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Cooling off for six hours in a police cell in Esher, Surrey, in 1997, with King Arthur Pendragon taking up residence in the cell next door, I had a moment to reflect on the power of words, language and stories. We had both been arrested at the protest in Canbury Gardens, Kingston– the site of the annual Kingston Green Fair. While he was calmly debating with the duty officer as to whether Excalibur was a sword, or actually a religious artefact and therefore it should accompany him into his cell, I was contemplating my reasons for getting angry about the proposed felling of fifty six Lombardy poplars so that new residents of luxury riverside flats would have a better view of the river.

The protest included veterans from Twyford Down (1991) and Newbury Bypass (1994), much bigger protests than the one taking place in leafy, well-to-do Kingston. The line of poplars weren’t native woodland threatened by road building. They were introduced trees planted in the 1930s for screening of a now-disused power station. To those of us who attended the annual  Green Fair however, and who couldn’t leave jobs to join the big protest camps, they were a symbol of resistance to the destruction of the countryside.

At the time, the emotional stories around the protection of the trees weren’t enough for me, and importantly didn’t influence the people that seemed to matter: developers, councillors, government, the police.  I wanted more. I wanted indisputable scientific fact as to the importance of theses trees. In that police cell I decided to become an ecologist: armed with those facts- the REAL story-I would be unstoppable. Surely no one would argue with the facts! So I studied a foundation science course in my evenings, then a biology “A’ Level and finally I went to University to study ecology. A Masters Degree in Applied Ecology and Conservation followed directly and here I am, armed to the teeth with science on habitat destruction, fragmentation, invasive species and global warming. Yet its not enough. 97% of all scientist agree (Cook et al 2013) that global warming is anthropogenic in origin and causing runaway climate breakdown. The IPBES are reporting what amounts to a 6th mass extinction. Yet  the response, the action taken to address this is woefully inadequate and glacially slow.

I worked in conservation for 15 years and learned that there were however only so many people who would sit up and take action over the facts of biodiversity loss and climate change. Facts are far too abstract for most people. The economist Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow explains that a large part of our decision making processes are fast, automatic emotional, stereotypic, and unconscious. I was beginning to find that telling people the factual story and asking them to change their lives was not working. A way through began to emerge for me by listening to people’s stories and trying to highlight with them where nature mattered; to help them see they were embedded in ‘nature’ not separate from it. Facts provide architecture but it was the stories that made them relevant. In a world beset by problems caused by human population growth and resource use, things cant be just what they are; they become what people see them as.

Choice of words and language are critical to understanding and they can be used to build bridges or erect walls. Late last year, George Monbiot called for a change in the language we use around the environment and climate change, proposing amongst other changes the use of the words climate breakdown instead of climate change to convey the sense of urgency; and that phrase ecosystem services, much hated by non-ecologists, should be instead called life support systems.

Words, in this case the deliberate removal of them from the Oxford Junior Dictionary, prompted Robert Macfarlane, Captain of the  Modern Nature Writing Ship, to collaborate with artist Jackie Morris to create The Lost Words, a tome of poems and art that have captured the hearts and minds of so many people that local fundraising campaigns to buy Lost Words have sprung up in all over Britain . At this time we are also exploring a Lost Words Ontario.

Working for the Wildlife Trusts we sometimes struggled with scientific language as a barrier to popular communication. That dreaded word ecosystem services for one, but also the concept of a Living Landscape– the landscape-level conservation thinking that is the key mission of the Trusts- defied abbreviation to media-friendly comms. When you start to explain it, it becomes two wordy but when asked to reduce it to something the public would understand it becomes something so amorphous as to lose its meaning entirely. Perhaps, I thought, some concepts are just not easily explained with words.

In Savage Gods Kingsnorth, after years of using words to fight for nature, finds himself in a place where words- the Savage Gods- are failing him, and language might be tricking him into believing he no longer has a sense of purpose.

