John Wright is a naturalist and former cabinet maker, whose hobbies have turned into jobs and, in many cases, also books. A Natural History of the Hedgerow is a separate venture from his River Cottage Handbooks, and is both lavish (colour photographs throughout!) and lacking, possibly due to a desire on the publisher’s part to preserve the author’s personality instead of applying a firmer editorial hand. It’s certainly not a bad book, and is very good in scattered parts, but as a natural history survey of a particular feature of the British countryside it isn’t detailed enough, and is too scattershot, and tonally a-judder, to qualify it to be shelved alongside Oliver Rackham, for example.
Rackham’s approach was that of a classically-trained scientist. Wright writes like an autodidact who knows everything about his special interests, but not very much about neighbouring subjects in which he isn’t interested. He also rather expects the reader to be nodding along in complete understanding when he furnishes lists of the mosses and liverworts resident on the ash tree, for example, and doesn’t explain much about them. A list without context or purpose is annoying. Also annoying is his habit of skimping the chapters on subjects he’s not interested in. Tellingly, this also happens towards the end of the book, where I detect author fatigue, and a defeated editor. So A Natural History of the Hedgerow is patchy, but you can skip over the weak parts.
All the chapters in ‘Part I: The Past’ are really not worth bothering with if you’ve already read another archaeology / landscape / topography history of the UK, for example, as Wright just repeats what he’s read himself, without anything new of his own to bind this (not very broad) reading together. But if the subject is new to you, do read on.
‘Part II: The Present’ is a sound piece of writing that properly sets hedgerows in contemporary local and national politics, culture, economics and biota. ‘Part III: Natural History’ is where the good stuff is, fascinating (but brief) detail on trees, shrubs, insects, lichens and grasses and how they interact with the hedgerow as a purpose-built structure. ‘Part IV: How Boundaries are Made and Maintained’ has good material on regional variations, and a lot on regional hedge-laying variations, and on the Cornish hedge which is actually a wall.
But, even these sections have gaping flaws. Wright isn’t interested in birds because they don’t stay still long enough to be measured (unlike his preferred mushrooms and lichens), and only uses a three-page chapter on birds to talk about why hedge heights matter. Given that most people see birds zipping in and out of hedges, you’d think he’d spend more time on how different species use the things, but this is an example of ‘not interested – don’t care’, and this attitude flaws the whole darn book, and jars resoundingly with its cover. He also relies far too heavily on anecdotes from his friends as illustrations for, or exceptions to, theories, trends and local history. One swallow does not make a summer, and one landlord’s farming practices do not prove the general rules that his anecdotal evidence illustrates.
I’ve tried to be positive, and I do think that in parts this is a good book. But Wright badly needed to be guided editorially, or perhaps was too much a favoured author to be treated firmly. The resulting lopsided, unsatisfactory book is a wasted opportunity. Hedgerows deserve better than this. I doubt I’ll be buying a book by him again.
John Wright, A Natural History of the Hedgerow, and ditches, dykes and dry stone walls (Profile Books 2016), ISBN 9781846685538, £12.99