Of Hedgerows and Husbandry

(This was written while in flight back to the U.S., and I've only just gotten around to posting it, hence the somewhat odd temporal placement of verb tenses and that sort of thing.)

In our travels of the past few weeks, Katrina and I have had the opportunity to observe numerous hedges and hedgerows (evidently there's a difference) scattered through southern England and along the border with Wales. There are many features of the English countryside that would appear alien to anyone familiar with American rural life (see also: public rights-of-way that cut directly up someone's driveway, within three feet of their house, and into their back pastures, through which one is perfectly entitled to walk without fear of being charged with trespassing), but the hedgerows are among the most immediately distinctive.

They close in over narrow lanes, making them seem even narrower, and provide both shade and protection from or obstruction of the winds and breezes. They act as fences and habitats, depending on the creature. And they are astonishingly complex, upon taking a closer look. Far from being an untidy jumble of plant life--although they can become that under certain circumstances--they are arranged according to a particular design and require maintenance and care to become what they are.

I was sufficiently intrigued by them to pick up a copy of English naturalist John Wright's A Natural History of the Hedgerow, which provides a much closer look than I've managed in one paragraph, and it's my airplane reading, en route back to the U.S., hence why I'm thinking about it right now, while pausing to write this.

One of the things I found interesting about them in a casual observation was the way that branches had been woven together and back in, trained to grow up, but not out, and forming a relatively impenetrable barrier. (Seeing it, I'm better able to make sense of a scene from Howl's Moving Castle, wherein Sophie Hatter frees a dog caught in the hedge - I don't think we typically have bushes thick enough to trap dogs here, but it's not hard to see how it might happen in some of the thicker bits of a stock-proof hedge.) Wright details numerous ways of laying hedges, some regional, some more attentive to the materials at hand, but they all involve some measure of skill and, perhaps most importantly, patience. It takes approximately ten years from the initial planting of trees before a hedge can be laid, and the hedge will have to be re-laid in successive decades if it is to be well-maintained.

I suppose I'm a little too irresistibly drawn to moralizing from these things, but I've been thinking about the kinds of processes that are involved in life maintenance. A life may be lived haphazardly, allowing each day to come and go without giving much thought to how it's being conducted or where it might be going. Or there may be a patient, ongoing work of care: establishing healthy patterns, practicing good communication, evaluating relationships and goals and activities.

I made a somewhat nonsensical comment earlier about hedges becoming what they are, and I think that's one of those odd constructions that gets to a more complex notion of what it means to be anything. I am human, and without any particular judgments on how other people choose to exercise their humanity, I might think that there are better and worse ways of being human. In both cases, the only way to get closer to the extremes is through purposive or neglectful repetition of specific behaviors and ways of interpreting or thinking about the world.

Hedgerow maintenance requires attention, care, knowledge, and wisdom to do it well - and repetition. You can't do it once and expect that all will be well forever thereafter, although a once-well-tended hedge may endure for a while before it starts to break down. The work that you're doing is to build toward something, certainly - there's a notion of what the thing ought to be, that you are shaping it toward - but the work itself is done in the present on the thing as it currently happens to be. You can't work with resources that aren't there. You also can't will a flourishing hedgerow into existence merely by wistfully contemplating what it could be. Again, the work happens now, with what there is.

Hopefully the connections between how one maintains a hedgerow and how one maintains a life are fairly obvious. If not, then I suppose I shall simply say that attention, habits, self-evaluation, and patience are all vital ingredients to the process of building a life. If my metaphor holds and if you happen to think, as I do, that the best kind of life provides some benefit to others as well as the self, then let me add this: that the strongest hedgerows also offer a vital habitat in which many species find food, shelter, and protection. And for those of us who enjoy observing both great lives and great hedgerows, they happen to supply an unending variety of interesting details that only become richer upon closer inspection and could preoccupy a happy nerd for a very long time.

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