One Potato, Two Potato…

I’m sure I have mentioned that the Old Library property is infested with vines. And roots. And roots of vines. I was complaining about this one day to a young neighbor of mine as she stopped to chat while walking one of the dogs she was dogsitting. I was pulling the roots up by handfuls, and she pointed out, “Yes, and if you follow them all the way back to the root, you’ll find something like a potato on the end.”

I thought I knew what she was talking about. When I’d pulled up vines at home, I’d often found a small tuber, yellowish white, about the size of a kernel of popped corn or a peanut shell. And yes, I’d found a few of those at the library as well.

Several days later, as I was raking under some sparkleberry, I spotted something the size of a large apple or onion that I at first took for a buried red rubber ball. Upon inspection, it proved to be the top of a large rhizome. I was afraid I would need a shovel to get it out, but I did eventually manage to winkle it out with my trowel. In my naïveté, I took it home—actually “them,” as it had had a partner—got out my black felt, and posed the roots (with a penny for scale) for a photo, which I then emailed to Clare with the hubristic subject line “Mother of all potatoes.”

Over a week later, Clare replied to my email with a photo of a cluster she had dug out of another neighbor’s yard.

By that time, however, I had already made a few finds of my own, as detailed in a previous post, to which I referred her. As I told her, her cluster was larger than either of the individual sites I’d cleared, but I thought my collection, in the aggregate, was larger.

From that time, the hunt was on. On May 28, I was working the area along the boundary fence. It’s no secret that vines like fences, and I made several good hauls. Here’s one:

This batch I dubbed the Ron Popeil Cluster (“But wait—there’s more!”) because after I had dug out what I thought was the entire nest and photographed them, I found several more hiding under my kneeling pad.

Having cleared the area between the driveway and the fence, I returned to work on the area beside Magnolia Avenue. This has progressed slowly, and I seem to cover the same ground repeatedly. When I started work on June 7, this is what I discovered when I raked under a sparkleberry tree:

Obviously, I could not ignore such a challenge! This proved to be the Energizer Bunny patch—it just kept going and going… Because of the tight space, I couldn’t use a shovel effectively, so I had to do most of the work with a trowel. I’d been concerned that I was pushing the trowel beyond its capacity, and in fact, the caption on the photo below could be “Don’t send a trowel to do a shovel’s job”:

The results were worth it, though:

When I returned to the site to continue work, I found one last straggler:

I don’t know how worthwhile these efforts are. In the time it took me to dig up these roots (almost an hour between first and second photos), I could probably have been more productive in raking and less radical weeding. But the results were very satisfying.

I continued to plug away, determined to finish this small area before moving on to Job 1 (read more about that in my next post). As I was raking under the same sparkleberry where I had found the “mother of all potatoes,” I spotted another “apple.” My first thought was doubt and disbelief. I was so sure I had dug that up!

When Clare sent me her trophy photo, she had commented that she would have loved to have been able to get it out in one piece, but it just wasn’t possible. I’ve had the same experience with all of my clusters—until this one, which I did manage to extract almost intact. Moreover, a bit of attached vegetation shows what sort of vine this is the root of!

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Buried Treasure

In more than five months of raking and digging up leaves, sticks, vines, and roots at the Old Library, I have uncovered quite a few nonvegetative objects. Some of them were not unexpected. Hurricane Sally knocked down part of a wooden fence at the property line and blew shingles off the roof, so it’s no surprise to encounter bits of shingle and lengths of broken board (though I did wonder about what appeared to be the leg of a small chair or table or ottoman, seen left of the brick in the photo above). The City had the roof replaced a few months ago, and, sure enough, a few roofing nails went astray (one ended up stuck through the bottom of my shoe!). And, although it saddens me, it doesn’t surprise me to find glass bottles, aluminum cans, bottle caps (metal and plastic) and remnants of paper and foam cups (even one red Solo cup!). Shreds of (apparently) biodegradable plastic bags also turn up. Just today, after taking the photo above, I unearthed the red Solo cup, another beer bottle, the blue plastic cap of (I’m guessing) a Dasani water bottle, and a Doral cigarette pack.

Fluorescent tape flags and markers bear witness to various City activities around the property, and the wealth of seemingly electrical-related bits and bobs mostly turned up in the vicinity of utility poles. It’s no surprise that they required work given the state of Magnolia Avenue after Sally.