“None of this is real. The Scot’s pine is real it is a being, a presence, the birds are real, the solidity of the earth is real and the words are nothing. Nothing. The words are not alive. The words are not quickened, they do not dance or stagger, they are not inhabited. They are hammered survey stakes, acrylic falsehoods that die in the reality of the place. All humans do is talk. Talk talk talk and out come the sounds and like poetry they change nothing but we talk talk talk anyway and we mistake the sounds for meaning or action and the tree just stands there silently and we just talk.” p31

” Is Language the Trap? The field is full of language. Everything is speaking to everything else, and some of it i can hear and some of it, because of my biology or my cultural inheritance, i am not equipped to. All nature is language- but none of it is written down.” p117

I was introduced to Paul Kingsnorth’s writing by a good friend who recognised in his works something I was going through in my own personal journey. Kingsnorth was an activist at Twyford Down, Solsbury Hill and the M11 link road. He has worked for Greenpeace and then was deputy editor of The Ecologist. In 2001 he had the honour of being named one of Britain’s Top 10 Troublemakers by the New Statesman. He is a writer of books, poetry and articles exploring place, nature and environmental concern. In 2009 he co-founded, with Dougald Hine, the Dark Mountain Project , a network of writers and artists who have all but accepted that social collapse is around the corner and have named themselves witnesses to the event.

I read ‘Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist‘ where in a series of essays Paul explored his growing distance from the world of environmental activism. I recognised the sense of it but I wasn’t yet ready to give up ‘the fight’ as Paul seemed to had done. He had gone deeper into the world of environmental politics and protest than I ever had, however. For me, Canbury Gardens had led to Nuclear Testing and anti-WTO protests but I put my energies completely into deepening my scientific understanding.

Savage Gods finds Paul sense-making with his family from his new home in Ireland. The fire in his belly is cooling, becoming something less consumptive, more like the tributaries of a river finding its way through the land. Without the energy from those fires, he is exploring his seemingly frustrated creativity.

“What does a writer do when his words stop working? I dont know. All I know is I’m churning inside and everything I know is windskipping like brown willow leaves in a winter gale”

The move to Ireland brings reflections on place making and connection. How does a self-proclaimed “wanderer through words and worlds” make the connections with place and land that he once had and still craves. Kingsnorth knows that connection to land is an important part of his or anyone’s sense of self, – a ‘sense of reciprocity between a people and the place they live in,‘ yet he finds it almost impossible to bear once he has them.He escaped from his middle-class upbringing and he found no solidarity with his Oxford peers. Now he has also come to hate idealists like the one he used to be.

“I was born in the rootless suburbs and they have given me a rootless soul. I am not a tree. I am some kind of slinking animal in the hedgerow. I am a seed on the wind. I am water. I am coming to the rocks at the lip of the fall.” p25

This style is echoed later in the book when he quotes the Song of Amergin, the invocation of the spirit of Ireland by the mythological poet-druid of the Milesians. As with the original poem perhaps this is a calling to the spirit of the land for recognition, but not this time for a people, but for one man’s uprooted soul.

Language is perhaps our greatest achievement and, if we all just want to connect, to belong to something, language might well be the tool of our demise. Words are an abstraction of things, they are not those things. Language sets us apart in an observers role and defies belonging which we all simultaneously crave and fear. Belonging brings acceptance and annihilation of individuality in the same moment.

The most Savage Gods though seem to be not words or language but the thoughts behind them. The cognitions that form as we unconsciously filter the information from our environment with our evolutionary-sculpted sensory systems. The world we see is the one we inherited through millennia of interactions between us and our environment. The cruel trick begins with thought: the separation starts before words are formed,  because if  we saw things how they really were we would be seeing flow not form, process not state. Yet words and language are part of the road map for survival; they brought us here to where we are today.

In The Language Instinct Steven Pinker, buidling on the work of Noam Chomsky before him, proposed that the ability to learn language is inherited, that we possess a proto-language or ‘mentalese’ which is the same for every language and forms a grammatical structure on which our learning is mapped. This would suggest a thought-prison of our own making, an inability to escape from thinking outside our own box. Recent insights from  Professor of Linguistics Vyvyan Evans in his book The Language Myth challenge this notion. He argues that thoughts aren’t taking place in an abstract mentalese but are “embodied”, arising directly in and from experience. If this is indeed true, thoughts and the language that arise from them aren’t an abstraction at all, but a direct consequence of interaction with the material world, all be it still through a biological filter. It is impossible as yet for an unaided individual to see gamma radiation or smell the world as richly as a dog would.

