If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow
Don’t be alarmed now
It’s just a spring clean
For the May Queen – Led Zeppelin, Stairway to Heaven 1971
If I sported a bumper sticker, willing to express myself to anyone following me along the asphalt roadways of my life, I’d have a custom sticker that read, “Have You Hugged Your Hedgerow Today?”
Friend, allow me if you will to rattle your chain, bend your ear and be a bustle in your hedgerow about something near and dear to me – Wisconsin’s hedgerows. Their history began after tillage in the days when stones were carried to the field’s edge and dumped by homemade stone boats pulled by horses. Spring after spring the rock layers grew, each stone with a handprint telling a story. The most arduous and gripping tales of blood, sweat and tears lived at the bottom of the pile in a dark, cool place where the sun rarely penetrates.
Wisconsin stone piles became hedgerows by default. Through time, randomly, a wind-driven ironwood-tree flower pod germinated from the cool, dark soil at the bottom of a stone pile composed of granite and quartz. It sent its shoot through a crevice formed by the rocky wall above it. A half-century later a 12-foot ironwood tree with a trunk the diameter of a baseball bat adorned the developing hedgerow. Sometime later a flock of starlings spent a fall afternoon raiding nearby plum trees, depositing the plum pits below them while they socialized in the ironwood’s branches. A pine snake built its winter quarters in the rocky foundation. Then an elusive badger burrowed beneath the east end to take advantage of winter’s grudging morning sunrises. The following spring wildflowers prevailed and pollinators joined the developing hedgerow. Nature prevailed as the stone-pile hedgerow became its own micro-habitat.
Farmers had a hand in further developing Wisconsin’s hedgerows, along with the flora and fauna of the natural world. The hedgerows soon became refuges for relics of labor-saving devices and implements that cycled through farms. Barbwire was rolled up and relocated to the stone pile when smooth steel electric wire replaced it. Rolls of smooth steel wire found their way to the ever-evolving stone hedgerow when the cattle were sold, and oats and red clover hay were marketed to the next generation of neighboring farms. The wringer washer my grandfather’s housekeeper, Minnie St. Louis, once had her hand stuck in found its way to his granite-quartz haven along the northern boundary of his property. His menagerie grew to include an old inverted washtub that became a place for him to sit during the red-flannel days of his deer-hunting era.
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Most of my research on hedgerows led me to sources from the United Kingdom and Ireland, where the farm-landscape scenery includes fields divided by more-intentionally developed hedgerows. In all my searches I found references to the hedgerow’s environmental benefits. A hedgerow reduces erosion, provides wind breaks, forms carbon sinks and provides a habitat for critters in a landscape of shrinking habitat. Through all my searching I noted an element of lament as hedgerows here and abroad are disappearing at the helm of never-ending development and clearing of our farm and non-farm landscapes. Although I’m not glorifying the aspect of our Wisconsin-style hedgerows that includes cast-off iron implements, I believe if a few discarded relics of farm history need to accompany hedgerows I’m in favor of it to reap those stated environmental benefits.
Before I hit my word limit let me share another reason to honor the Wisconsin hedgerow. It’s a place to recline on a perfect June day, with a smooth black-granite boulder as a mattress and a chore jacket rolled up beneath my head while I wait for the custom baler to roll up my freshly drying first cutting of alfalfa-grass-mix hay. It’s a place to try my hand at crafting a poem – perhaps an ode to a sedge wren or a yellow-headed blackbird. I sat in a metaphorical hedgerow when I wrote “There, by the Linden” in my poetry book “Germinations.”
There, by the Linden near the grassy sea,
where hedgerow stones made my bed
and I slept in step with fields of foxtail
and awoke to morning’s sienna sky.
Here’s to hedgerows both near and afar. Within their borders a saner version of farming is represented, where work boots tracked tilled fields and calloused hands brought an ever-present new crop of stones to the field’s edge, and where the dinner bell sounded at noon signaling a respite for the laborers.
Until next time, friend.
This is an original article written for Agri-View, a Lee Enterprises agricultural publication based in Madison, Wisconsin. Visit AgriView.com for more information.
Greg Galbraith owned and operated for 30 years a grazing-based dairy farm in central Wisconsin, until selling it to another couple who continues to operate an organic grass-based dairy. He’s an agrarian writer who’s involved in projects promoting the environmental and social benefits of an agricultural landscape dedicated to the functional permanent cover that managed pasture provides.