fairly soft, and had been fertilized with manure. There were copious weeds, many instantly identifiable. I realized I was standing in the middle of a prime example of the Columbian exchange, from the other side, as it were, “our” corn interplanted with “their” field poppies, nightshade, creeping Charlie, and a few others not immediately recognizable—at least there wasn’t any hedge bindweed. It also seemed to me that this was a site I might have seen in Illinois maybe a hundred years ago, or even fifty.

Who knows what the yield would be; it was easier to imagine the farmer harvesting for his own animals than selling it. And there were animals, too, on this farm, as my friend informed me, something else unusual to an Illinoisan. But in the soft English light the corn seemed healthy, the soil in fairly good shape, and the weeds not overwhelming. The air turned mizzly. Eventually we found ourselves at the copse and entered in under the trees, the path then continuing along a hedgerow where blackberries hung plump and tempting, mixed in with tall rose bushes—the roses gone to big fat hips—holly bushes, and an occasional young oak. Tea was very welcome when we got back.

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Friday, February 18, 2011

A Hedgerow Project

Photo courtesy of Chris Goode and Dick Ashdown
This morning I’m writing with that happy spring feeling small children get. I’ve just completed an initial proposal for the first large-scale landscaping plan I’ve ever helped make. Later today I’ll put in the order to Possibility Place Nursery in Monee, Illinois to contract grow native shrubs and small trees for the first phase, restoring a remnant hedgerow that separates part of the property from an adjacent field planted to corn and soy in rotation.

Some background: I am a member of the Environmental Concerns Committee of the Illinois Yearly Meeting of Friends (Quakers). The Yearly Meeting Campus is in Putnam County, Illinois, about two hours south and west of Chicago near the Illinois River. The land has belonged to Quakers since the mid-19th Century and has long served both as a retreat center for the Yearly Meeting, and as the regular Meeting House for the Clear Creek Meeting, composed of local residents. I’ve written more about it here.

Until two years ago, the property was three acres that included a historic Meeting House and a camping area with cabins and a shower house. Then the opportunity suddenly came up to purchase nine acres of adjacent land that included a farmhouse, barn and several other buildings. This land had belonged to an old Quaker family, which wanted the land to go to the Yearly Meeting. During the past two years, the house has been renovated for use as a year-round meeting place, and other improvements have been made.

Consideration is now being made for what to do with the property so as to best serve the needs of the local Clear Creek Meeting, as well as the Yearly Meeting, whose members reside in Illinois, Indiana, and Missouri.

Photo courtesy of Chris Goode and Dick Ashdown
Naturally, the ECC, whose members have long been involved with site maintenance and landscaping, was asked to develop a landscaping plan. Our interdisciplinary group includes an architect, a tree farmer, an ecologist, several environmentalists, a U. of I. Master Gardener, two local residents and myself. My job has been to facilitate idea generation, to research various things such as local history and ecology, and to organize and write up our proposal, which is centered in the philosophy of reconciliation ecology: we are planning as much for ecosystem health and non-human species habitat needs as for human use.

Now that we have written the proposal, we will begin the next stage: making drawings and developing a timetable for projects. Luckily, while we are doing that, we can restore the existing hedgerow, a remnant of old-time land management practices.

This is the first part of an occasional series, about this hedgerow project in particular and about hedgerows, fencerows and mixed shrub borders in general. 

Related Posts:
A Day in the Country

Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Day in the Country

One place I love is twelve acres outside the town of McNabb, in Putnam County, Illinois. It is there that the Illinois Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) has its spiritual and practical center. The 19th century meetinghouse, austere and beautiful, sits on a rise that only in Illinois would be called a hill, surrounded by vast fields with distant farmhouses marked by their groves of trees. The subtle height of the rise gives distinction to the view and strength to the wind. To the west the land gets more variable as it slopes to the wetlands and running waters of the Illinois River system, but this isn't visible from the meetinghouse.

Once this area was prairie, and then small farms, the fields bordered with hedgerows. Today all is planted to corn and soy, the two industrial crops on which the Illinois rural economy depends. Some of the houses are empty. Mostly the hedgerows are gone, and with them most native plants. There's little room here for wildlife, whether plants or animals. Yet the contours of the land, the fields, the wind, the space, the changeable sky--all engender deep love in those that spend time here.