Assorted plant markers attest to someone’s previous effort to beautify some property, though probably not this one, as none of the described plants can be found there. I’ve also found plastic plant pots (empty) and what I thought was a portion of a large terra cotta pot, which turned out to be terra cotta sewer pipe!

Some of the roots I’ve been digging up seem to be as tough as wire—and then there were the ones that were wire! Apparently a hog wire fence predated the current wooden fence at the property line, and parts of it were still underground.

Miscellaneous other finds included a bent and rusted piece of metal, two ten-foot lengths of threaded rod (not shown), fragments of broken glass, a mechanical pencil, a plastic spoon, a perfectly good nail clipper, a length of yellow cord, chunks of some sort of green ceramic material, a short length of a string of Mardi Gras beads, a tennis ball, and a perforated pink plastic box (?) that may have been part of some toy (there’s a child next door).

None of these finds, though interesting, is inexplicable, however. That distinction is reserved for the two fabric objects in the photo above. Underneath the small miscellaneous items is a terrycloth towel or washcloth that must once have been dark blue or grey (I don’t think it could ever have been white). This is the second such I have found, thoroughly caked with dirt and embedded roots. My first thought was some kind of shop towel, though apparently nowadays those are mostly disposable nonwoven cloth. At any rate, it’s hard to understand how these found their way here unless perhaps they were being used by a maintenance crew. The other item (at the bottom of the photo) is what appears to be a dust mop refill. Did this just escape from a garbage can? Surely it can’t have had any practical use outside!

In the 40+ years we’ve lived at our house, some odd things have surfaced in our back yard, though mostly they have been rocks and chunks of concrete and occasional broken glass, certainly nothing as interesting as the objects above!

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Getting a Ph.D. in Yard Work

When I first started working at the Old Library, I was working in front of the building (more or less), so I piled the accumulated debris on Summit Street, in the grassy area between the sidewalk and the curb. When I started work, during the Christmas holidays, I tried to schedule my workdays for Tuesdays because the City picks up trash (including yard debris) on Wednesdays. After New Year’s, when my regular schedule resumed, Tuesdays were not convenient, but I also found that the debris often remained uncollected for weeks at a time, anyway. Whereas at first I had sometimes made small piles close to where I was working, now I concentrated on creating one large pile, attempting to make it so big that the City could not ignore it. Eventually it would get picked up.

As I moved around the corner to the Magnolia Avenue side, I continued, for a while, to haul debris to the Summit side because there is no space between the sidewalk and the curb on Magnolia. At some point, however, the City came and did some work on the property, including cutting down a tree, and made a large pile of debris behind the library building. So as I worked farther toward the back of the property, I started hauling debris to this inviting large pile. With occasional additions by the next-door neighbor, it reached an impressive size before finally being hauled away when the city was being spiffed up for the Arts & Crafts Festival (April 30–May 2). In fact, it got so large that it needed two photos to capture it all!

When this collection was made, I still had some small piles dotted around the area waiting to be consolidated into the large pile, so I concentrated on those for a while and, with later collections, soon accumulated another sizable pile. Here’s how it looked when I finished work Friday, May 21.

Although a large pile is impressive, it becomes more and more work to lift the tub of debris to dump it on top. One day, my last two loads were so heavy that I couldn’t lift them. I had to drag them to the pile and then just dump them at the side. As I continue to raise the pile higher and higher, I am reminded of what graduate students say about advanced degrees:

You know what B.S. stands for. That’s what’s required to get your Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degree. The Master of Science (M.S.) degree requires more of the same. Your doctorate (Ph.D.) requires the same substance, piled higher and deeper.

Although I may be getting a Ph.D. in yard work, I wouldn’t mind at this point if the City came and picked up again!

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Inconveniencing Earthworms

Yesterday when I went up to work at the Old Library, I took a shovel in addition to my usual tools. Because the task of consolidating my accumulated piles of debris into one big pile kept being left to the end of the workday, it kept not being finished, and some of the piles had begun to decompose. They had become so compacted that a rake and dustpan were not very effective in transferring them. The shovel was more efficient, but, even empty, it was very heavy, with a solid metal head and a 1½″ diameter wooden handle. It made me really appreciate my aluminum-handled rake!

