Hedgerows are the living boundaries of our landscape. They create an invaluable habitat, rich in pollen, nectar, fruit, leaves, and berries, and provide essential resources for a range of bird, mammal, insect, and invertebrate species. Hazel dormice (one of our rarest small mammals), shrews, bank voles, hedgehogs, stoats, badgers, bees, butterflies, spiders, bats, and a range of birds such as tits, yellow hammers, wrens, robins, chaffinches, and whitethroats, find food and shelter in their green embrace. They also act as windbreaks, help prevent soil erosion, and form 'wildlife corridors', which species can use to move from one isolated habitat to another. The more diverse a hedgerow, the more species it can support and so our ancient native hedgerows, containing green and growing hedge plants such as blackthorn, hazel, hawthorn, dogwood, oak, ash, wych elm, wild cherry, elder, birch, crabapple, blackberry, honeysuckle, rowan, traveller's joy, and field maple, are to be treasured ~ although they have suffered a marked decline as field sizes and monoculture farms have increased. It is telling that, in a recent study, it was found that bumblebees foraging in hedgerows would rather stay on the side of a busy road than on the side of a field farmed using modern methods.
There are around 28,000 miles of hedgerow in the UK, many of which are considered to be ancient or 'species-rich'. Aside from their trees and creatures, they also support a rich diversity of wild flowers; common mallow, dog rose, red campion, hedge bedstraw. bluebells, bugle, common vetch, henbit deadnettle, common woundwort, cow parsley, cowslip, foxglove, dog violet, garlic mustard, dandelion, meadow crane's-bill, ragged robin, meadowsweet, nettle, dog daisy, self-heal, teasel, meadow buttercup, yarrow, yellow rattle ~ even their names are a meditation and a prayer.
Hedgerows hold many echoes of our far-away history. The first hedgerows were created in the Neolithic Age, 4,000 to 6,000 years ago, some still date from the Bronze and Iron Ages, and many more were created during the enclosures of the 18th and 19th centuries. It has been estimated that many of the hedgerows thriving in our countryside today are more than seven hundred years old, having been planted in the medieval period. Many are built on older banks, ditches and earthworks.
Not all of that history is kind and the Enclosure Acts led to the ending of many traditional rights to mow hay & graze livestock and to open fields and commons being divided up by hedgerows and fences and taken from the people to be held in ownership by the few. It is a deep grief to me that we have been divided from the land in this way and that our wild, anarchic hawthorn, so deeply connected with the otherworld and faery lore, has been one of the most common trees used in hedgelaying and therefore used against us to keep us from our beloved earth. But all of that history matters if we are to understand where we have come from and are truly to be the 'people of the land'. And I like to believe that the hedgerows, rather than taking the land away from us, have retained just a little bit of wild that we might otherwise have lost. Boundaries, whether physical or psychological, are difficult and tricksterish things and these wild edge places are never going to do what they are told or be what they were intended to be.
Which brings me very beautifully into my second 'B', the Welsh goddess Blodeuwedd, who certainly carries that shapeshifting trickster energy within her, and if I was asked to choose a 'Goddess of the Hedge' it would most certainly be her. When I first heard the Wild Feminine calling to me it was through her story and she has been a constant companion and deep teacher since. Like the history of the hedgerow, her story as it is presented to us is not an easy one and, just as the hedgerow has been used against the people of the commons, she has been used against women.
The story of Blodeuwedd, whose name in English means 'Flower-Face' (also an ancient Welsh name for an owl), can be found in the fourth branch of the Mabinogi, a collection of Welsh mythological tales written down by monks in the 13th and 14th centuries but which carry within them a much older oral tradition. In the tale she is created out of nine flowers; the oak, broom, meadowsweet, bean, burdock, nettle, chestnut and, my favourite anarchist, the hawthorn, as a wife for Llew Llaw Gyffes, who has been cursed by his mother to never marry a human woman. In order to gain kingship over the land, Llew must marry a woman as representative of the sovereignty of the land. However, like a hedgerow, Blodeuwedd, with her dual nature of flower and owl, is not so easily tamed. Although she marries Llew she falls in love with another man, Gronw Pebyr, and they plot to kill her husband leading to a train of events in which Gronw himself dies and Blodeuwedd is turned into an owl as a 'punishment'; “You will not dare to show your face ever again in the light of day, and that will be because of enmity between you and all other birds. It will be in their nature to harass you and despise you wherever they find you. And you will not lose your name - that will always be "Bloddeuwedd (Flower-face)." ('The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, Will Parker). A fuller version of her story can be read on the Welsh & Celtic Myths and Legends page here.
