Hedgers and Ditchers: Song of the Month

September 22, 2021 by

Philip Britts
Philip Britts

My wife, Maureen, works at Plough, where among other things she scripts video trailers for books, such as the new biography of farmer-poet-activist-mystic Philip Britts, Water at the Roots: Poems and Insights of a Visionary Farmer. Britts was born in 1917 in Devon, England, decided as a young man to become a pacifist, joined the Bruderhof, and during World War II moved to South America when the whole community fled the war. He served as a pastor there, while remaining actively involved in farming in a new and harsh climate. In 1949, he died of a rare tropical illness at the age of thirty-one, leaving his wife, Joan, with three young children. But from those short years, we still have the strength and power of his poetry, thoughts, sermons, and reflections on faith, farming, and a life lived in service to God.

When it was time to distill all this into a video, Maureen remembered a song that had stayed in her head since childhood – a short farming poem Britts had written in 1941 while still living in the Cotswold Hills of England. She didn’t know it then, but my grandmother Marlys Swinger was the one who had set it to music in 1972. Maureen remembered a men’s choir, which included her father, singing it so powerfully that she got cold shivers. But her dad’s old cassette tape of the group had long since self-destructed, and no one she asked seemed to recognize the song or have it conveniently stored in an old music file. In the Bruderhof archives, she found the same poem set to two other tunes, but they wouldn’t do. Because the harmony “sounded like Marlys,” she called up my ninety-one-year-old grandmother, whose music file does go back to the 70’s and before. The next day, she had a scanned copy in her inbox.

Then she talked me into assembling a new men’s choir – because “It’s a guy song” – and it was our turn to be inspired by this simple tribute to the land, hard work, and brotherhood, set to the hauntingly pure melody my grandmother wrote.

But my wife wasn’t finished, because next, my friends and I found ourselves in farming tweeds out on a frozen January hilltop, swinging pick-axes to the rhythm of our own song. Then our son was recruited to welcome the laborers home from a hard day’s work. Here’s the end result of all the singing and acting. I hope it inspires you to find out more about a man I wish I’d had the opportunity to know.

Watch on YouTube.

Listen on SoundCloud.

The Song of the Hedgers and Ditchers (Malmesbury, Wiltshire, England, 1941)
When the earth is sleeping,
When the fields are bare,
Only low wheat peeping
In the bitter air,
Forth we go at sunrise
Through the frosty morn,
With our hooks and shovels
On our shoulders borne.
Deep we dig the ditches
So that waters flow.
Low we lay the hedges
So that shoots may grow;
Home we come at sunset
Weary shoulders bent,
But the land will blossom
From the strength we spent.

Vocals: Clemens Comer, Phil Gneiting, Jason Swinger, Trevor Wiser

Violin: Peter Mommsen

Guitar: Jason Swinger

You can order Water at the Roots over at Plough’s website. 

Originally published in October 2017.

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Community members working in a field at the Wheathill Bruderhof in England

Community members in the field at the Wheathill Bruderhof in England c. 1950

Jason Swinger lives at the Fox Hill Bruderhof with his wife Maureen and their three children.

Find more Songs of the Month here.


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  • Jason, it is in a moment like this, while listening to your music, intimately written by a poet of your people, lovingly composed by your grandmother, shepherded by your wife, sung by you and your community brothers with instrumentals that call forth the angels in heaven... I am deeply and viscerally struck by the holiness and loftiness of the Bruderhof mission, and by the warmth of feeling that washes over me at its success, in this very moment, of turning my spirit heavenward toward God. Jay, Maureen, Clemens, Phil, Trevor, and Peter. Thank you. For this song, and the needed reminder that all is not lost for this generation on our struggling planet. As you hold tight to your roots and to your convictions, those of us who are less steady and sure are moved toward a greater faith and hopefulness for the future. Thank you for this soulful reminder of God's grace and love.

    Rachael Cohen
  • Philip Britts; A short life but full and real life for God and lived for other people. Wonderful words of poem, song of Hedgers and Ditchers. You feel the wonderful creations of God. The nature and human life...Thank you Jason.