While these piles of leaves and sticks (with an admixture of dirt) were being neglected (and rained on) for several weeks, a number of enterprising earthworms had taken up residence in and under the piles and had taken the opportunity to begin the process of turning the debris into compost. Needless to say, they did not welcome being evicted from their cozy homes and interrupted in their labors. There was a lot of furious wriggling and attempts to burrow back into the ground. I assured them if they would just be patient, they would soon be transferred to the larger pile, where they would find much greater scope for their endeavors, but they were not appeased, and some of them actually lost their lives in the process. I do regret that.

Once I had managed to consolidate the piles to my satisfaction (more or less), which took about an hour and a half, I spent the remaining six hours or so mostly raking. This would have been fairly light work if I hadn’t had to keep bending over to pull up vines that had become entangled in the rake. I don’t know the name of the ground cover that infests much of the library site, but whatever it is, it should be outlawed. It at least does not climb up into the trees, but it shelters and encourages the propagation of other plants that do. Actually, most of the vegetation on this site is of the type that propagates by sending out roots far and wide—not just this ground cover but also azalea, sparkleberry, camphor, and several other trees and shrubs I don’t know the name of. This insidious creeping vine, which one visitor guessed might be Asiatic jasmine, is actually sold as a useful ground cover, and I have seen yards (especially berms) where it is used effectively. But it requires regular maintenance, which this has not received in many months, and it and everything else at the site has gotten completely out of hand.

I did get some relief from raking. One might even say comic relief, because how can you not laugh at this picture?

This is a photo (on the hood of my car) of a collection of rhizomes (of one of the more obnoxious tree-climbing vines) extracted from two sites within inches of each other. The shovel came in very handy here, as a trowel was definitely not up to the job. The photo does not include several more that I found later; at that point I did manage to get them up with a trowel because I was unwilling to make yet one more trip back to the car for the shovel (which I’d thought I was done with) and my phone to take more in situ photos. Oh, you’d like to see those, too? Well, here you go.

I would like to think that these sites are the headquarters for these vines, and that by removing these roots, I will have discouraged at least some further growth, but everywhere I looked there seemed to be more of the stuff, so I suppose that is a vain hope.

In addition to digging up the rhizomes, I also enjoyed dismantling a rotten stump. It had red wood, so it could have been red cedar but was much more likely sparkleberry, which is a weed tree at this site.

One of the diversions of working near the street is watching the passing scene. There’s construction going on in the neighborhood, so there’s a constant procession of full and empty dump trucks, concrete mixers, backhoes (one of them passed me at least half a dozen times), and the like. But it is also interesting how many pedestrians there are, even on a weekday. The library site is on a corner, and the sidewalks on both Summit and Magnolia are heavily traveled. Yesterday, in addition to the usual dog walkers, fitness walkers (singly and in couples), and roaming teenagers, I saw a young couple pushing (not riding) a tandem bicycle, which of course generated an earworm (“Daisy, Daisy…”) that haunted me the rest of the day!

At the end of the day, I hadn’t accomplished as much as I might have if I hadn’t taken time to dig up those roots, but at least I have my work cut out for me the next time I go.

The debris pile at the end of the day.

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What I Have Learned about Yard Work

In the course of working some 75 hours cleaning up the grounds at the Old Library, I won’t say I have perfected my yard work technique, but I have learned a few things about both uniform and tools.

The Old Library is just 0.2 mile away, so the first time I headed up there, I was on foot, armed with only a rake and pruning shears. It soon became apparent that some of the vines I was pulling down had grown too fat to be cut with secateurs, so on my next trip I also brought lopping shears. To rake the debris out of the yard and into a pile by the street, I had to rake it across a sidewalk, so I also added a broom and dustpan to tidy up the sidewalk. At this point it was clear I couldn’t carry everything by hand, so I started driving to the library with all the tools in the back of my car.

That first day (December 22), I wore my usual walking outfit for a temperate day in winter: T-shirt with “French terry” knit pants and hoodie. This proved to be wildly unsatisfactory. Thorns constantly caught in the knit, and at some point the jacket became too warm, and I took it off, leaving my arms exposed to the thorns (at 76, I have old-lady skin that tears easily). Clearly, this wasn’t going to work. The next week I wore jeans and a woven shirt with longer (¾) sleeves. The shirt provided more protection to my arms (I still got some scratches), but the jeans were a disaster. I hadn’t wanted to wear my “good” jeans, so I wore an old pair. The elastic in the waist was so stretched out that I was constantly having to hitch them up! Another nonstarter.