Where we are could also be a cul-de-sac. In the science fiction novel ‘Blindsight‘ Peter Watts suggests that this separation from ‘being’ through consciousness could actually be an aberration, an evolutionary dead end.

“Evolution across the universe was nothing but the endless proliferation of automatic, organized complexity, a vast arid Turing machine full of self-replicating machinery forever unaware of its own existence. And we—we were the flukes and the fossils. We were the flightless birds lauding our own mastery over some remote island while serpents and carnivores washed up on our shores.”

Life cannot exist for long separated from itself. I am reminded of a time-lapse model of source-sink dynamics, the sink ‘winking’ out of existence unable to maintain itself in a hostile environment without migration from the source.

Savage Gods reads at first like the notebook for a finished work. Something to be honed and crafted and, well……completed. In my head I often asked Kingsnorth why he felt it necessary to publish these ‘workings out’. But if we suffer from seeing form not flow, here he gives us flow. beautifully. Here he is exploring the trap every being falls into when, rather than just doing, begins to ask themselves why?  The answer, if there is one, may not lie in the book, or the bowl or the basket but in the crafting of the book, bowl or basket. We are possessed by ghosts of the evolutionary process which we mistake for purpose. We have come too far down the line of self-reflection which was only ever meant to be a side show to the greater theme of being.

The book also feels aptly titled because it feels like a prayer offered up for a revelation, for insight into the true reality of things, and for meaning and direction.

Perhaps there is only peace to be made with that reality. Defy those Savage Gods, stop fighting and start doing. We can’t easily do both.

Savage Gods was released in early June in Europe and  is available for pre-order in North America through publishers Two Dollar Radio. I am grateful for them for providing a preview copy.

 

 

 

 

 

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Marker posts for Fixed Point Photography along the TRCA hedgerows. I'll also be taking dimension measurements

Marker posts for fixed point photography points along our hedgerows. I’ll also be taking  measurements (height, width) at regular intervals

Yesterday- Earth Day 2019- felt like the warmest day yet this Spring here in Ontario- a balmy 19 degrees, a perfect day to get started on the monitoring programme for our Mount Wolfe Farm hedgerows.

We  planted two hedgerows here at the farm in 2017 and 2018. The 2017 hedge was started in the fall of 2017 but completed in 2018 and was planted by volunteers and marked the first ‘performance’ of the Hedgerow Rite.  The 2018 Hedge- was planted by a TRCA team last fall. The plantings have been made possible by the generous support of the Toronto Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) who supplied the plants and labour and continue to support the Hedgelaying In The Ontario Landscape (HOL) Project.

My long-term aim is to set up a long term citizen-science monitoring programme for hedgerows that we plant as part of the HOL project, and also to fine tune recommendations for organisations and groups who want monitoring programmes for their hedges. I have worked with hedgerows and citizen scientists for 10 years, and created the Hedgerows for Dormice project at People’s Trust for Endangered Species (2009-11) and Hedgerow Heroes at Surrey Wildlife Trust (2017-ongoing).  I have created a draft monitoring calendar for a range of taxa associated with hedgerows.

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This Earth Day was fixed point photograph (FPP) day! I spent the afternoon setting up FPP points around the farm which I will use to capture images of how the hedge grows and transforms the local landscape.

I have had a couple of camera traps (thanks Grant!) set up on Hedgerow TRCA18 with nothing captured so far although there is a good evidence of coyote Canis latrans using the adjacent paths, and the white-tailed deer Odocoileus virginianus are already nibbling the tops of some of the plants- though thankfully the damage is localised both on the plant and within the hedge.

 

All pictures were taken with my Samsung A10 Mobile Phone which has serious limitations (offers of a proper digital camera gratefully excepted!), although it does allow me to switch to the compass feature and GPS to get a bearing and location (not that accurate sadly) without changing instruments!