It is possible to write a whole book about the layers and depths of meaning contained within Blodeuwedd's story. However, for now, I am mostly interested in her role as a 'boundary keeper' and in how we have so often made attempts to tame her. When I first mentioned my new devotion to Blodeuwedd to a Pagan friend her immediate reaction was to say, “Oh, well she is a warning to women about our unfaithful nature”! Even then I found it hard to believe that this was all that the wildly spinning vortex of petals and owl feathers that was the Blodeuwedd I had come to know was about.
In our culture we are very used to thinking in a fixed and dualistic way, with everything being either/or, good/bad, dark/light and this is how we create our boundaries of mind. A healthy and living boundary must be permeable, allowing new ideas in and allowing old ones to fade. This is the same whether we are talking about the boundaries that we use in our own lives to keep ourselves safe or a boundary in a field, which would be a poor one indeed if it didn't allow a dormouse or two through! In our dualistic way of thinking we find it very easy to label Blodeuwedd's 'flower self' gentle, sweet, non-threatening, and 'good', whilst her owl self is considered dark, murderous, frightening, and 'bad'. Like the domestic apple we have tried to tame Blodeuwedd and make her manageable but this interpretation shows little understanding of the nature of flowers or owls. If we are truly people of the hedge/edge, then we will certainly not leave it at that.
First, let's consider the nature of flowers. Of course, we humans find them very beautiful and, as they bloom throughout the year, they carry us along on an enchanting tide of smell and colour. And the enchantment that we feel is a clue to the purpose of a flower, which is to 'enchant' or to lure pollinators. Blodeuwedd is indeed 'the honey to the bee' and flowers, just like the goddess created from them, are not there just to be pretty. Flowers are the sexual organs of plants, employing any means at their disposal to ensure that the egg is united with the sperm. Indeed the blossom of the hawthorn, one of the primary beings of the hedge and also one of the flowers used to create Blodeuwedd, are said to have the smell of a sexually aroused woman and have the reputation of being an aphrodisiac in Arabic erotic literature. We have only to look at the art of Georgia O'Keefe or Judy Chicago, both of whom used flowers to represent female genitalia, to see a different aspect of what a flower might be. Perhaps, in exploring the deeper nature of flowers, we are beginning to break down the dualism that has controlled Blodeuwedd's story and see through some tiny gaps in our richly fertile hedge?
So to the owl, Blodeuwedd's second nature. In the story her transformation into an owl is explained to us as a punishment for her betrayal of her husband and certainly owls have a challenging reputation in many cultures. In some African tribes, owls are linked with death, bad luck, and evil. These same associations exist through Native American, Mesoamerican, and Arabic mythology. However, in the West, the owl is more often seen as a bird of wisdom, whilst retaining some associations with death and bad luck. Many of these 'darker' aspects are also associated with femininity and with women, as is wisdom which in Christianity is given the feminine name of 'Sophia'. Maria Gimbutas traces the veneration of the owl as a goddess to the culture of Old Europe, which refers to a time between the Mesolithic and Bronze Age periods from roughly 7,000 BCE to 1,700 BCE. My own fondness for owls was increased when it was pointed out to me how low they fly when they are hunting and I have come to think of them as our own 'hedge-riders'.
|Owl Face/Flower Face|
And so we see that, if we are hedge-conscious, it is impossible to pin anything down to one meaning. In the hedgerow, which was once devised to control nature and the people of the commons, there is also a song of such chaotic, joyously disordered, and wilful wildness that it, and the people who love it, can never be controlled. And in the goddess, who was conceived of by monks to give us dire warnings about the treacherous nature of women, is a being of wanton beauty shining with nectar and looking at us with the wise, deep eyes of an owl (and maybe with a sharp talon digging into our flesh). Both teach us of the edge, in ourselves and in our society, between what is domesticated and tamed and what is wild and unbound. I pray that we will all ride that hedge with our wild wisdom intact and that our thoughts will always allow through a dormouse or two.