Make no mistake, hedgerows have a long history as a defensive barrier. Hedges have been used since the Neolithic Age to protect fields from wind and soil erosion, and livestock from inadvertently straying. They are peerless cover for an ambush, and difficult to penetrate. The explosion of hedges across England started during the 16th century, when the ancient tradition of open fields was replaced with “enclosures” between 1760 and 1820. Thousands of miles of fast-growing hawthorn were planted to define the extent of ownership and exclude common use of these lands for cutting hay, grazing animals, and collecting firewood. “Smallholders and villagers with no traditional rights to field strips lost access to what had been common land and the valuable part of their income it generated. This often resulted in them having to leave to find employment in growing industrial towns and cities.”
Open field boundaries survive as low banks of earth, caused by a build-up of ploughed soil in contours that followed the slope. The new enclosures were often the result of a surveyor’s straight line, without consideration of topography. In both open and enclosed fields, the divisions followed long and narrow tracks, designed for oxen to tread without interruptions for turning. Thoreau wrote in his journal entry on February 12, 1851: “It is only necessary that man should start a fence that Nature should carry it on and complete it. The farmer cannot plow quite up to the rails or wall which he himself has placed, and
hence it often becomes a hedgerow….”
Hedges may chronicle political history in the U.K., but they also illustrate the dense continuum of growth in biodiversity. The species within an ancient hedge might include trees: holly, ash, willow, hazel, beech, oak, dogwood, buckthorn, and spindle. Trees with fruits are particularly prized – crab-apple, plums and pears can support many berries beneath – dewberries, blackberry brambles, elderberries. The infill plants include stalwarts of the homeopathic medicine cabinets: wild honeysuckle and hops, rowan and roses, hawthorn and sloe, interlaced with ivy.
And then there are the fauna, badger and dormouse and, of course, hedgehog. Birds from every backyard in England: bluetits, blackbirds, thrushes, robins, wrens, sparrowhawks, and owls. Hedges offer great diversity for the insect kingdom too, from butterflies to bees. It is an amazing feat to pack into a space 8 feet wide by 6 feet high.
The hedgerow is a landscape that promotes neglect and tolerance, concealment and habitat, encirclement and escape. They exemplify a landscape of excitement, with a manageable amount of wildness for children without a tradition of independent spirit and courage, in a world where obesity and structured play have overtaken exploration and discovery. Hedgerows are a metaphor for placing children in contact with the wild places, to play in a world that leads to wonder and science, art and travel.
Hedges remind us of our human responsibility to maintain the natural world. Not in straight lines, like the topiary hedges of boxwood and privet, but in ways that cultivate lush growth at the very limit between kept and unkempt. They are one tool of a resilient landscape, with tremendous benefit for both defence and sustainability. Truculent and persistent, the ragged native hedge thrives without much care, providing food for animals and humans.
Living walls are sustainability’s modern version of the hedge. They embellish the edges not of farms, but the facades of banks and other new fields of opportunity. They provide shade, heat reduction, even habitat in the urban environment, and wrap the fertile space of commerce in a narrow thread of living plants, much like the hedge. Vertical systems may someday provide fruiting plants among their various species, like their precursors. Living walls certainly have the potential to deflect debris impacts, protect glazed enclosures, insulate exterior walls, and deter invaders – important defensive functions.
At projects as diverse as the Fondation Cartier in Paris by Atelier Jean Nouvel and Patrik Blanc, to a screen of bottle-grown terraria along a back fence, the shrinking land available in cities encourages green space stacked instead of dispersed across widespread fields. But keeping the dividing lines green, and climate-toughened, helps maintain a fringe of wildness, even in the tamest urban condition.