It was a wonderful day to be distracted by the wildlife on the farm though. An American robin Turdus migratorius was searching for insects in a wood chip pile. A Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis was singing its heart out from the top of an old sugar-maple on the drive. While down near Hedge TRCA17, I spied what we had thought was an Eastern Kingbird Tyrannus tyrannus  seen from the house a week earlier. I’d been advised through I-Naturalist I(Sarah and I are using the App to record all widlfe sightings on the Farm) that it was a little too early to see these and my correspondent had suggested instead an Eastern Phoebe Sayornis phoebe. I had recently downloaded the I-Bird App and played both calls through my phone. Sure enough my friend took a real interest when the phoebe calls were played. and so too did another bird which I haven’t seen before- the chipping sparrow Spizella passerina with its dark eye stripe and bright red haircut! Later I sat for a while and watched three tree swallows Tachycineta bicolor whip and dive above the front 10 acres, above the nest boxes where they nested last year. Soaring high above them a turkey vulture Cathartes aura was a crack in the sky.

Today its raining so I’ll be planning small mammal surveys, moth surveys ( Peterson’s Field Guide on order from my local bookstore Forsters Book Garden, along with Robert Macfarlane’s new book Underland!) and butterfly transects. I have seen the first butterfly on site yesterday- a mourning cloak Nymphalis antiopa next to the hedgerow Sarah and I finished laying. I’ll also be sourcing some ‘tins’ for the reptile surveys

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I’m going to need to up my skill level for the invertebrate surveys and soil fauna- and hopefully find a suitably qualified friend to help out! I expect it is within the invert communities that we might be able to detect differences in the species or functional groups present in and around the hedgerow, from monitoring sites which I will also set up in grassland, wetland and woodland plots. The fact that Mount Wolfe Farm is a site with mixed habitats will make it difficult- perhaps impossible to show an effect from the planting of the hedgerows and so I look forward to being able to develop a project at a site with very little or no woodland where the presence of hedgerows should have an immediate impact on the biodiversity within the landscape.

I’m embarking on these surveys to develop a database on the biodiversity of Canadian hedgerows but also partly to develop my skills identifying Canadian biodiversity and to maintain a survey practice  much as one would develop a for a musical instrument or a for yoga. Its easy to slip out of these important rituals, especially if like me your career had taken you out of the field towards a more strategic focus. Use it or lose it, I think I heard someone once say!

I do need to get some more survey equipment but I haven’t yet found a Canadian equivalent of NHBS or WildCare which were the go-to companies in the UK. Not that I have much in the way of funding to go on a spending spree but even some sampling pots would be useful! And a sweep net. and a bat detector and a….

 

 

 

 

 

 

In wildness is the preservation of the world- Henry David Thoreau, in  ‘Walking’ (1862)

Its Sunday June 3rd and back in the UK my colleagues at Surrey Wildlife Trust have already been busy filling social media with their #30dayswild posts to encourage their friends, family and the public to take time each day through June to connect with the wild. Lou took a walk in a local wildlife with her dog Banjo and photographed all the flowers. James has revamped his garden with new plants to attract wild pollinators. Lucy  and Nicole have been exploring the mountains of Scotland. My computer screen is brimming with colour and energy and life.

I have been meaning to update my blog but I have been too busy living #MyWIldLife to write about it, but now happily both my love of writing and my need to spread the word about some of the exciting things i’m doing coincide, just in time for this annual celebration of wild living.

My Canadian adventure which started in 2016 has now reached a new phase  and I am at the start of a 10 month sabbatical from SWT. I am working as Visiting Scientist at the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Innovation and Resilience which is part of the University of Waterloo. I have joined the team on the Hedgelaying in Ontario’s Landscape initiative  who have been using a partnership approach to explore complex issues of landscape planning and management within southern Ontario’s Greater Golden Horseshoe (GGH). I’ll be working with partners to support their hedge planting and hedgelaying visions at both site and landscape level, together with exploring the development- or rather curation-of a rural skills network in Southern Ontario. This practical work will explore new pathways of sustainable transformation towards landscape and community resilience. More on this in later blogs!

I am living with my partner Sarah at the wonderful Mount Wolf Farm, owned and run by the Crandall family where my friends Nigel and Jef demonstrated hedgelaying back in 2016 and last year we planted the first plants in the First Canadian Hedgerow (probably not but every hedge needs a story!).  Mount Wolfe is at the centre of a transitioning landscape, a complex theatre in which i find myself an actor exploring solutions towards a sustainable future.

Thoreau’s thoughts about wilderness are iconic. Today, in the age of the Anthropocene as we struggle to maintain ecosystems and reverse biodiversity loss from a myriad of pressures perhaps we might restate this famous quote- in our world  is the preservation of the wild.