My yard work was interrupted by roofing work at the library, but when I returned two weeks later, I had a new uniform that has served very well. I concluded that what I needed was overalls, which I ordered from Amazon. I paired those with a long-sleeved tightly woven collared shirt (one of several with a Microsoft MVP logo, which I have no other occasion to wear). This outfit has worked very well.

An essential part of the uniform is also the goatskin gardening gloves I requested for Christmas. These have proved to be adequate to every task.

As I began to work farther from the street, it wasn’t practical to rake debris directly into piles, so I needed some way to haul it. Obviously, a wheelbarrow would have been helpful but (a) it was not practical to put one in the car, and (b) most of the library property is well above street level (with a steep embankment across most of the front), making it more practical to carry than to roll. So I started bringing an old garbage can that we had long used for this purpose.

As you can see, it’s in pretty bad shape. With just one working handle, it was unwieldy to haul, and when it was filled with packed leaves and pine straw (especially if they were damp), it was very heavy. So I looked for a substitute at Walmart. All the trash cans I found were either too big or too small, but what I did find has turned out to be the perfect answer:

Having two handles would have made a big difference by itself, but another benefit is that, when I am bent over to pick up debris, I don’t have to stand all the way up to dump it in the tub, which is less than knee-high, and I can even kneel beside the tub for further efficiency. Because it has a smaller capacity, it doesn’t get impossibly heavy. Yes, I have to make more trips, but they don’t wear me out as much, and actually the capacity is not that much different—17 gallons vs. 20.

Over time I have added to my arsenal of tools. In addition to the rake, pruning shears, lopping shears, broom, dustpan, and tub, I now carry hedge clippers, grass shears, a trowel, and a weeder. It had become quite a chore to load all this stuff in the car and then unload it again twice a week, so a few weeks ago I decided that, since I hardly ever go anywhere else anyway, there was no good reason not to just leave everything in the back. That saves a lot of time at the outset, and it really makes a difference when I come home, worn out, and don’t have to make several trips to hang up tools!

My corn broom was getting pretty worn out, so on the same trip when I looked for a replacement trash can, I also intended to buy a new broom. A new corn broom would have cost about $5, but I was seduced by a Libman Indoor/Outdoor broom that came with its own dustpan. I have to say it is worth every penny of its exorbitant price, as it sweeps really well. I already had a good dustpan, bought with the intention of replacing a vintage Sears Maid of Honor dustpan (which I assume I’ve had as long as I’ve been married, which will be 54 years this June)—which it does not, but it’s probably better, really, since it weighs about a third as much.

What I have learned about the dustpan, however, may be the most useful lesson of all. Once I have raked up a pile of leaves, there remains the job of getting them into the tub. I can scoop them with my hands, of course. Actually, this is the most effective method when debris is tangled up with vines, as is frequently the case at the Old Library (sometimes it consists almost exclusively of vines). Alternatively, my Fiskars leaf rake has a detachable head that can be used as a scoop, but the one time I tried detaching it—just to see how it would work—I thought I was never going to get it back on properly! In any case, I tend to alternate raking and scooping, so that would be impractical. What I have found, though, is that a dustpan is just as handy for scooping up debris off the ground as it is for sweeping it up off the sidewalk. So that is my household hint for the day: use a dustpan as a leaf scoop!

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Yard Work in the Rain

I often say that the combination of OCD and ADD is not conducive to efficient yard work. Though I’ve never been diagnosed with either, OCD (which anyone who knows me will say I have) dictates that I finish whatever I start, and something very like ADD leads me to keep expanding the task to the point that eventually, inevitably, I have bitten off more than I can chew.

Which explains why, four hours into a stretch of yard work yesterday, even though it was clear that the forecast rain had in fact materialized, I kept raking up more and more leaves and pine straw, in the full knowledge that every bit of debris I raked up would have to be hauled to the street. It wasn’t really raining hard—just a light drizzle, really—and I was under the cover of trees, wearing a cap with a bill that kept rain off my glasses. Still, by anyone’s definition this would seem to be a form of insanity.

