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The Shipwreck Rose: Sing Cuckoo

Wed, 05/17/2023 - 17:57

Whenever I need an excuse for the state of my fingernails, or the front of my work pants — stretch-synthetic joggers that, although selected with intention in various shades of dirt-concealing green and camo, are visibly clotted with muck as I dip into Citarella or my son’s orthodontist appointment — I loudly announce to the cashier or receptionist, who doesn’t care, that I “work on a farm.” I’m continually worried that people will assume I am a crazy lady with a hygiene problem.

At what stage do I get to loudly say “I am a farmer,” instead of the prevaricating statement “I work on a farm”? This question only occurred to me yesterday.

I’ve been a field hand on an actual, functioning farm for 13 months now, toiling half time — last summer, 24 hours, and right now 20 hours a week. Am I a farmer yet?

A BBC commentator during the coronation last week, groveling a bit, remarked that King Charles III has “farmer’s hands.” It was a compliment, underscoring the king’s engagement in organic gardening and the management of organic farms, very British and very commendable. We saw a short clip of him in one of his tweed suits bending down spontaneously to pull up some weeds while escorting some important guests around one of his estates, as gardeners do. Having peered rather too closely at all details to do with the royal family, I am not sure the king’s hands look like they do because of gardening; I believe he suffers from arthritis, or some other medical disorder that makes your fingers swollen and sausage-like. The king may look more virtuous with them, in any case, but I don’t want farmer’s hands. My hands have always been one of my better features. But life takes strange twists and turns and not only do I walk around with chipped nails and, frequently, black-soil rims that are difficult to dig out from the cuticles, I have developed a wicked sort of eczema on my fingers, which may or may not be related to mold spores in straw bales. My hands are not looking as they did when I was an editor at Vogue. I lament.

I’ve been trying to steer conversation on the farm — chitchat while we are on our hands and knees digging bindweed out of the dahlia bed — toward a very farmer-y and King Charles-y issue: the problem of the hedge.

Most of us out here (that is, not actually most of us, or even a majority, but those few of us eggheads and curmudgeons who still read newspapers) have gotten the memo that the great American green-grass lawn is bad for the ecosystem, the enemy of biodiversity and the enemy of bees. But no one is talking about the hedges. We need to talk about the hedges.

I know a bit more about them — and have thought a bit more about them — than is strictly healthy, probably.

I know that hedges have been part of the South Fork landscape since the arrival of the English colonists. I know that the English colonists enclosed their backyards with hedges and called the farmyard a “pightle” (an anachronistic word, even then). I know about “lop fences” — enclosures made by scoring the trunk of a young tree, bending it over, and securing it to the sapling next to it, so the new growth shoots upwards towards the sky — because a few remnants were pointed out to me by my father in Northwest Woods when I was small. I understand the value of the razor-sharp, manscaped Hamptons privet hedge as an icon of wealth and pedigree; I composed many “privet” and “hedge” puns for captions to high-fashion images of models posing in front of privet hedges in my previous life as a magazine editor. “Hedges and Hydrangeas”: Someone should write a book.

But, here we are in 2023 and now we have an arborvitae problem. Arborvitae grows at a rate of three feet per year, creating a tall wall of privacy much more quickly and much more cheaply than the old-fashioned privet does. And this is why the entire East End is disappearing behind screens of it. Ain’t nobody got time for privet, anymore.

I’m here to say that the monoculture of these green giants is terrible for the bees and the birds! It’s ugly, too, let’s be frank. It’s bad for the native insects and songbirds. We’re killing off all the flora and fauna with our monoculture!

What we need around here is a hedgerow movement.

I went into my rant about hedgerows when planting marigolds two Sundays ago with a group of environmentalist volunteers who came to the farm, and one of them lifted her trowel and looked at me with suspicion: What’s a hedgerow, exactly?

A hedgerow is a hedge — a green and living fence — that is made up not of just one type of plant but of many types of native trees, flowering shrubs, brambles, berry canes. It’s a thicket fence, a whole ecosystem, half wild. It’s the sexy bedhead hair beside privet’s antiquated society Aqua Net. You have seen hedgerows, between which lovers walk, swinging baskets of wildflowers, in BBC adaptations of romances by Austen or Thackeray.

In centuries past, farmers would tend hedgerows to keep them bushy and ever-growing, “laying” them down and weaving branches. The hedgerows were home to the pollinators, bees, and birds. Hedgerows increased soil carbonation. They helped conserve water by creating a windbreak. Hedgerows are blowsy and wayward, but much more beautiful — to anyone with a modicum of taste — than a military rank of army green arborvitae.

There could be a whole industry in the hedgerow: raising the native plants for this new/old type of landscape screening; installing the hedgerows along property lines; going back and maintaining the hedgerows each year. Someone, please, start a business. Make it the rage.

I am told by an Englishman (that would be my ex-husband, who grew up in Cornwall and who I still share some affinities with, beginning with dislike of the scraped-clean suburban landscape that is sterilizing our Earth and destroying the inland beauty of Long Island, so that very little is left, very little) that British hedgerows often include hawthorn trees, which are not native here. We need to talk about what sorts of native plants would be suitable. I’ve read that a hundred years ago, in the Midwest, a hedgerow might include osage-orange trees, hickories, gooseberries, and wild grapes. On the South Fork, I’d imagine you’d want to involve oaks — and what about hollies, with their red berries? Blackberries, dogwoods, pussy willows, the rhododendrons and wild grapes of Montauk?

Doesn’t that sound better, the pussy willow and the beach plums and the wild grapes? Summer is a-comin’ in. Loudly sing cuckoo.

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