Here are a few highlights for my days 1-3 of #30dayswild

 

 

“I bequeath myself to the dirt, to grow from the grass I love;
If you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles.”
– Walt Whitman

On an unseasonably warm and sunny Thanksgiving Weekend (6th October 2017) visitors to the Open Day at Mount Wolfe Farm in Caledon, Ontario were able to take part in a first for the farm, for the town of Caledon, and who knows maybe for Ontario and Canada as well: the planting of a hedgerow with hedgelaying in mind. Volunteers walked down from the Shed past the greenhouse and through a gateway of two black walnut stumps. Here at the bottom of a gentle slope the farm manager Sarah had ploughed a 100m strip ready for planting. Earlier that day I set out the plants that have been kindly donated by Toronto Area Conservation Authority (TRCA) to form two staggered rows of plants. Rows are 40cm apart and each plant will be 30cm apart, a density of five plants a metre. We only had 2 plants every metre but the rest will be delivered in the spring when the hedge will be finished.

The volunteers took to their task energetically and with enthusiasm. I’m used to planting 30-40cm whips which can be slipped in with a T-cut using a spade; these potted plants required a bit more digging to contain the roots before being heeled in. Although the plant species we are using for the Mount Wolfe hedge are different species from those we would plant in the UK, they are broadly similar. We have hazel, albeit the American hazelnut Corylus Americana; Grey Dogwood Cornus racemose; and a Prunus-Chokeberry Prunus virginiana- which although doesn’t look as fierce as Blackthorn Prunus spinosa sounds like it might perform a similar function in the hedge to provide dense, stock-proof growth. We are also planting a couple of Viburnums: NannyBerry Viburnum lentago and Arrowwood V. dentatum, which are similar to the Guelder Rose V.opulus and Wayfaring Tree V. lantana we might plant in a hedge in the UK. This list is topped off by Serviceberry Amelanchier canadensis, Black Chokeberry Aronia melanocarpa and Fragrant Sumac Rhus aromatic. A list of potentially suitable hedge species was developed last year when my colleague Nigel Adams visited the TRCA plant nursery with Ralph Toniger (see link below).

These plants have been chosen for their mast-producing qualities, so the hedge fits in with Mount Wolfe Farm’s food producing ethos. The location of the hedge has also been chosen to zone part of the farm which its owners the Crandall Sisters and next generation farm manager Sarah are hoping to designate as an open space, a commons, for the use and benefit of local residents, a novel land-use approach in a landscape of privately-owned properties.

In advance of the hedge planting I delivered a talk on hedgerows in the same Shed that almost one year to the day Nigel Adams, Jef Gielen and I found ourselves delivering talks followed by a hedge laying demonstration as part of the University of Waterloo’s Partnership project Hedgelaying in Ontario’s Greenebelt. You can read about that trip in 2016 in my earlier blog HERE and an update on the growth of the hedge in my visit in Spring 2017 HERE. It feels fantastic to be part of the first hedge planting event envisaged by that partnership last year. My talk was sandwiched between Professor Stephen Quilley who gave an overview of the aims of the HOG project in developing social resilience and Debbe Crandall of Mount Wolfe who gave a fascinating insight into the development of the Crandall family farm and the importance of the hedgerow project to regional and community planning.

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Two more hedge planting events on different sites with very different aims and visions are planned which, it is hoped, will form case studies to showcase the varied contexts hedgerows can be used in and the different ‘services’ hedges can provide: from the food and zoning focus of the Mount Wolf hedges, to the provision of habitat and landscape connectivity and even to services such as natural flood management, prevention of soil erosion and stock management.

The novelty bought by these hedges is that they are being planted with long-term management in mind. Species are being selected for their shrub-like qualities and their ability to respond with new vigorous growth when coppiced. Hedges may be trimmed on a 2-3 year rotation but all will need to be rejuvenated- cut at the base to encourage new growth- to keep a thick canopy from the ground up.

Hedgelaying has developed throughout Europe as a way of rejuvenating hedgerows but this management technique has been developed locally and hedges now provide a more aesthetic and social component than perhaps the first hedgelayers intended. There are now over 30 hedge-laying styles in Britain alone.