On the other hand, it might seem to some that the project itself was pretty crazy. Hurricane Sally did a number on our area in September. Fortunately, our yard got off light, and within a few days we had finished clearing up our debris and were working on our out-of-town across-the-street neighbor’s. One area that was especially hard hit was a few blocks away, where, in one yard, several large trees uprooted, bringing down utility lines, blocking the street, and breaking up the sidewalk. Over the next few weeks and months, the street was cleared, new utility poles were erected, and new power, phone, and cable lines were put up (and eventually the old utility poles were removed). The sidewalk is still a mess, the worst part marked by orange cones, but this is clearly not a top priority for the City, which, with the help of FEMA contractors, is still working on picking up roadside debris.

Next door to the house where the trees uprooted is a vacant building. The nucleus of this building was built in 1908 to house the personal library of Marie Howland, which had become the town’s first public library. You can read the curious history of this library here. In 1983, the library moved to more spacious quarters in the Municipal Complex and in 2007 moved into a new, purpose-built building. When the library moved out of the small building on Summit Street, it was leased to the University of South Alabama – Baldwin County for use as an administration building (USABC operates out of several properties scattered around town). In June 2020, the latest lease expired, and USABC opted to move its administration operations into another property leased from the City. It’s possible that the property was properly maintained from that time until the hurricane, but little had been done since.

The building (which I’ll call “the old library”) is on my daily walking route, and I became increasingly saddened by its condition. When we moved to Fairhope in 1980, we were pleased to have this library only a couple of blocks from home. While our son was attending what was then Fairhope Primary School (grades K–3), he passed the library every day on his walk home and often stopped in to check out books. Our daughter attended weekly “story hour” programs, and both children were involved in the Summer Reading Program. So the library had a lot of happy memories for us.

After months of enduring the sight of downed branches all over the lawn and general untidiness (and realizing that this was not going to be high on the City’s job list), I decided to take the bull by the horns. On December 22, I headed up to the old library armed with a rake and clippers and set to work. That first day I worked over four hours; the next week I put in nearly another four. It was clear that the property had been neglected for some time. One day I hauled out large hunks of tree as big around as my leg that had fallen into the shrubbery behind the building. A small copse on the east side of the property had been completely taken over by sticker vines. I kept wishing I’d taken some “before” pictures for comparison, but I was proud of the large piles of debris I was able to accumulate for the City to collect, and pulling down those vines was very satisfying work even if it did result in a few scratches.

The following week my work was interrupted by roofers, but by mid-January I was back. The roofers had cleared a path around the building, as well as the various walks leading up to it, but they’d done it by blowing debris back under the adjoining shrubbery, from which I raked it out and collected it. I spent five hours on January 14 and 4½ more on January 29. Large portions of the property are covered with a particularly aggressive and obnoxious ground cover (vinca?) that sends tendrils out across the sidewalks, making raking and sweeping difficult. I had started attacking those one at a time with pruning shears but yesterday went armed with hedge clippers. I ultimately found, however, that it was more efficient (not to mention more satisfying) just to yank the vines out by hand!

Two passersby (our mail carrier in his truck and a fellow Rotarian on foot) asked me if I was the new groundskeeper. I replied that mine was strictly a volunteer position. But I don’t think the City could afford me, anyway. On a previous visit, a lawn service employee working in the yard next door told me he had previously been contracted to maintain the old library property, but it was strictly a “mow, blow, and go” job; he wasn’t authorized or paid to do any weeding, pull down vines, etc. I suspect the property hadn’t had any real TLC since, in its library days, it had been tended by the local garden club.

On my previous visit, I had collected four good-sized piles of leaves and pine straw and a large pile of sticks and branches. The City (or someone) had done a mediocre job of collecting three of the four leaf piles and apparently entirely ignored the rest. So yesterday I started by raking up all the remaining debris from the individual piles and hauling them (10 trashcan loads) to a single pile (next to the pile of sticks and branches) too large for the City to ignore. I also added several large branches to the branch pile.

It had rained earlier in the day, so the leaves were already wet, and they got wetter with the new rain, which made them heavier to haul (not to mention muddier). Sweeping a wet sidewalk was also harder. But my guiding principle is that I will not leave the place messier than I found it, and I was also motivated by my mother’s adage about getting wet: “You’re not sugar; you won’t melt.” I persevered, but after 5¼ hours I was ready to go home and have a hot shower and a cold drink!

