A history of the hedgerow and a love letter to weeds: the best books to celebrate spring
Spring is on its way. Daylight hours will lengthen over the next few weeks and soon we will find ourselves standing outside at 5.30pm and saying: “It’s light!” Birdsong will increase, blossom will burst out across the countryside and our gardens, and everything will start to feel a little more hopeful. This is a good time to immerse yourself in a book about the natural world, to remind yourself that no matter what else is going on, spring will spring.
As hedgerows come into leaf and blossom, pick up a copy of A Natural History of the Hedgerow by John Wright. The book is a dive into the natural and human history of this almost entirely British phenomenon; as Wright says in his introduction, aliens visiting Britain would quickly notice our coast to coast network of hedges and fields and perhaps presume that the whole population must be involved in tending them – and that, not that long ago, they would have been right.
The Overstory by Richard Powers is a highly unusual novel about trees, their relationships to each other and the world, and a set of people drawn together around a shared love and sense of protection for America’s ancient giant redwood forest. It makes you look at trees and woodland with new eyes, and wonder what messages the trees are sending each other through scents in the air and root chemicals, and that can’t be a bad thing as the sap rises and the first fuzz of green tips appear in our own woodland.
For more stories about spring and nature, turn to Lisa Schneidau’s Botanical Folk Tales of Britain and Ireland. It is broken into chapters reflecting the seasons of the year, and we are now moving from the winter tales of “Asleep in the Dark” to the tentatively spring-like tales of “The Quickening”, a chapter filled with stories of snowdrops, Imbolc, ferns and fairies, and including the tale of Scottish winter goddess the Cailleach being replaced by spring’s goddess, Bride.
As the ground warms with the ever-strengthening sun, weeds will start to spring from the ground, and we curse them and hoick them out to make way for our chosen darlings. Weeds by Richard Mabey takes a loving look at these impudent plants of the margins, these thugs and opportunists. The creeping buttercup, chickweed, mare’s tail dock and knotgrass that bloomed on the bombsites of the blitz, having been held in suspended animation below pavements and buildings; “the European migrant meadow-grass that spread west across America with the
pioneers, the seeds stuck to wagon wheels, then thrived so that its flowers
filled the landscape with a haze of blue, giving its new common name – Kentucky bluegrass – to a genre of music. You will gain a grudging admiration for your springtime foes.
The Morville Hours by Katherine Swift is chock-full of rich and layered seasonal description, starting in the depths of winter and moving through the year as Swift creates a garden in her new home. This is a deeply thoughtful book, with the turning of the year set to the rhythm of a medieval book of hours and the festivals of the liturgical year.
And finally the best novel about a garden and an awakening, The Secret Garden by Francis Hodgson Burnett: this is the most atmospheric of literary gardens: neglected and crumbling, full of heartache and thorns, but stirred back into glorious, blooming life by love and tending and companionship; it will put you in the perfect mood to get out into your own garden this spring.