I thought people might be interested to read this blog post I wrote some time ago about my own experiences of the (both literal and metaphorical) hedge.
As I was meditating, knitting and listening to music last night, working my way through the insomnia brought on by discontinuation syndrome from the last lot of failed seizure meds, the term hedgerider came to me as a description for myself. (And I found, upon researching all this, that other witches – mostly those with an English magic or Heathen background – are using the term for themselves.)
I was immediately reminded of friends and colleagues who describe their magical practice and their lives as edgewalking – a term which I’ve felt some identification with but which has never sat comfortably enough for me to claim it for myself. Because of my body and my history and my brain and my inclinations our culture places me in many liminal spaces, some of which I do not identify with and some of which I feel very deeply as mine. In a trance early in my magical practice, perhaps fifteen years ago, I learned that I am meant to be “a go-between”, a role I have embodied in many ways over the years. But even though I may live in or move in and out of or between liminal spaces, that image of edgewalking never felt like my own.
Perhaps it has something to do with one of my disabilities. Being deaf/HoH, I have balance problems. I can’t reliably walk in a straight line down the street. I could never walk on balance beams in Gym at school. To walk the knife’s edge…that’s not a metaphor I can feel in my bones. I don’t know what that feels like, to walk straight on that shining edge.
Riding, though: that I can do. I was put on ponies from the time I was a toddler, grew up riding. Riding the night, the storm, with the hunt: ancient images that speak to my soul.
And I grew up in a land of hedgerows, many of them 700 year old remnants of medieval field patterns. There have been hedgerows in my land since the Neolithic, and they have come and gone since: ancient hedges uprooted for the manorial field system, then returning the coming of the Enclosure Acts only to vanish again in the face of modern agriculture with its vast open fields. Ours were ancient: hawthorn, blackthorn, dog rose; holly and elder and the guelder rose that marks truly old hedges, grown through with straggles of brambles. They marked the turning year: the first hazy spring green of the edible bread-and-cheese hawthorn buds, foaming white with may blossom in the early summer, drooping with blackberries come autumn, and in winter bare dark bones between the faded fields.
I used to watch the hedging, learned the ancient words: the snedding, pleachers, brush and heatherings of true South of England style hedgelaying. I always wanted to learn it myself, though now I’ve moved to this hedgeless land I suppose I never will. That is the kind of work I could do happily with my hands, like the coppicing and clearing work I did over the summers, midge-stung and sunburned and rained upon.
And hedgerows aren’t simply a substitute for a fence; they are, as the UK Government advisors on nature conservation, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, point out: “the most significant wildlife habitat over large stretches of lowland UK and are an essential refuge for a great many woodland and farmland plants and animals.” The English Hedgerow Trust tells us that,
“Hedgerows are the principal habitat for around 50 existing species of conservation concern in the UK, including 13 globally threatened or rapidly declining species (more than for most other key habitats). They are particularly important for butterflies and moths, farmland birds, bats and dormice… Over 600 plant species, 1500 insects, 65 birds and 20 mammals have been recorded at some time living or feeding in hedgerows. Over 100 species of invertebrates can be found in a typical 20-metre section of hedgerow… Hedgerows also act as wildlife corridors for many species, including reptiles and amphibians, allowing movement between other habitats.”<
They are communities, pathways, focii of the land. And they are boundaries: my field from yours, farmland from lanes, the domestic from the wild. The root of the word means enclosure; the hedge is the boundary between the known and the unknown. Like the hedgerow itself, natural growth shaped by human hands, it is a meeting of nature and culture, self and other: a marker of the line between this world and another. And unlike a wall, the hedge is not absolute: it is a permeable membrane through which things both animal and otherworldly pass.
Since at least the 16th century CE it has been associated with the outcast, the poor, the mean, the unwanted. And, of course, it has been associated with witches. Our word hag comes from an Old English term that has been argued to mean “hedge-rider”. (And I found, upon researching all this, that other witches – mostly those with an English magic or Heathen background – are using the term for themselves.) Associated with witches and ghosts, we may note as well in the perhaps-related Norwegian word tysja (fairy, crippled woman) a perceived link between the otherworldy and another class of being relegated by mainstream culture to the realm of the mean and vile: those of us who are disabled.
Like the bent pleachers of the hedge, meanings knot and twist together, grow into a living, thriving thing of many parts. And if we have the knowledge, we can straddle it with one foot in this world and one foot in that, ride it through the twilight in the smell of hawthorn and wet leaves. It’s not a comfortable ride. The twilight is not necessarily a comfortable place, and the hedge is knotted with thorns, with nettles, with the briar of the rose. But for those who have learned to be a part of the tangled community of the place between, it’s home, and it is beautiful. Unlike the knife’s sharp edge, it may prickle and sting but it will not cut your feet; those of us who cannot walk with balance may still ride, moving together with something growing, changing, and perpetually alive.