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When I started this blog in June 2008, I called it “WalkThoughts,” with the tagline “Idle thoughts while walking.” The idea was that I would write about the things I thought about while walking. Some people do their best thinking in the shower, but I take very brief showers, and I do a lot of thinking during my two-mile walks, which, since March 2020 (when gyms closed and ballet classes were suspended and Rotary meetings moved to Zoom), have become daily. Over the years, my “blog about nothing” has become a blog about anything and everything, but many of my posts are still composed during my walks.

Anytime the brain is in neutral, however, odd thoughts and memories will rise to the top. In my case, it is often chunks of remembered text. I grew up in an era when children/students were encouraged—indeed often required—to memorize stuff, primarily Scripture, Shakespeare, and other poetry. My first experience with this (aside from nursery rhymes) was probably in second grade, when I was chosen as the narrator of a “health play” our class was putting on for the school and parents. Other students were cast as a carton of milk, a carrot, an apple, a head of lettuce, and so on. To my mother’s relief, as “Mary Gay” I was “just a little girl,” not requiring any special costume. But “She has quite a long poem to say, which is real cute. She copied it yesterday and already knows most of it by heart, as well as everyone else’s part, it appears. She’s never been much on memory work, you know, but she does have a prodigious memory.”

Alas, my memory nowadays has failed to the point that I can’t even repeat a single overheard sentence verbatim, but I do remember much of what I memorized as a child, mostly verse. In tenth grade, we were required to memorize the first stanza of Lady of the Lake (“The stag at eve had drunk his fill / where danced the moon on Monan’s rill…”) and Mark Antony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech from Julius Caesar. I can still rattle off the former but can’t get past the first couple of verses of the latter. I suspect that rhyming couplets are easier than blank verse, which in turn is easier than free verse.

So snippets of verse from time to time surface while I’m walking. When this happens, I usually try to reconstruct the entire poem, with varying levels of success (in a recent case, I found that I’d muddled together lines from Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” and Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Requiem”), but it’s always satisfying when I do succeed.

When I am doing yard work, my mind is even more open to poetic memory. The first poem to make its appearance when I am raking leaves is usually “The Road Not Taken” (“…both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black”). Despite its unusual rhyme scheme (abaab), I have that one quite by heart. “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (“dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly”) is another favorite. But often I then get a visit from some hymn or Christmas carol (in season). Most of us who grew up with these lyrics can usually get through the first verse and then break down. With a few hints, we can reconstruct some of the rest. Here again I find the rhyme scheme helpful: abab provides more clues than aabb.

The hymn that has been tormenting me for weeks—and I call it a “brainworm” rather than an earworm, as it is the words rather than the tune that are persistent but elusive—is “Be Thou My Vision.” Although, according to Wikipedia, this is one of the most popular hymns in the United Kingdom, I don’t recall singing it often in the Presbyterian church where I grew up. When we did, we used the text written by Eleanor Hull in 1912:

Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art.
Thou my best Thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.

Be Thou my Wisdom, and Thou my true Word;
I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord;
Thou my great Father, I Thy true son;
Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.

Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
Thou mine Inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart,
High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art.

High King of Heaven, my victory won,
May I reach Heaven’s joys, O bright Heav’n’s Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all.

This is not original poetry. It is one of several translations of a sixth-century Irish poem, and it seems to be fairly accurate. Hull’s translation includes a third stanza (“Be thou my battle shield…”) that is omitted from many hymnals (I’d never heard it). Interestingly, there’s one verse in the original that doesn’t appear in this translation at all. It falls between the first and second couplets of the last stanza: “Beloved Father, hear, hear my lamentations. / Timely is the cry of woe of this miserable wretch.” Recent more politically correct hymnals substitute “vain, empty praise” for “man’s empty praise” and work around the references to Father and son, but Hull’s original is the version I remember.

Except I don’t remember it! Until I finally googled it, I found myself struggling with bits and pieces that I could not put together with any confidence. Why is this so hard? Unlike “The Road Not Taken” and “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” this poem doesn’t tell a story but expresses a similar theme in each stanza. Each couplet is more or less complete in itself; the aabb rhyme scene provides no clue to what follows. Because I can hear the tune in my head, I know that a given couplet is the first or second in a stanza, but many of the second couplets could equally well follow any of the first. It doesn’t help that so many of the lines contain vocatives (“Lord of my heart,” “High King of Heaven,” “Heart of my own heart,” “Ruler of all”) that could go anywhere. And each verse in each couplet is composed of two segments, some of them similarly fungible. The result is like assembling a jigsaw puzzle from many almost-identical pieces. When you finally get the picture put together right (which I still struggle to do without peeking), the hymn does have an internal logic that makes sense. Still, I look forward to someday being able to put this one aside and start work on another “brainworm”!