What will an Ontarion Hedgelaying style look like I wonder? We are at the beginning of finding out.

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Check out my YouTube video.

Many thanks to Sarah D, Debbe, Sheilagh, Marce and Sarah C for putting me up- and putting up with me-at Mount Wolfe. Thanks also to Prof Quilley and PHD candidate Perin Ruttonsha at The University of Waterloo for continuing to involve me in this fascinating project. This blog is dedicated to Nigel and Jef who couldn’t be with me this time.

Learn more about hedgerows and how they are managed at Hedgelink and the National Hedgelaying Society

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“This is THE hedge-laying competition!” exclaimed John French as he presented the John French Prize for Best Cutting at the Maasheggenvlechten (literally ‘Meuse Hedge Weaving) last weekend, and indeed it is a hedge-laying competition like no other. Why do thousands of Dutch people flock to fields in the Netherlands to watch a bunch of their kindred and some assorted Europeans play in hedgerows? As I pull together our new Surrey Wildlife Trust Citizen Science project Hedgerow Heroes which has, like its freshwater brother RiverSearch, the ultimate aim of connecting people and communities with the natural world, this was very much on my mind.

Maasheggenvlechten is hosted in the Boxmeer Principality of the Netherlands by the banks of the mighty Meuse River which rises in France and flows 925km to join the Rhine at Hollands Diep in the Netherlands. The eastern most and least urbanized tip of the Province of North Brabant which has a flat (although above sea-level) agricultural landscape, hedgerows are part of this landscape although like in the UK many were removed for post-war agricultural intensification. The competition is an annual event which was the brainchild of Lex Roeleveld.of Stichting (“foundation”-like a charitable NGO) Heg en Landschap  to promote the Dutch Hedgelaying style after which the competition is named. Supported by the President of  the Stichting, Louis Dolmans they co-organised the event for the first five years. Now the event is organised by Ruth Bakkens of IVN Meuse Valley.

For the uninitiated, hedge-laying involves the rejuvenation of a hedge by cutting a shrub at its base to leave a living hinge and laying over the stem, now called a pleacher. Regrowth of the shrub then arises from the base and along the still-living stem.   In the UK “Hedge-laying” is represented by over 35 styles including Midland and South of England which vary in the angle of laying and the use of binders and stakes to secure the hedge. With Massheggenvlechten, stems are cut and bent at various heights usually at the horizontal to create a living stock proof fence.

English hedgelayers have attended the competition for many years. I was invited on this trip by that veteran of many hedge-campaigns and Hedgelink colleague Nigel Adams. Once in The Netherlands we joined with fellow Brits Dave Truran, Roger Taylor, John French, and hedge-laying legend Peter Tunks. In advance of the main competition on Sunday our host Lex Roeleveld had organized a training session on the South of England style at a Roggebots Staete in the Flevopolder near the village of Dronten. In perfect Spring weather we laid a line of hazel mixed with a local thorn variety and enjoyed the hospitality of our hosts.

To my surprise I had woken on Friday morning with a swollen and painfull ankle which I could only put down to a lunch-time run on Wednesday. As I hobbled to Stansted and to the car hire at Eindhoven, prospects of tooling-up and getting to grips with a hedge- to my shame the first time this winter- were diminishing. Yet a good compression bandage, elevation, plenty of ice and a few jars of Amstel, I was good to go on Saturday morning.

We arrived before the crowds on Sunday so that Nigel and Co. could survey the hedge which they would use to demonstrate Midland and South of England styles. Spring was most definitely in the air and the early sunshine promised a good day. John French’s tools and George Mueller’s book stand (more on him soon) were early attractions and old friendships were reaffirmed over steaming cups of coffee before we all assembled outside for a picture and instruction on the day. Our hedges were the first that visitors to the site would see as they walked from the car and cycle park past a demonstration of sheep-dog skills. During the day the cycle park became a sparkling inland sea of aluminium forks and frames.

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The first job for us was to cut away much of the lateral wood that the previous hedge-layers had expertly crafted. While in some ways this felt like a violation, the hedge was ready for rejuvenation and the English demonstration styles needed clean vertical stems. I was happier that the man who had previously laid this section of hedge was on hand and was none other than our HedgeCanada buddy Jef Gielen. We were happy to find a length of pleacher which still held the healed –over scar of his original cut some 12 years ago which he kept as a token.

