Billhook and Hedge
I. As I'm young and green
As I’m young and green among the brambles,
And cars are small and black with wooden panels,
We drive down Devon country lanes;
Deep hedges rear up on both sides
From hill to hill and on down the coast.
The wind blasts the window, tugs my hair,
Warm summer air with dust, straw and pollen.
I revel in the speed and the blind corners,
Laced branches, thorns and twigs all form
A tunnel with me whooshing through inside.
Parents in front seats speak with reverence
Of hedgerows tended and trimmed
For six hundred years or even more;
Yes, some might have been laid by Romans,
Because, look: still their roads run here.
Remembrances thread through the land
Connecting soil and hedge and road and me.
I stretch out my hand through the window
To life brimming in the hedges;
Time flies through my fingers.
II. A lifetime passes by
A lifetime passes by and I am grey.
Cars are small and blue and batteried.
We tour through the open countryside
Between unkept trees and boundary lines,
Decimated brushwood and hedges’ remains.
Trees, uncoppiced for decades,
Muddy ditches stuck in ooze,
A few pollard-willows for keepsake
Poke up their random heads;
An olding’s row of rotten teeth.
The fields are straight, right-angled,
Prowled by columns of agrotanks
Ploughing to the shoulders of the roads;
It’s hell and monoculture here
On the windswept farmlands of Stevns*.
III. I inherited a billhook
I inherited a billhook from Devon,
From my aunt who died alone,
The way she had always lived:
Cowherd, farmgirl, milkmaid,
Oddball, weeder and owner of hedges.
The billhook lay in a rusty pile in her shed,
A lifetime of things wood, metal and plastic.
I had never seen such a tool before,
But there it was, the worm-bored handle,
Beckoning my hand.
Heavy, curved with a shape to swing,
A tool from ancient farming,
Made for trimming and laying of hedges,
Millions of miles of live fencing,
A poor, mosquitobitten, toilsome life.
Billhooks have been in use for millennia,
Knives are known from the Iron Age,
Shaped, adapted and balanced to purpose
By the growths and features of the land;
This tool has soil and knowledge in it.
IV. For three decades
For three decades the billhook lay
In my toolbox waiting for me to learn,
And I thank my aunt for leaving me,
Awkward and hoarse on her hermit lot,
This testament of life and tool.
The billhook is 38 cm long and weighs 600 grams.
The blade is made from steel, 23 cm long.
It curves at the top, knife and hook in one,
Made for gripping and cutting twigs and brush;
John Riley, Sheffield, stamped on the blade.
The blade is broad an double-edged,
Curved and sharp, formed as a chubby sickle.
The back edge is straight, made for axing,
Chopping down branches and bushes
In the laying and trimming of hedges.
V. A living hedge
A living hedge is the life’s work of a farmer.
They say that whoever plants a tree
Steps into correspondence with death.
But I know that whoever plants a hedge
Shows compassion for children to come.
First, the hedge is lain from the ground up.
We may use hawthorn, maple and hazel
To give volume, good saplings and height.
Sloe and wild roses are good for density,
For bees, moths and nesting birds.
Ash, maple and crab apple for food and colour,
Servicetree, dogwood and privet for berries.
Join with wayfarer and guilder-rose for shelter,
Holly and laurel for deep, real green,
Ivy and thistle for seeds and flowers.
We plant low, and we plant tall.
We plant double combs with trees in-between
Consider primeval trees: oak, willow and elm.
The entire hedge is three to five meters deep,
Three meters tall and a thousand species long.
Come ten years, and time to lay the hedge
With the sharp back edge of the billhook:
Young saplings are cut almost through at the root,
Laid down at an angle along the hedge;
New rootshoots will grow up and grow strong.
Stakes of ash or hazel are spaced along the middle,
Withes of hazel or willow are braided in between,
And laid saplings bent between the stakes.
They will grow while stakes and withes wither,
Repeat and refresh for fifty years or more.
The hedgerow thickens, widens and roots,
It entangles, it grows, it shoots, it spikes,
Setting buds, foliage and flowers.
The hedge will grow and do what hedges do:
A fauna haven for hundreds of years.
Here are hoverflies, lacewings and earwigs,
Woodlice, larvae and beetles of all kinds,
Spiders, spindlers, moths and rodents,
Sparrows, finches and centipedes,
Parasites, springtails and diggers.
Here are millipedes, hoverflies and bees,
Tits, wrens, mice and martens,
Digger wasps, squirrels and robins,
Aphids, hedgehogs, blackbirds and snails,
Worms, pupae and millions of ants.
VI. One spring day I go out
One spring day I go out in the shed,
Put the whetstone in a beaker to soak,
Sharpen the billhook’s rusty blade;
Firm grip, slow movements, no haste,
Nothing to finish, no deadline to meet.
Many have sharpened this blade before I;
My aunt worked it in her shed,
Before her, field hands in coarse fabrics,
Peasants in small white-washed cottages,
Backbent, hardhanded knife grinders.
Only my generation, the richest ever,
As we're fond of telling each other,
Cannot afford the space of a living hedge,
Nor the cost to lay it and care for it;
Only my generation has no time.
I reach through the thin garden hedge,
A green curtain to keep out idle looks.
A few sparrows are nesting in there,
To be cut away by midsummer day;
A blackbird hops on the swidden lawn.
With gratitude to Tom Hynes and Robert Wolton from the Devon Hedge Group who kindly made available three of the photos above. Their website, http://www.devonhedges.org, is a rich and loving fount of knowledge about hedges and the ancient craft of laying and tending them. The photos (and hopefully the poem), show just what a hedgerow can do: for wildlife, for landscapes and for human quality of life.
*) Stevns is a county south of Copenhagen.
Verses 113-139 in the Danish version The Blog of Ten Thousand Things.
New things in Index Ten Thousand: Ant • 135, Billhook • 120, Crab apple • 129, Ditch • 118, Edge of blade • 126, Fauna haven • 133, Farmland • 117, Field: right-angled • 119, Generation: homo s. • 138, Hawthorn • 128, Hazel • 132, Hedge • 113, Hill • 113, Hook • 125, Knowledge: farming • 123, Larvae • 134, Lawn • 139, Living hedge • 127, Learn • 124, Mason bee • 135, Parents: homo s. • 115, Peasant • 137, Pollen • 114, Remembrance: the land • 116, Rootshoot • 131, Seed • 129 , Shed • 121, Sloe • 128, Sparrow • 134, Whetstone • 136, Willow • 130.