As it happens, I am a member of the Yearly Meeting's Environmental Concerns Committee. We have regular landscape maintenance days, which seem to be timed such that whenever I'm feeling especially claustrophobic in town, with its sky-cutting houses and pinched-together yards, there's a call to go out to McNabb and do some work in the open air. On a recent Saturday eleven of us met for a fairly ambitious day of work. Among other things we were to cut down overgrown bushes, overseed a small prairie we've established, burn a brush pile, and grub out some old stumps. After a short meeting, we headed outside into a clear, chilly, and surprisingly windy day.

One part of the property was recently acquired and includes an old farmhouse. Sometime in the past a previous owner had planted a generic selection of bushes around the foundation and along the path to the kitchen door. These included some yews, a couple of boxwood, a spirea, and six euonymus, or burning bushes, that were now ten feet high and seemed like they could form part of Sleeping Beauty's hedge. These are the kinds of bushes that serve no purpose: they lack beauty, they provide food to neither human nor animal, nor do they function as a viable part of the eco-system. They are the kinds of green placeholders stuck in around houses throughout the U.S. by people who've gotten some "nice foundation plantings" from the nearby big box garden center. The effect is to take away any hint of regionalism or feeling of place from the house. While looking at the house and the random collection of bushes, one might ask, like Dorothy, "Toto, where are we?" and the answer is not the distinctive Oz, but might be Illinois, Ohio, Minnesota, New York--or Kansas.

We plan to eventually replace them with native shrubs, but at the moment, they had to be trimmed, and trimmed they were, aggressively and with pleasure. Two of us did the deed, and then several people helped carry the branches over to the brush-pile fire at the edge of a corn field which others were superintending, and near where some had marked some stumps for removal in an area that is called "the old field." I stood and watched a farmer in the distance, or rather a large machine, presumably containing a farmer, move across the field. As the machine worked the ground, a large plume of topsoil lifted in the wind behind it, something like the long scarf rippling out from the dancer in a dream sequence in Singing in the Rain.

After lunch we worked more, and for me one highlight of the afternoon was when we mixed up a huge batch of grass seed--big bluestem, little bluestem and indian grass. As we mixed, I listened as two men talked who remembered when the local farms were smaller, when oat, wheat and hay were among the crops, when the farms had animals. During the sixties, with the advent of synthetic fertilizer, pesticides and mono-cropping, they all went away--animals, varied crops, and family farms--replaced by the large fields of corn and soy, mostly genetically modified, and men in large, fabulously expensive machines rumbling across the land.

We overseeded the prairie restoration by hand, looking, as an observer noted, like old-time peasants, perhaps in some picture by van Gogh, walking and casting our seed to be caught in the wind and dropping where it would. The area had been burned three weeks earlier and we were all pleased to see the rate of re-growth, though the only thing in bloom were some golden Alexanders. Several people planted trees, including some pin oaks, which are native to the area, being one of the primary species in the Illinois River valley. One hopes they'll do well in this prairie soil as well.

Our work that day was all part of a larger landscaping plan that we and others have developed for the property. The program is one of conscious reconciliation ecology. We have set out to tie that twelve acres back into the ecosystem by landscaping with native plants and trees, by considering the native wildlife--the birds and pollinators--even as we improve the buildings to increase their sustainability, and follow good habits such as composting. Besides planting, we have done such things as leave
snags in the hedgerow where some red-headed woodpeckers make their home. Yet this isn't a wildlife preserve or conservation area, but an orderly human landscape we are steadily working to make more hospitable for other species. The local Monthly Meeting, Clear Creek, uses and maintains the property year round. On weekends there are additional meetings, gatherings and retreats.

In this industrial farming zone there's need for this kind of ecological landscaping. Sometimes I look at the fields surrounding the property and like to imagine that perhaps in the future farmers might start restoring the hedgerows, or might go a bit further and plant "prairie rows" along the edges of their fields, broad swaths of native forbs and grasses that could do so much to help maintain land and ecosystem health.

That Saturday, we finished our work with a good potluck dinner at and interesting conversation that included, among other things, the attributes of prickly ash; how red-osier dogwood got its name (osiers are slender stems good for making baskets); experiences with making maple syrup and the differences between sugar maple syrup and silver maple syrup (someone had brought a sample); and the botanical characteristics of Jack-in-the-pulpits, along with various business matters. At dusk, as the sky deepened in color and the stars lit up, we headed for our respective homes, in my case on a road that gets progressively busier as you near Chicago.