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Editor’s Note: Bear Facts

There are certain words in the English language that seem to be born troublemakers. One of these is bear. It should be noted that I am not referring to the noun; Smokey has enough problems of his own. No, I’m talking about the verb bear. Bear with me while I explain.

The basic meaning of bear is “carry” or “endure.” We bear burdens. We bear responsibility. We bear someone no ill will. Soldiers bear arms. Your physical bearing is your carriage or posture. A mechanical bearing carries and distributes weight. Abstractly, bearing may mean influence or weight: “This has no bearing on the issue.” A compass bearing is a direction; if we lose our bearings, we go astray. In some cases, bear imposes the weight rather than supports it, meaning “press”: “Bear down; you’re making six copies.”

A secondary meaning of bear is “produce” or “yield” or “give birth to.” A tree bears fruit. A woman [after bearing down with each contraction] bears a child.

Pay close attention to that last example, because this is where so many people lose their bearings. A woman carries a child while pregnant; she bears the child when she gives birth. She has then borne the child (borne is the past participle of bear), but the child has been born. The confusion between borne and born is obviously not surprising given the close relationship they bear. But you can avoid error if you just ask yourself whether you mean “carried/produced” or “given birth to.” Another clue: the participle born will always occur with some form of the verb to be (is, was, has been, will be, etc.) and will often be followed by “out of.” (Not to be confused with “borne out by,” where “borne out” means “confirmed,” as in “That conclusion is borne out by the facts presented.”) Some examples taken from my reading:

“It wasn’t romantic, she said, just a dedicated platonic love borne through the decades of friendship.” [Correct: They carried or maintained their love. But their love could also have been born out of their friendship.]

a terrible slight not to be borne [Correct: It could not be endured.]

mosquito-borne diseases [Correct: Mosquitoes carry and spread certain diseases.]

The public library, which became an integral part of American life in the 19th century, was born of the great American idea — of a free marketplace for ideas and material goods. [Correct: The “great American idea” gave birth to the public library.]

one patient in hard labor and another who has borne a dead baby [Correct: The woman has given birth to the baby.]

“Shakespeare and the Folktale: An Anthology of Stories,” which was born out of the course she teaches at Agnes Scott. [Correct: The course was the source that produced the article.]

In reality, the whole project was borne out of frustration. [Incorrect: Frustration gave birth to the project.]

During the plague, these lonely deaths were borne not out of public health protocols but out of sheer terror. [Incorrect: Sheer terror was responsible for the lonely deaths.]

Some tips:

  • If you can substituted “carried” or “yielded,” then “borne” is the right word.
  • “Born” is not the right word unless there is a birthdate involved.

Another confusion arises between the simple past of bear (bore) and the verb bore, meaning to “drill.” I could multiply examples of “His eyes bore into hers for a connection.” The past tense of bore is bored, which is what is called for in this past-tense example.

And then of course, there’s the homophone, as evidenced in this Facebook post: “My writing skills are not the best , so bare with me.” Talk about exposing your ignorance! Unless you are proposing a game of strip poker, please do not make this mistake!

But since we’ve touched on the word bare meaning “reveal” or “expose,” here’s an intriguing example. In this case, the character has concealed from her husband the rape that was the reason for an abortion. She’s now been accused of his murder and has revealed this history to her defense lawyer.

She took his silence as an accusation. “I suppose you think it would have been better if I had borne all to him and told him the truth.”

I could be wrong, but I think what was meant here was “if I had bared all.” I suspect that “bared,” even if spelled correctly, may have sounded so much like “beared” that the author or an editor “corrected” it to “borne.” If that’s the case, then of course neither “born” nor “borne” would have been the right word.

