Britain is a land of hedges. I’ve never given much thought to hedges. While eating breakfast on August 18, 2015, looking out upon the Northumbrian landscape, quilted with hedgerows, I came across a field guide to hedgerows, written by Gill Crane, produced by the Field Studies Council of Great Britain (see www.field-studies-council.org).[i] According to Mr. Crane, the word “hedge” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word, hecg, meaning both hedge and fence. Hedges date back to the Bronze Age, 3000 years ago, when humans moved from hunting/gathering to farming. As native wildwood was cleared to make fields for farmlands, strips were left untouched as boundaries to contain animals, and protect crops being destroyed by wild animals.
Today, Great Britain contains an estimated 200,000 miles of hedgerows, 40% of which are classed as “ancient”, dating back several centuries. I took a British Archeology class while studying in England in 1976-’77, a class taught by a renowned British archeologist, Sir Brian. He told us we could best learn the history of England in her hedgerows. One a fieldtrip we took by bus around England, he showed us where ancient stone walls had been removed and hedges planted, revealed in the dip of the hedge in that location. The hedges also revealed the shape of British land-ownership through the medieval times, into our modern era.
In the 18th century, the English Parliament passed the “Enclosure Act”, resulting in the planting of new hedgerows across the landscape of Britain, “creating the landscape of smaller fields that is still present in some areas today.” After World War II, many hedgerows were removed across the countryside to open farmlands to larger farming needs of a growing economy and mechanized approaches to farming.
Hedgerows have many practical uses besides defining private property: creating shelter for livestock and crops against inclement weather; providing windbreaks to prevent soil erosion; providing cover for native game; offering home to a wide variety of flora and fauna. Crane writes, “Research shows that [hedges] are the main habitat for at least 47 species of conservation concern in the UK, including 13 globally threatened or rapidly declining ones . . . Over 1,500 insects, 600 plant species, 65 birds and 20 mammals have been recorded at some time living or feeding in hedgerows.” They act as green freeways of protection, “wildlife corridors” for many species of native animals, including the common dormouse, grey squirrels, hedgehogs, rabbits, stoats, weasels, bank voles, wood mice, and the common shrew. According to Mr. Crane, the most common plant forming a British hedgerow is the hawthorn, also known as the May tree, as “it is covered in a mass of white or pink flowers . . . and in autumn it produces clusters of red berries called haws, providing food for mammals, birds and insects.” Other plants common to English hedgerows include Holly, Hazel, Field Maple, Ivy, Dog Rose, Blackthorn, Honeysuckle, Cow Parsley, Red Campion, Elder, and Blackberry Bramble. The shady underside of a hedgerow offers moist environment for such woodland flowers as primroses, wood anemones, and violets.
One of the aspects of hedgerows I find most intriguing is the quality of “accessible enclosure”. There is a creative tension created by a hedgerow. On one side of this tension, we see hedgerows as barriers and boundaries, green walls defining property lines. On the other side of this tension, we see hedgerows as openings, offering access to places of growth and beauty.
First, let’s look from the perspective of a hedgerow as a private enclosure. This side of the hedge is “mine”; the other side is “yours”. Personal property is one of the defining marks of western civilization. The walls, even the green walls between us remind us who owns what. They also keep us from experiencing life together in community. So much of western spirituality is overly private and individual. So much of spiritual life as described in the Bible is life together in community. The hedgerow provides a boundary or enclosure within which a community may flourish. The boundaries around our lives can also cause us to become overly isolated from our neighbors whom God calls us to love. We need our boundaries and barriers and enclosures for protection. Without them we perish. But British hedgerows also offer accessibility with both gates and stiles.
Second, let’s look at hedgerows as openings to places of growth and beauty. There are openings in the hedgerows through which people, animals, vehicles, and equipment come and go. Hedgerows in Britain define farmlands where crops and livestock grow. Within these boundaries, people and animals and plants live and grow together. The British also have national laws allowing public footpaths to cross private property. Great Britain may be crisscrossed on multiple, well-marked through-paths, running north-south, east-west across private property. One such path is the Way of St. Oswald, opened in August 2006, stretching 97 miles, from Heavenfield (near Hadrian’s Wall), to the Holy Isle of Lindisfarne in the north, near the Scottish border town of Berwick upon Tweed. In August 20-24, 2015, Trina and I will walk 50 miles along this pilgrim way, following in the footsteps of St. Oswald, King of Northumbria in the 7th century, and also in the footsteps of St. Aidan, missionary and apostle to Northumbria. Along this way, we will traverse many hedgerows. This way trail cuts across many hedgerows, including over stiles, ladders built to climb over a hedgerow, following the footpath across someone’s private field, and then over the next stile and hedgerow, into the adjoining field. Such a concept of public use of private lands seems quite foreign to someone from America.
When viewed from a spiritual angle, a hedgerow provides needed protection and enclosure (in Latin, claustra, or “cloister”) in which we grow spiritually together. When churches lack “hedgerows”, when we fail to nurture our biblical root system and scriptural boundaries for daily living, we lack protection from threats and harm, and we will ultimate fail to flourish. But when churches keep their “doors and gates” closed to outsiders, offering little or no accessibility to non-churched people to cross over our hedges, and enter the place of grace, we also will suffer and perish as a people of the God who calls us to be fruitful and multiply, as well as to welcome the stranger as Christ.
[i] Quotes from “A Guide to Hedgerows”, text by Gill Crane; illustrations by Carol Roberts, Mike Langman and Chris Shields; Shrewsbury, England: Field Studies Council Publications, 2009.