Dave, Peter and Roger got stuck in on the SoE demonstration and I assisted Nigel at a more leisurely pace on the Midland. I am only a keen hedgelaying novice- my expertise lies in hedge ecology and conservation- so this weekend was also a chance for me to learn and practice under the tutelage of a thicket of hedgelaying professionals. It was an enormous pleasure to watch how much thought goes into the placing of each pleacher, the good will with which advice was taken and given, and the easy carry-on humour that emerged as we worked. With a group of us on hand there was also plenty of time to talk to the crowds, building to a steady stream as the day wore on.

John commandeered Nigel for judging duty just after lunch so I downed tools and ambled around to soak up the atmosphere and converse with hedge-layers and visitors. I was stunned by the number of people but Lex and others thought numbers were down on previous years. The hedges weren’t the only attractions: horse-riding, a roving all-female brass ensemble and plenty of distractions for kids involving willow-weaving and a straw-bale assault course. When I met Sjoerd Aertssen in front of his beautifully woven hedge and we chatted over small glasses of Jenever (Dutch Gin), I asked him why this event attracted so many people. “It’s a great thing to do on a nice day” he said, “It would be different numbers if it was raining. But people like to be in touch with nature. These places are also relatively small and people know each other ( very) well. Everyone knows someone who is joining the competition. It’s the only thing that makes these villages really special and nobody wants to miss an event like this.”

One thing that marks Maasheggenvlechten out from say, the National Hedgelaying Championships in England, is that the majority of people here aren’t professional hedge-layers. Most have taken a course but are here to just get involved and connect with the land and each other. Hedges are layed in teams and, as with our demonstration hedgerows, that arguably lends a different feeling over all. There is still much competitiveness and a striving to improve, but for me that inclusiveness and community spirit really marked this event as special.

Watching a skilled hedge-layer at work is a form-poem, a demonstration in connectedness. It’s important that professional competition exists so that the apogee in skill can be demonstrated through the drive of competitors to be the best amongst their peers; anyone who has attended a competition knows the vicarious pleasure of watching the masters at work. For improvers or  those of us just starting out it shows us what can be attained with practice and determination if you have some ability and a good eye. Like the water-colour hobbyist who takes trips to the Tate to see his favourite artist, our novice attempts may never reach such great heights of perfection, but in lifting a brush, in feeling and seeing the properties of paint on canvas, we appreciate the skill in the task that much more. That understanding is vital in creating the essential connection between a person and the external (natural) world. In the world of hedges and hedgelaying, a person who is willing to try their hand, without regard or embarrassment to their level of skill, becomes connected in a positive way. Once connected, the hedge and the landscape it emerges from are forever part of their reality, and they will do everything in their power to preserve it.

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After tools-down we assembled in the large marquee and fuelled by hotdogs and beer we awaited the prize-giving. In an unexpected move foreign competitors were invited up on stage and thanked for our participation with a gift of a book called “Beautiful Europe” by Jaap Dirkmaat. The irony of this moment was not lost on our English contingent as we shuffled off the stage apologetically (even more so now as the Dutch have rejected a call to populist nationalism in their March elections).

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Now to Georg Mueller. In 2013 he released the results of his years of research in the two volume “European Field Boundaries” which, not having access to the books themselves I gave a cursory review of here. Georg joined us at our hotel on the Saturday night and while language was a barrier (his English is better than my German!) with the help of Nigel I spoke in admiration of his work and conveyed my own interest in the social ecology of hedgerows, and we agreed to correspond. To my utter surprise and delight, Georg gifted me the 2 volume set of his work at the competition the next day, so a more thorough review will be forthcoming in time. Thank you Georg!

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A hugely enjoyable event and weekend and my thanks go to Dave, Peter, Roger and John for making me feel part of the team; to Lex for being the most attentive and generous of hosts (we will forgive the lack of tools on Saturday, partly because it prompted John to bring along his fabulous wooden hammer and cry “Whose looking after my knocker” to much attendant mirth. Special thanks to Nigel for inviting me along – it’s a wonder we did get there though at all with bad ankles, misplaced driving licences and a non-functioning sat nav.

See you all in 2018!

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