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Editor’s Note: I’m Used to Being Ignored

About six months ago, I was invited to join a Facebook group called “Language Snobs ‘Я’ Us.” The group includes some other copy editors but is mostly made up of people who are serious about correct grammar (in the broadest sense of the word) and enjoy deriding its misuse, as seen in signs (grocer’s apostrophes, for example) and on social media. (Another frequent target of the group is pretentious but illegible script; the members of the group refer to themselves as “snoles” based on the appearance of the word “snobs” in some unfortunate font.) For some reason lost in the mists of time (before I joined, anyway), pirates are also a theme of the group, so it seemed perfect to me to post this cartoon (original seen here):

I added the comment “Fixed it!”

I had not anticipated the backlash of confused and uncomprehending replies. I had thought my point was quite clear, but it seems that it flew right over the heads of most of the group.

The verb use is a very useful one, used in a multitude of ways. (Although management types, apparently feeling use was too pedestrian, have attempted to promote the substitution of utilize, that use has been deservedly ridiculed.) The entry for use in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged is 8½″ long. And that doesn’t count a separate 1″ entry for the participle used, both in its meaning of “partly worn out” or “secondhand” (as in “used car”) and in the sense in which I used it in my title (meaning “accustomed”).

Nowhere in the entry for the verb, however, is there any suggestion that the syntax or conjugation of the verb is different in any of its specialized uses, although the dictionary does note that “used” is pronounced differently when used with “to.” The definition that applies to the example above is entry 1b of the intransitive use of the verb: “used in the past with to to indicate a former state.” The examples given are “winters used to be harder,” “isn’t going to take as long as it used to,” and “didn’t use to have a car.”

Note especially that last example, because it is only when “did” (or in this case “didn’t”) comes into play that we run into trouble. “I used to enjoy [whatever]” becomes “I didn’t use to like [whatever]” or “Did you use to [whatever]?”

In the cartoon example above, there should be no difference in syntax from “What did you use to get the stain out of the carpet?”

To illustrate this using a different verb, consider this sequence:

You say to your wife, “I thought you were going to go to the grocery.”

“I did go,” she replies.

You wonder when she went, so you ask, “When did you go?”

You don’t say, “When did you went?” any more than she would say, “I did went” because “did go” = “went.” So, by analogy, you should not say, “What did you used to do?”

Because the necessity for this kind of construction occurs so rarely, it is hardly surprising that it hardly ever appears correctly. But I did find two encouraging examples. I’ve just finished reading Laura Ingalls Wilder, Farm Journalist: Writings from the Ozarks, edited by Stephen W. Hines. It’s a collection of columns Wilder (writing as Mrs. A. J. Wilder) wrote for the Missouri Ruralist magazine between 1911 and 1924. In a column published June 15, 1921, she wrote:

Did you ever hear anyone say, “I don’t know what the world is coming to; people didn’t use to do that way; things were different when I was young,” or words to that effect? [Emphasis added]

And in a New Yorker video, “For the Love of Bread,” a closed caption reads, “Bread has become a menu item in a way that it didn’t use to be.”

It’s impossible to be sure what the speaker actually said, but at least the caption writer got it right!

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Local Ups and Downs


Until quite recently, the lot shown above, on Bayview facing Knoll Park, was dominated by the immense oak tree shown in the rear of the photo. The property owner had long intended to build a personal residence on the lot, and now the time had come. Unfortunately, no house plan could be found, working within the required setbacks, that would work around the tree, which was really just smack dab in the middle of the lot. Even if a house could be built around it, the owner learned, the tree would probably die, and then it would be that much harder to deal with. So the tree must be removed. The two trees at the front of the lot were deemed to be “declining,” so they were also doomed. The result, after filling the immense pit left by digging out the tree roots, was the cleared lot shown below. It was a shame to lose this magnificent tree, but there was no alternative.

In brighter news, however, on another lot just over a block away, at the corner of Bayview and St. James, a small cottage changed hands. The original cottage was a neat one, with a tidy yard and tasteful seasonal decorations, as seen in these Google Street View shots, but it was a bit gloomy.

The first thing the new owners did, however, was to clear out some of the vegetation, which opened up the lot to more sun and air. After considerable rehabilitation, including a new roof and a paint job and opening up the front porch, the house looked much more inviting, especially after the chain link fence was removed and replaced with new landscaping and a post and wire fence designed to encourage climbing blooms.

A saying I learned from one of my clients (it inspired the title of her book) is “What you lose on the swings you gain on the roundabouts.” While it is natural to mourn our losses, especially of beautiful natural features, it is also important to recognize progress where it occurs.

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