The Hedge - Boundaries and Walking Between the Worlds

The term "hedge" in relation to a spiritual path often simply means that one is not dedicated to any particular path or organisation. However, in an earth-based tradition, the word also takes on a deeper meaning. In a community, there were certain boundaries between the human world and the rest of the natural world. Though we know that we cannot ever be truly separate, still there were and are physical boundaries that we have created over millennia to delineate "our" space from that of others, whether human or non-human. The Hedge Witch crosses these boundaries and works in both worlds, in all worlds.

Physical Boundaries

Henges and hedges, dill heaps, stone walls and more have marked the edges of a community. In my own little parish, a couple of years ago we re-established "beating the bounds", a tradition of going around and adding soil and sod to the "dill heaps", little mounds of earth that mark the parish boundary. We have two boundaries, one for the lower common and one for the upper common. Looking at old maps, we determined that there were 35 dill heaps for the lower common, and established a day when members of the community could walk the boundaries and search for these little heaps of earth, to reinstate them and to take care of them every two years. It was also the custom to bounce the youngest child on top of each dill heap: why I have no idea! Our vicar blessed the community, the farms and fields, the crops and gardens, the shop and school and then we headed out on a four-mile trek through the landscape. At each dill heap I left an offering of seeds for the local wildlife and the Fair Folk (more about the Fair Folk later).

To walk a boundary is to find where edges meet. In permaculture, the place where two environments meet, such as forest and field, is where there is the most diversity. Where we find our edges meeting with another, we can gain inspiration, called the awen in Druidry. This is what relationship is all about: the give and take, learning and working together, finding out how you fit in your own local patch. The threads of awen shimmer where the edges meet. These are liminal places, where one energy merges with another, such as at the seashore, or on a mountaintop between earth and sky, at the edge of a lake or in a park in the middle of a city.

Hedges are often places that delineate boundaries, and here in Britain there are some hedgerows that are hundreds and hundreds of years old, places of great bio-diversity in an ever-increasing mono-cultured world. Where I live in East Anglia, it is mostly farmland or grazing pasture, and the hedgerows mark the boundaries of the farmer's land. They are also incredible habitats for nature, wonderful "corridors" that allow animals to travel many miles in search of food or places to live. Hedges that link with each other can stretch for miles, and are places where wild birds, mice, snakes, toads, insects of all kinds and more can thrive.

Hedges are also places that can mark the boundary between our garden and the wilderness beyond. I have a hedge all around my back garden, and at the bottom of the garden the hedge marks the spot between me and a small patch of a wild and wooded area that flows along the small valley's depression. Often wild creatures come through holes in the hedge to visit my garden: fallow deer and muntjac deer, badgers, foxes and pheasants. It's also a highway for local cats to pass through into the "wilds" beyond. Yet the hedge is not only a boundary in this very physical sense; it is also a boundary between this world and the Otherworld.

Boundaries Between the Worlds

Physical boundaries such as stone circles or hedges can also delineate a boundary between this world and the Otherworld. In Witchcraft, Wicca and Druidry it is generally acknowledged that there exist beings that are separate from us, yet which also live alongside us in parallel worlds. These beings are often called the Fair Folk, Faeries, the Fey Folk, The Good Folk, the Tuatha de Danaan, The Little People, The Gentry and more. These are creatures often connected to a place, or sometimes seen as nature spirits. They are even more vast and diverse than the human race. They live in a world that straddles ours, and here in Britain there are certain times of the year when it is said that the veil between the worlds is thin. These are times when we can easily cross over into the Otherworld, and they can come in to ours.  The tides of Beltane and Samhain, (May Day and Hallowe'en) are when the boundaries are at their most "open". Other times of the year, such as the solstices, have folklore and legends too regarding portals between this realm and the realms of Faerie.

 One Beltane a being of the Fair Folk came through the hole in the hedge at the bottom of my garden. The energy of our Beltane ritual still hung in the air, shimmering in the light of the full moon. I was now alone in the garden, tidying up the lanterns and getting ready to put the fire to bed. As I walked down the garden steps, my offering of milk and honey in my hands, I made my way across the lawn to where the altar and offering place lay beneath the canopy of an old beech, its leaves just beginning to bud. I said a quick prayer as I entered that sacred space, with nine small stones delineating the boundary of this “faerie circle”, a "minilithic" stone circle I had built for meditation and ritual purposes.

As I walked into the circle, I felt the air thick with the magic of the evening. I knew something was about to happen. I laid the food and drink upon the altar, and gave my thanks to the spirits of place, and to the Fair Folk. No sooner had the words left my mouth than a rustling in the hedge all around me began.  It was as if some strange wind was shaking just the coniferous boundary of my garden, or a small army of badgers were all coming through the little holes in the hedge at the same time. My heart pounded in my chest as the moon shone through the branches of the beech above me. Frozen in place, both excited and frightened to see what happened next, I tried to see into the darkness of the hedge, shadowed from the moon’s light, but I could perceive nothing but the inky blackness.

The rustling all around me stopped, and I found I was able to move. I knew that something had come through the hole in the hedge, but I could not see it. Slowly I walked towards the firepit, hoping to see what had come through by the light of the fire. I cautiously approached the dying flames, and peered into the shadows about ten feet away. I could see very little, but I felt a presence, someone – male – standing by the birdfeeder and the hole in the hedge, shoulder-height to me, dressed in shades of brown. Suddenly, even as I looked and felt his presence, he moved without a sound like a dark shadow in the blink of an eye back into the hedge, and there from the depths of the green and black two eyes shone a whitish/green, reflecting the light of the fire. Whatever that being was, he had changed into the form of a badger in the blink of an eye, to watch me from the depths of the back hedgerow.

“Beltane blessings,” I murmured. Unsure of what to do next and still very much afraid and alone, I curtseyed and then covered the firepit with its iron mesh guard, walking back slowly towards the house. I had wanted to ask for his friendship, and for that of all the Fair Folk, but my courage failed me on that night of the full moon, as the powers of Beltane and the Otherworld flowed through the land.

Hedge Riding

Hedges have long been used by Witches in the community, who were often termed "Hedge Riders". They were those who worked between the boundaries of the everyday and those of the wilderness; the wild spirits that dwelt therein. It is about finding the balance between our modern civilized world and that of the natural world. This too is often the inspiration for many in Druidry, Witchcraft and Wicca. The German word "hagazissa" means "hedge sitter", who was a person who could go between the worlds, travel beyond the human settlement and the places of the wild spirits and the Otherworld, bringing back information, healing and more to the community. They were able to "ride" that delineating line between the human world and the Otherworld.  The Saxon term is "haegtessa" and both words are where we get our word "hag" from, now often relating to a witch of a certain age.

Hedge Riding can be done to connect with the spirit of nature, or to travel across different realms. In this work, I present the Otherworld using a Celtic motif of the World Tree, which will be discussed later. This is the tree that we will "ride" up and down, to connect to the Otherworld, it's guides and its mysteries.

Joanna van der Hoeven is a Druid, Witch and a best-selling author. She has been working in Pagan traditions for over 20 years. She is the Director of Druid College UK, helping to re-weave the connection to the land and teaching a modern interpretation of the ancient Celtic religion.