A love note to British hedges

12.48, Wednesday 6 Jul 2022

The New Yorker has a wonderful long interview with Melvyn Bragg, about his life as a programme maker and public intellectual, and here he is talking about the BBC’s competitors, and also hedges:

None of these people have the variety of programs, especially in radio, that the BBC offers. They don’t even know how to do it. England’s full of niche audiences, like the old hedgerows full of different birds, and they’re all singing away.

(The density of England! See this post about ancient folktales from last year.)

Bragg is now 82. He upended arts programming. The South Bank Show, 1978:

The first thing I’m going to do, we’re going to sit down in front of an artist whose work we have researched thoroughly and talk to that artist about his or her work. That’s going to be the main thing we do. And the second thing we’re going to do is try to break the pyramid idea of the arts in this country, where opera is best, ballet is best, classical music is best, and then down, down, down. Pop music and comedy aren’t even on the pyramid. So we started with Paul McCartney as our first program.

Something wonderful about this counterintuitive mix of populism, anti-populism (deep interviews), and going to the source instead of pundits with opinions. A lesson there I think.

Bragg now makes In Our Time, which I love and which is the BBC’s biggest podcast. It’s a wildly eclectic discussion show featuring people who know their stuff and there’s a different topic every week.

I had about five or six rules. I’m not having people talk about different subjects; I’m having people talking about one subject the entire time. I’m having academics, but they’re going to be teaching academics, so they’re used to clarifying things-not dumbing them down. I wanted to be eclectic, and I wanted to be collegiate. And I wanted to do things that I knew nothing about, because I could get an education on the sly.

You know? I wanted to do astrophysics, which we did. I wanted to do consciousness, neuroscience. I wanted to do stuff in China. I particularly wanted to do stuff about the Middle East, because nobody was ever writing about the great intellectuals from 700 to 1200 in the Middle East-Avicenna, those sort of people. They couldn’t stop us, because we got this golden six-month contract.

In Our Time started in 1998. Listen to all 955 episodes here. (As previously discussed.)

ANYWAY: Melvyn Bragg’s mention of hedgerows.

Hedges cover the UK. There are urban hedges:

Welcome to Hedgeland. The streets of suburban Britain are edged with merry green. Boxy bushes of privet, beech, holly, yew and other plant species act as boundaries around gardens, demarcating property lines and separating our domestic and public lives. Town planners call them “woody linear features,” but they are so much more than that. They are a charmed circle drawn around family and self. What the white picket fence is to America, the hedge is to Britain, a cozy symbol of conservatism.

They are continuously trimmed and maintained by home-owners: One begins to suspect that hedges are psychological portraits of those who live behind them. A hedge left wild and overgrown suggests a certain lassitude, especially when growing right next to one pruned with geometric rectitude.

Also, mainly, there are rural hedges.

Hedges enclose fields and have done in Britain since the Bronze Age, 4,000 years ago. They display ownership. Birds live in them. Worms live under them. They prevent animals from wandering; they demarcate lanes for traffic. There are 95,000 miles of hedge in the UK.

A hedge is not one thing.

A good hedgerow is a dense linear thicket of multiple plant species, including: hawthorn, blackthorn, hazel, ash, oak. Urban hedges: box, yew, privet, holly. The number of species can be used to date the hedge:

Hooper’s rule (named for Dr. Max Hooper) is based on ecological data obtained from hedges of known age, and suggests that the age of a hedge can be roughly estimated by counting the number of woody species counted in a thirty-yard distance and multiplying by 110 years.

There’s a caveat that hints at how ancient hedges can be: The formula also does not work on hedges more than a thousand years old.

I visited a Zen temple in Kyoto once upon a time, and saw the dry garden there (and had a deeply spiritual experience; a story for another time), raked and maintained in its same form for hundreds and hundreds of years. Same same. I’ll contemplate that, next time I look at a hedge.

There are hedges all over the world, but it’s hard not to see the centrality of the hedge as a peculiarity of the geography and the culture of Britain.

SIMILARLY: Chalk streams, which I grew up surrounded by, and which formed the archetype in my head for “what a stream is,” before I discovered that chalk streams are a peculiarity of the south of England (2018).

Hedges are simultaneously so mundane as to be invisible…

…yet also, if you were to look back on them in 10,000 years, investigating hedges archeologically and anthropologically, they would be seen to have enormous ritual significance:

  • they are continuously maintained by human hands, over centuries, over generations. Such effort!
  • they’re not singular or grand, like a cathedral or the pyramids or a city, but universal and vernacular.
  • they guide and sculpt and architect, a psychogeographic grid draped over the landscape; separating and joining, acting as both boundaries and roads.
  • they bond together the concrete world of LAND with the virtual world of LAW and property rights and society, connecting planes of existence, a green bridge of living plant matter. A kind of magic.

Hedges wouldn’t grow naturally. They exist because we maintain them, and we maintain them because they maintain us.

The society of hedges is in symbiosis not with individual humans but with human society.

And, as Melvyn Bragg says, the ancient hedges sing. You can hear when you walk past in the spring, quite often, the singers themselves invisible. Birdlife is homed there, given nooks and niches to hide and nest, birdlife in all its great variety preserved and protected in the long, low, dense wood and foliage.

(A blog is a little like a hedgerow, perhaps. A continuously maintained tangled thicket, linear through time, simultaneously selecting yet connecting; a form that preserves variety; humble and multiple; enduring but fragile; alive.)

Update 11 July: I’ve been thinking about hedges and about magic since writing this post. If you were to observe the function of hedges without also the huge construct of the law, property rights and conventions, etc, what you would see is humans creating a long linear plant around an area of land, and tending it - spending effort on maintaining it - many times a year for decades, and as a result some “un-permitted” class of people are thrown out by force if they enter the enclosed land, and after a socially agreed ritual these people may be locked up or otherwise punished, and society as a whole agrees with this – well, it looks like magic. So perhaps we can say that magic (or at least, one type of historical magic) is what it looks like when you see someone interacting with a vast social construct where that construct is now gone. Like a social-scale equivalent of watching someone’s bizarre movements and hand actions when they’re in VR but you can’t see through the glasses.

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