Monthly Archives: July 2011

Why Don’t Snails Eat Weeds?

The two main irritants in my garden are snails and weeds. The weeds never seem to get the message that they are not welcome. I’m sure I’m not the first gardener to wonder why snails, who are so keen on strawberries, tomatoes, busy lizzies and sweet peas, are so fussy when it comes to eating the weeds. Surely they could bring themselves to do me a favour and munch through a few of them?

I know the most practical strategy is to try and discourage the snails from the flower bed, using beer or coffee grounds or whatever. But I can’t help wondering if the snails could be trained or bred to prefer the weeds to the flowers?

Whilst crawling round the gravel on my hands and knees pulling up weeds this morning I was pondering how you could achieve this – I think the best plan might be to use Clockwork Orange style conditioning – all it would take is a few miniature snail cinemas at strategic points of the garden, showing a looped film of terrible things happening to snails who eat flowers and lovely things happening to snails who eat weeds.

Given a few weeks for the cinema-going habit to take hold amongst the snail and slug brethren, I can’t see how it could possibly fail.

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Weird Things Customers Say In Bookshops (the book)

Just back from a week in Greece – will put up some pics of trees and (a few) hedges soon.

Meanwhile, just wanted to mention that as part of my proper job I will be editing the book version of this lovely blog – (and see further instalments on the same blog).

It will be out early next year.

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Enclosures, hedges… and David Cameron

One reason why rural hedges are so important, and symbolic in British history is the enclosures, the process by which open fields and common land were divided into smaller, privately controlled plots of land.

Enclosures were made from at least the 13th century, and were a source of great controversy in the 15th and 16th centuries when land was enclosed for sheep for the wool industry. Between1750 and 1850, over 2000 miles of enclosure hedge were planted each year. Fast growing shrubs like blackthorn and hawthorn transformed the countryside. The enclosure commissioners were often corrupt and susceptible to bribes. The poorest commoners were often granted the least fruitful land, or lost their land when they were unable to afford hedges or fences and were thus forced to sell at a cheap price. As a result, the rich became richer and the poor were driven from the land into the expanding cities.

I see the enclosures as a key part of the way that private landownership became inextricably entwined with political power in this country. Of course landownership was always the source of the wealth of the “landed gentry” but from the 18th century onwards the explicit class system was replaced by a more subtle concentration of wealth and power. Britain was now run by ” a committee of landlords” (only landowners could vote before 1832), the law became geared towards the interests of landowners, and the taxation system consequently focused on income rather than land as its main source.

And of course, landownership is still crucial today. The credit crunch was largely driven by banks lending against property, thus pushing up prices and effectively transferring wealth from ordinary people to banks (via interest on elevated prices) and landowners (via rents, which have risen considerably in real terms).

What we are seeing in the News International scandal is a reminder of how “clubby” the establishment still is. In David Cameron we have a wealthy prime minister who owns a big chunk of land, who has always been part of a privileged class, whose cabinet has a significant proportion of millionaires and who is presiding over a government keener to cut spending on the poorest in society than to punish the banks for their errors.

But both parties have pandered to the interests of the wealthy and powerful for decades, and we are seeing exactly how supine they (and the rest of the establishment) have been when it came to News Corp.

I’m not sure our politics have moved on much from the age of the enclosures.


Filed under Enclosures, Hedge Politics, Rural Britain

“…a bustle in your hedgerow…” (slightly demystified )

Just to take a quick look at the well-known line from Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin…

If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, Don’t be alarmed now, It’s just a spring clean for the May Queen.

I’ve mentioned that fairies and witches tend to emerge from hedgerows (in folk tales) – the May Queen is an old superstition which may or may not have its origins in human sacrifices which were intended to pacify magical forces – but it also refers to the coming of spring and in particular the blossom on the hawthorn tree, which is also called the Queen of the May, and is the most common hedgerow tree in Britain. The blossom was used for decoration at the May festivals.

Robert Plant had been reading Lewis Spence’s Magic Arts in Celtic Britain when he wrote the song – so a lot of the lyrics to Stairway to Heaven, including this one, are just slightly garbled allusions to those old traditions. (I guess “spring clean” is mainly there because it rhymes and scans rather than because it means anything much.)

There’s always a slightly sinister undertone to those traditions (as can be seen in something like The Wicker Man) but also they can just be celebrations of the coming of spring, without the original bloodthirsty tendencies.

So, if you do hear something bustling in your hedgerow today, hopefully it’s not a witch or malevolent fairy…


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Witches and fairies in the hedgerow

Following on from the last post, fairies are often found living in or emerging from hedges in British folk tales – which makes sense because hedges symbolise boundaries and often work as magical gateways, and also because they divide the wild, strange beyond from the safe space within.

But there is also a connection with witches – the word “hag” is probably derived from “haga”, meaning hedge. This is because a hag (witch) could “hedge-ride”, or cross the boundary of enclosed settlements into the wild forest and return safely (which probably just means they were old and canny enough to know their way around).

If you don’t want witches coming through your hedge, you are supposed to be able to foil them by leaving holly growing there. I’m not sure if there is a recommended remedy for keeping out fairies though…

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More Alice Thomas Ellis hedge quotes

Sorry for the repetition, but this is mostly what I’m reading this week and there are loads of interesting hedge moments in her novels. Fairy Tale is her darkest book, not as much comedy as usual and some really quite unsettling stuff about the pagan countryside and the Tylwyth Teg needing a changeling. I’m very fond of it, but maybe not the best place to start if you’ve not read her others.

Anyhow, here the hedge becomes rather malevolent, reflecting the hostile magical environment surrounding the main characters:

‘Simon,’ said Miriam, ‘what are these scratches on your arms?’

‘They’re nothing much,’ said Simon indifferently, glancing at them. ‘The hedge needs cutting back. It’s almost closed the lane. I had to fight through the brambles.’

‘It was all right yesterday,’ said Miriam.

‘Things grow quickly here,’ said Simon. ‘They grow out of control.’

Then in this bit, the hedge  becomes symbolic of the boundary between our space and the chaos that lies beyond:

Flowers throve on death relying on dissolution for their nourishment. She could smell decay on the summer air… She shook her head, scowling at the prettiness that fringed the great shadow, the horror of chaos that lay just beyond the garlanded hedge and the limits of her comprehension…

A bit morbid, admittedly, but I particularly like this, as it’s one of the themes that often crops up in British mythology and thinking – assart hedges were originally carved out of the wildwood, then hedges were planted to surround the cleared fields. What lies within the hedge (in gardens and countryside) is what we control – what lies beyond is “the other”, wild nature, territory that we can’t control. The hedge is the boundary in between.

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Filed under Hedge Mythology, Literary Hedges, Rural Britain